After Debbie Friedmann had a stroke last June, her doctor told her the best therapy for her brain was to expose it to multiple stimuli. That’s why almost every Tuesday morning since then, she’s been going to Weschler’s auction house at 905 E St. NW, two blocks from her downtown apartment.
“It gave me something to do,” Debbie said Tuesday before the weekly Weschler’s consignment sale of, well, let’s call it stimuli: books, records, furniture, rugs, china, glassware, candlesticks, board games, dolls and other examples of tchotkiana.
There was a table covered in brass clock pendulums and lead weights. Another table had what looked like wooden stirrups.
“There’s just a river of stuff” is how Virginia Weschler, great-granddaughter of the auction house’s founder, Adam Weschler, put it.
Since Weschler’s opened in 1890, that river of stuff has flowed through downtown Washington, first at a location on Pennsylvania Avenue NW. Since 1945, it’s been on E Street NW. But Tuesday’s sale was the second-to-last weekly auction: Weschler’s is moving to Gude Drive in Rockville, Md.
“We run a business that involves stuff, and stuff requires trucks to come in and trucks to go out,” Virginia said. “D.C. is just not amenable to that kind of business anymore. Parking was a problem for everybody.”
Six of the 15 Weschler’s employees are family members: Virginia, along with Karen, Tom, Bill, Mark and Leo.
They remember a different downtown. Virginia, 70, said that when she was growing up, there was a mattress factory at Sixth and G NW. Today, the only thing manufactured in the neighborhood is policy — and lattes.
Weschler’s — which is literally in the shadow of the FBI’s headquarters — has been a lovely anachronism. It hosted auctions of higher-end stuff, but it’s known for its weekly consignment auctions, where collectors never knew what they might find.
“We are going to miss being downtown,” Virginia said. “We’re going to miss the energy and the interest, the sort of serendipitous discoveries and who’s coming by. We had everybody — we had ambassadors, we had people from the State Department, we had people from Capitol Hill, we had people from the gospel mission. We just had everybody.”
Among the people they had on Tuesday was Michael Ford, a retired lawyer from Northern Virginia. When his parents died, Weschler’s sold their estate. Tuesday, he was hoping to get a deal on some mid-century modern furniture.
“I shouldn’t be here,” Michael said. He’s renovating his house and should be deaccessioning, not acquiring. But: stuff!
The five-story redbrick Weschler’s building has high ceilings and reinforced floors, remnants of its previous life as a printing plant. The family is selling the building, and Virginia expects it will make way for modern office space.
“As a person who doesn’t deal well with change, dealing in a business that has a lot of grief associated with it, this is a tough one,” Virginia said. “I live in D.C. — have lived in D.C. my whole life. I’m a little afraid of the suburbs, to be honest.”
There are few things more elemental than an auction, more recognizable than the singsong cadence of the auctioneer.
“My dad said it’s one of the oldest forms of mercantilism,” Virginia said. “You had stuff, and people would tell you how much they wanted to pay for it.”
That’s the way eBay works, of course, but there’s a difference.
“There are people who like to put their hands on things,” Virginia said. “They like to pick up a painting and look at it from different angles. You really can’t do that on a computer.”
And soon you won’t be able to do it on E Street. Weschler’s is the last auction house in the District.
“It’s just a different world,” Virginia said. “I’m really glad to have participated in it when I did.”
The very last Weschler’s auction at its historic District location is May 23. They haven’t yet announced when auctions will start in Rockville.
After my heart attack in 2001 — after I’d had my blocked artery reamed out with a balloon and propped open with a stent — my cardiologist said my long-term prognosis was excellent.
“You’ll see your kids graduate from college,” Dr. Kelley assured me.
“And grad school?” I asked, pushing it. He just smiled.
I took that as a yes. Both my children went on to graduate school, furthering their education and keeping me alive.
Until today. Today, our younger daughter graduates from law school. I’m proud of her, even if it means my work here is done.
Or might be. I hope not. Anyway, since I’ll be in Manhattan for the graduation, I’m taking a few days off. I’ll see you back in this space on Tuesday.
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.