After the Fire: Why Frager’s Matters
Last Wednesday after dinner, I got a text from my niece.
“Fragers burned down… everyone’s okay,” it said.
A fire at Frager’s? The hardware store on Pennsylvania Avenue SE? The retailer of your Mayberry-fueled fantasies, where you don’t even have to bring cash if you have a house account? The one where the staff trips over themselves to help you - okay, help *me* - with home projects involving PVC pipe and the right-sized gasket and those little light bulbs that run really hot but are the only size that fits under my kitchen cabinets? THAT ONE?
Only this Mayberry is not TV fiction. It is to be found in the “village” of Capitol Hill, in the District of Columbia, the city lots of folks love to hate for its homicide rate (which has plummeted, by the by) or for the crack-fueled shenanigans of a certain former mayor, or simply because it’s the seat of the federal government, whose elected officials in recent years have elevated grandstanding to a whole new level of yuck, backdropped by an inability to get much of anything done legislation-wise via the kind of compromise my six-year-old and his friends are mastering.
Congress, it seems, could take a lesson from the good people of Frager’s, who could help you solve all manner of problems within minutes.
For more than 90 years, Frager’s has been a locus of community life and retail on the Hill, offering something for everybody: advice for the new condo owner in search of the right light fixture, air-conditioning filters for the contractor who underestimated how many that old rowhouse on 11th Street NE would take, an eight-ball keychain one of the neighborhood nannies thought might quiet her young charge. There’s a paint store, a garden store, a place to rent popcorn machines and folding tables, and the main store where everything else is.
The fire took out all of it. Okay, some rentable ladders and much of the garden plants survived, but the vast majority of the store’s innards went up in smoke. Some $4 million in inventory up in flames - that was the figure I heard bandied about as I stood outside in the rain on June 6, staring at the building with dozens of other Hill residents and Frager’s fans. The north-facing brick wall still stood, but the window glass was blown out and the roof was gone and the grey light of the drizzly afternoon filtered down into the store’s top floor rooms, where the humidifier filters used to be. The polar bear-shaped ice crusher for making snow cones, which I rented this time last year for a party at my son’s school, stood in one of the windows of the rental area, one paw up as if signaling for help, a beatific grin frozen on its plastic face.
The main thing, of course, is that other than a couple of fire fighters who were treated on the scene the night of June 5, no one was hurt in the fire. The Frager’s owners were insured and have vowed to rebuild. And in a neat twist, the city made it possible for Frager’s to set up a pop-up shop on the concrete pad where the temporary Eastern Market was once housed after its own devastating fire, in 2007.
But I keep thinking: it was a store, a place of commerce. Why did everyone I know refer to the fire as a tragedy, a giant loss for the neighborhood, a very sad day for Capitol Hill and for all of Washington?
Perhaps because Frager’s eased our lives a little bit each time we went in there.
By virtue of the right bulb, better light to cook by. An extension cord with which to power up a tiny lawnmower to tame that postage stamp of an urban backyard. A third birthday party that was a little more fun for the rented popcorn maker in the corner. A bit of advice on how best to stake the tomato plant from the gardening expert out back. An unexpected encounter with a friend also there to pick up basic supplies, and plans to meet another day for lunch.
There aren’t too many places like Frager’s left in the world, where the sense of community is palpable, where spending dollars in local independent stores offers tangible benefits in the form of convenience AND good customer service. Shopping there made you feel like you were part of a long continuum of retail, of camaraderie, of respect for tradition.
Maybe it’s just part of life in a city rich in history like Washington is, but when we walk through the aisles of Frager’s, trying to whittle down that to-do list, we’re walking where the ones who came before did - the ones who lived in the old homes and walked the even older streets and took children kids to the parks in the years and decades and even centuries before we did.
At Frager’s we meet, and we share greetings and gossip and information, and we take our place in the long line of those who made our community the resilient place it is today, a place where a neighborhood store’s loss can make folks unhesitatingly give money equivalent to what they spent last Saturday before the fire at the store, and offer temporary jobs to displaced workers, and design benefit T-shirts to sell for the recovery effort, and stand in the rain, not really able to explain why they felt compelled to come gape at a charred storefront, but happy to help pull the place back from the brink so those to come in the next 93 years can also witness the fabric of community stretching tight and strong.