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Hechingerís fall may help others

Many other neighborhood hardware stores remain to serve D.C. residents

(Published September 20, 1999)


Staff Writer

The recently announced bankruptcy and liquidation of the 117-store Hechinger hardware chain means Washington will lose what is perhaps its last big hometown chain, along with about 150 local jobs.

But when Hechingerís D.C. stores on Benning Road NE and Wisconsin Avenue NW close their doors permanently in December, the more than two dozen neighborhood hardware stores that dot the District may benefit.

"Itís always unfortunate to see a competitor go, but the demand for hardware is not going to go away," said Howard Politzer, owner of Brookland Servistar Hard-ware, a 25-year-old institution on 12th Street NE. "When people need to get their house repaired, they could go out to the suburbs, but if thereís a store in D.C. thatís local they would probably come here."

Politzer and other local hardware store owners said small stores canít compete with large chains such as Home Depot and Loweís on price, because chains buy bigger volumes at greater discounts.

Smaller stores can beat industry giants in customer service, though, Politzer said.

"People donít mind paying a few pennies more when they come in here, because they feel like somebody actually cared. This is how smaller stores have survived while the chains have fought each other. When you go into a big store, sometimes you get waited on and sometimes you donít."

Politzer said his store also has survived by developing "niche" services such as tool rental and window repair.

Other local hardware store owners said they donít expect the Hechinger closing to affect business very much because of the niche markets they have created for themselves.

"Hechinger really wasnít a competitor of ours," said Jeff Huguely of Galliher and Huguely on Blair Road NW in Brightwood, in business since 1912.

"They sold all kinds of things like towels and housewares. Our market thrust is toward the contractor," said Huguely, who operates the cityís only real lumber yard behind his store.

Girma K. Desta, a relative newcomer among D.C.ís neighborhood hardware proprietors, said heís hoping the big chains stay out in the suburbs and donít move into the District, so he can continue to draw on small contractors and residents in the Adams Mor-gan neighborhood near his five-year-old store.

Hechinger hardware stores, which began more than 85 years ago with one man and a pushcart, and later a single store at Sixth and C streets SW, grew to a chain of 117 stores all over the mid-Atlantic and southern states.

Two years ago, the prominent Washington family sold the chain to Leonard Green & Partners of Los Angeles, which merged Hechingerís stores with its also financially ailing Builders Square hardware chain. Citing continuing financial losses, the company then closed some Hechinger stores in the South. Last June, the new owners filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection from the companyís creditors. The decision to file for bankruptcy was announced Sept. 7.

Copyright 1999, The Common Denominator