Posted on June 6, 2013
About 8 years after my Grandmother was born, Frager’s Hardware Store opened its doors for the first time.
It is unlikely that Grandma ever stepped foot in the Capitol Hill institution, but if she had, she would have felt at home.
They both saw a lot of our country’s history.
Frager’s opened at the tail end of the Wilson Administration, as the country, fresh from winning a war in Europe, started to assert itself as a global power. The year started with the Palmer Raids, when the government imprisoned suspected Communists, and ended with the election of Warren G. Harding and a period of Republican dominance that would last until 1932, with the election of Franklin Roosevelt.
In 1920, the Red Sox traded Babe Ruth to the Yankees, and it would take 8 decades before the Bostonians would win a World Series. In Washington, the Big Train, Walter Johnson, has a subpar year, winning 8 games and losing 10, with an ERA of 3.14.
Grandma would feel at home at Frager’s because it seemed that Frager’s didn’t change much in its 94 years. And I bet you if you looked around, you could find merchandise that had been around since Harding took his first drink in the Oval Office.
My mother was the first one to tell me about Frager’s. I was living on the Hill in the early 1990’s, and she was visiting. She took a walk around and found this great little hardware store.
In early 1990’s, taking a walk past 8th Street was a pretty bold move, but my mom is a bold woman. Frager’s has seen the best and the worst of Capitol Hill, and has seen many bold people under its roof over the years.
The Frager’s buildings look like they could have housed a Speakeasy during the years of Prohibition, there are so many little passageways. Somehow, the store weathered the Depression. It probably thrived during the Second World War, given the huge population influx that flocked to the nation’s Capitol to fight the Nazis. Frager's persevered despite the race riots of the 60’s. tThe white flight to the suburb probably didn't help its bottom line much. But still the store survived. And it was still there when empty nesters and Yuppies decided that city living was more interesting than living in the suburbs. The Hill is thriving now, and Frager's was at the epicenter of the activity that makes the Capitol Hill a real home.
It survived the market crashes of 1929 and 1987, and the financial panic of 2007. But it couldn't survive a fire that started somewhere in the basement and spread rapidly throughout the buildings that made up Frager's Paint Store, Rental emporium and Hardware store.
Frager’s is walkable (or at least it was walkable), which means that if you don’t have a car, you can walk up to Frager’s and get what you need from the local hardware man. I talked to a neighbor this morning who was crestfallen about the news, because she doesn't own a car. How her and her husband, who do a lot of gardening and home improvement stuff, will deal with this set-back, I don't know.
I learned a lot from Frager’s.
I learned humility, for example. I could never find anything in that store -- because there was so much stuff -- so it was always far simpler to ask somebody for help. That doesn’t necessary come easy for a guy who never, ever likes to ask for direction.
I learned the value of diversity. You would find all kinds of people in Frager's. You could have a Speaker of the House in one aisle and a kid with gang tattoos in the other. You would see contractors and great-grandmothers. You would see all races, all shapes, all sizes, just about every time you would go to the store.
I learned that you could get an extra kit for the Pinewood Derby, just in case you screwed up the first car, but that for the Cub Scout Regatta, super glue would have to do, because they didn’t sell the boats there.
I wasn’t particularly shocked that the store was destroyed by a fire yesterday. As I was looking for some materials to help my son with his boat a couple weeks ago, I walked into the basement, and I thought to myself that it was a fire just waiting for a spark. There was stuff all over the place. I assume it didn’t have sprinklers. I don’t know if they put sprinklers in a building as a matter of course in 1920. It looked to me like just one big block of kindling
Frager's was the kind of place you would go for a real purpose, but as you were there, you would see people that you wanted to see. It wasn’t a place to sip coffee and socialize, but you would socialize as you were working through your honey-do list. And that made going to Frager's a real adventure, every time.
Frager’s will come back, just like Eastern Market came back, just like the Capitol Lounge came back, just like the Tune Inn came back. It won’t be the exact same, and frankly, it probably shouldn’t be.
But if you had a chance to take care of some of your chores at Frager’s before the fire, you got a chance to walk through history as you were buying a hammer or getting some gas for the grill. It was neat to breathe in that history in its musty aisles, and just about everybody who lives on Capitol Hill is really bummed that those days are over now.