Housing Complex

Home Is Where the Hardware Store Is

Home Is Where the Hardware Store Is

Hammer Time: Old School Hardware's Phil Lepanto caters to newcomers.

Last Saturday was a banner day for Anne Stom. She’d worked for a year and a half, borrowing money against her Newton Street house and bringing in 20 small investors to cobble together the $750,000 it took to start an 18,000-item hardware store in an old auto body shop on Upshur Street. She’d practically lived there for the past few weeks, checking inventory, training staff.

And Annie’s Ace Hardware opened like a carnival, with balloons, barbecue, and a boys and girls club cheer team. The irrepressible 59-year-old flitted around in a scarlet Ace vest, standing up on her tiptoes to greet Mayor Vince Gray with a big hug and an Annie’s Ace T-shirt. She knew him from having spent 20 years in workforce development, most recently as the national director of YouthBuild, a construction-oriented education program.

All around her was the new Petworth: A free bike co-op operates out of her storage space on the weekends. A food truck that’s opening a brick-and-mortar location on Georgia Avenue was there. Neighbors came covered with drywall dust from renovating their kitchens and lingered to chat over a water ice. Strollers parked haphazardly in the small parking lot, and infant onesies adorned with the D.C. flag hung on a clothesline above the cash register.

Ace, a national coop, had set low expectations for Petworth—while the average homeowner spends about $600 per year on improvements, the company figured the number might be about $30 for the market area. Stom knew better. “They had older data, and this neighborhood has really radically changed over the last two years,” she said. “I could see it and feel it because I’ve lived here for seven years, and I’d stand on the Metro platform and see, or walk around seeing how many people had contractors at their houses.”

More than anything else—more than dog parks, coffee shops, or bike lanes—shiny new hardware stores are a sign that the wave of gentrification has washed over a neighborhood. A spate of new stores over the last decade have traced the city’s changes.

“This is just something I like, that I wanted to do,” Stom says. “And yet people are treating it like a sign of progress.”

* * *

Annie’s Ace was hardly the first. The District’s hardware empress is Gina Schaefer, a former operations manager at a Bethesda tech company who opened the city’s first Ace in Logan Circle in 2003, attracted by rising incomes and blocks full of old houses getting fixed up. She then went to more established, single-family-home neighborhoods like Glover Park, Tenleytown, and Takoma Park, Md., and branched out to in Baltimore—making Washington, D.C., Ace’s fastest-growing market in the country.

Not every store has been a home run. Schaefer broke from her formula in starting a 9,000-square-foot store in a new residential building at 5th and K Street NW—new condo owners don’t need much in the way of hardware—and says she may break even there this year, after being open for five. Though the area looks a lot different than it did back then, development moved less rapidly than she’d anticipated.

“This was a good example of choosing the wrong neighborhood, or choosing too early,” Schaefer says, sitting in a messy, workmanlike office in the back of the store’s second floor. “It went against all the principles we had used before.”

Still, Schaefer is working down a list of neighborhoods where she’d like to open. Annie—who gushes with gratitude for how much Schaefer helped her get started—beat her to Petworth. Schaefer will also avoid established, beloved stores like Fragers on Capitol Hill, Brookland Hardware, and 17th Street Hardware in Dupont (all belong to the TrueValue co-op, which entered D.C. earlier than Ace but is now shrinking nationally).

Some older hardware stores, however, pose no real competition for the fancy new ones. Petworth wasn’t exactly a hardware desert when Annie’s opened. Jack Exler, whose family has owned the tiny Capitol Locksmith hardware store at Georgia and New Hampshire Avenues NW for 64 years, was somewhat exasperated by the buzz around the newcomer. “Everybody said there’s no hardware store in Petworth,” he says, almost in disbelief.

Stom had actually proposed partnering with Exler to turn his shop into an Ace, if they could buy out the adjacent storefronts, but he wasn’t interested. Now, though, Exler has no way of making the kind of investment necessary to compete against Annie’s, much less Walmart, slated to open further north on Georgia later this year. He still keeps track of inventory in a spiral-bound notebook, and can barely manage the steadily increasing rent. “I don’t know what it’s gonna be tomorrow,” Exler says. “All I can do is worry about today, and how I do.”

The stores that do best—like Annie’s and the other new hipster hardware havens—are the ones that heed the new doctrine of retail in the age of the internet: Don’t just sell products. Sell an experience.

Nobody really wants to go to Home Depot, after all. It’s overwhelming, far from most homes, and not tailored to the quirks of old buildings (Schaefer stocks the pipe fittings you’ll need to fix the plumbing in a Wardman rowhouse).

Phil Lepanto, a web consultant active in Mount Pleasant neighborhood politics, kept that in mind when he bought a relatively new hardware store on Mount Pleasant Street in 2010, renaming it Old School Hardware to underscore its retro appeal. Besides overhauling the store’s technical systems, allowing him to move inventory faster and set up convenient accounts for contractors and property managers, he put in a corner where cats can go up for adoption, has cross-promotions with Heller’s Bakery next door, and offers $25 in store credit for every $250 you spend.

Lepanto didn’t have any retail experience when he decided to go into the hardware business, and doesn’t have the benefit of Ace’s tutorials and coaching. “The thing that worries me is that I’m treating it like an art,” he says. “I’m trying to get that retail jazz. But you do need the music theory. There’s a science to it.”

Still, after a year and a half with the new place, he’s increased sales significantly, almost reaching half a million bucks in 2011. More than precise formulas and market data, Lepanto operates on the newcomer principle: “When you move somewhere, what do you need?” Catering to newcomers to D.C. neighborhoods, it turns out, isn’t a bad business model to follow.

Photo by Darrow Montgomery

Got a real-estate tip? Send suggestions to ldepillis@washingtoncitypaper.com. Or call (202) 650-6928.

  • JM

    While I appreciate the need to get both sides of a story, the characterization of Annie's as "hipster" hardware in contrast to the long-time Capitol Locksmith store doesn't really tell the story. The difference is that Annie's has a complete range of hardware and supplies, laid out logically, with friendly customer service. Capitol Locksmith closes in the afternoon, has dusty display cases filled with random junk, and seems to care little about their business or customers. If Mr Exler can't figure out how to turn a profit in his prime location, he has nobody but himself to blame.

  • Mike Madden

    @JM --

    But surely you don't dispute that Annie's clientele is largely hipster gentrifying types.

    Petworth homeowner who had already been to Annie's three times to buy stuff before the grand opening

  • Petworthian

    Love the store, love the staff, love the location!

  • D

    With the small, dusty store on 18th reportedly closing shop, Adams Morgan is primed for the picking. Perhaps the old Payless building? That stretch of Columbia sees a ton of foot traffic.

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  • Kyle W

    @Mike Madden

    My wife and I don't consider ourselves "Hipsters" in the least. Gentrifying yes, hipster no.

    Another Petworth Homeowner who has been into Annies twice before the grand opening :) So happy to have a place to spend my dollars locally, that employs people from Petworth, and not have to go to the HD in Hyattsville.

  • sb

    will someone in this article (or the folks who operate the store in Foggy Bottom that sells hardware and bikes) PLEASE open a store in Southwest in the buildings right by the metro? The nearest places to buy a hammer, get a key cut, etc. are Frager's and the Ace at 5th & K, each of which are about 2 miles away and don't have the easiest transit access. There are hundreds of apartments under construction or about to start there.

  • LoLo

    Yeah, I think yuppie hardware store would be a better descriptor than hipster hardware.
    Another angle to this story could be how these new stores make a real effort to make young women feel welcome. After encountering blatant sexism at a couple old neighborhood hardware stores, I've made an effort to avoid them all together. I'm sure not all owners and staff at these stores are the "hey little girl, I don't think you should try to do that by yourself" types, but I'd rather go someplace that is woman-owned, or markets themselves as female friendly.

  • Mike Madden

    @LoLo -- "Hipster" is more or less the new "yuppie," isn't it?

    @Kyle W -- Agreed on all other points, except why go to Hyattsville for the occasional Home Depot run? There's one in D.C.

  • Mrs. D
  • http://urbanplacesandspaces.blogspot.com Richard Layman

    FWIW/1, Ace has a program to support new stores/new entrepreneurs, where they get something like $250,000 in inventory credits. The cooperative is much more oriented to reaching new audiences than True Value.

    FWIW/2, if Phil Lepanto is a member of the National Retail Hardware Association, he can get access to all the same kind of info and technical support that Ace provides.

    But he does have a problem because the store is small, and competes with the nearby Target.

    The point a commenter made about comfortability and women is a good one. Also see http://www.tomboytools.com/

    But yes generally, hardware store openings are a sign of household turnover and demand for the stuff they sell.

    Having the hardware store in the Takoma commercial district has been a boon to traffic in the commercial district.

    Note that timing does matter as Gina S. says. Around the turn of the last decade people who worked for Fragers tried to do the same at 4th and I Streets NE in the H St. neighborhood long before it "turned." They lost a lot of money.

  • Carrie

    Will someone PLEASE open up one of these in Ward 7? Pretty please?

  • http://urbanplacesandspaces.blogspot.com Richard Layman

    Carrie -- W7 lacks the density and number of new households necessary to support such a store. That's the real story, once you get housing turnover (of medium to higher incomes) and have a large enough customer base, you get more of the retail that you want.

  • er

    ya'll can debate whether it's "yuppie" or "hipster" but i just call it modern.
    also, if you have a business, and people don't know you exist, it's your fault.

  • http://greatergreaterwashington.org/cavan Cavan

    Lolo, I don't think it's so much about women as it is about customers in general. The fella in the old hardware store just sounded like he hasn't adapted to the time we live in where customers with money come in all shapes and sizes. Poor customer service is poor customer service. He's probably cranky with young men, too.

    I wish all the best to Annie's. I love my local hardware store in Silver Spring, Strosnider's. It's the ultimate impulse buy place. When you go to Home Depot, you struggle to find what you're looking for, then get the heck out before you get more frustrated. With a local human-scaled hardware store like Annie's or Strosnider's, the floor staff quickly guides you to what you want and then you find more neat stuff that you never knew you needed until you saw it on the way back to the register. The customer has a great shopping experience and the store makes more money off the impulse buys.

    Big box stores are relics of the 1990's through mid-2000's. That game is over. They will be relics of the 20th century that will be studied by future historians just like shopping malls and Brutalist achitecture. Big box will be shown to only be a sustainable business format under the unique conditions of the late 20th century like expanding access to credit, cheap land, cheap energy, and antipathy towards walkable places.

    Name one car-oriented big box chain that is expanding. Best Buy, the most iconic of pure big boxes is now in decline. Wal-Mart and Target, though expanding, are discount department stores, not big box. Their concepts are offshoots of stores like Sears and JCPenney. They are also adapting to infill in urban areas by downsizing their footprint and building to the sidewalk rather than sitting behind a moat of a surface parking lot.

    Home Depot will have to do the same or else start to die a slow death like Best Buy. I won't shed a tear. I'd rather shop at human-scaled stores like Annie's. Once upon a time, the shopping experience was regarded as important. The late 20th century was an abberation as customers flocked to the newness of having such huge stores. Just like a McMansion, that shopping experience is only fun while it's new. After huge big-boxes became ubiquitous and the new factor wore off, all that was left was a store in a bad location that you have to spend $4/gal in gas to get to combined with bad traffic and no customer service. Customers prefer quality even if something else rules a short period of time due to newness.

  • Bluegrass

    Annie's Hardware has changed my life. I've been painting and gardening and fixing things left and right for the last two months! What I appreciate most about it's arrival though, is the destination factor it brings to Petworth. Until it's opening there was little reason for anyone to make the trip. With our neighborhood's relatively high percentage of homeowners (vs renters), I see a long and profitable future for Annie's Ace.