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Scaled-back Frager’s Hardware opens after fire

- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 9, 2013

It seems fitting that Frager's Hardware, the 93-year-old Capitol Hill institution regarded by neighbors as so much more than a hardware store, would supply the ribbon for its own ribbon cutting.

On Sunday, just days after a four-alarm fire destroyed the beloved store, Frager's was once again open for business — albeit a truncated version — selling plants, flowers, pots and any remaining "survivors" at a pop-up store at Eastern Market.

Chants of "We love Frager's" and cheers from the standing-room only audience greeted the hardware store's owners and employees as they joined city leaders in celebrating its resiliency and supporting its future return to the community.

"This won't be everything, but it will be something," said John Weintraub, co-owner of Frager's. "We're part of the community here and we serve a special community here. Our intent is to rebuild."

Both the store and the Capitol Hill neighborhood were sent reeling Wednesday night, when a fire broke out at the Pennsylvania Avenue Southeast business. It took hours and more than 200 firefighters to subdue the blaze, which was fueled by construction and painting supplies inside. Fire officials are investigating the cause, with employees saying the flames started in the lumber and receiving area of the store.

While the garden section survived, along with other random hardware supplies, all that remains of the building is a charred brick shell and fond memories.

Sporting a handmade T-shirt that read Frager's on the front, 57-year-old Kathryn Stillman said that in her 20 years as a Capitol Hill resident, anytime she undertook a home project she'd end up visiting the hardware store four or five times a day.

"Now I'm stymied, since I have a project I want to do," the security consultant said. "But I'm here to show support. You can always use flowers."

The ribbon-cutting ceremony started Sunday at noon, and within an hour a line to purchase flowers, plants and the familiar navy and orange Frager's Hardware T-shirts extended around the block. Employees divided the line into cash, credit and house accounts to speed the checkout along.

"I'm telling you, there's no place like it," D.C. Mayor Vincent C. Gray said. "I don't think anybody would come to Frager's without knowing the unique nature of Frager's."

Founded in 1920, the Capitol Hill hardware store became the go-to place for everything from home improvement to flower beds, party supplies and key making.

"There were things from the ceiling to the floor and racks that slid to reveal little tiny shelves," remembered Alan Perkins, 67, who's lived in the area for about 26 years. "They had every screw, every nut."

Barbara M. Leach, an administrator with the United States Department of Agriculture, was able to snatch up three of the official "Frager's fire survivors," plants identified by a small wooden label stuck into their pots.

"You can't kill it," Ms. Leach said, holding up a Spotted Dead Nettle.

Like many of the customers at the pop-up Sunday, Ms. Leach, who has lived in the Capitol Hill neighborhood for 20 years, said she didn't necessarily need more plants but wanted to support the store.

"It was just the most amazing neighborhood institution," she said. "It's plants, but it's also the whole store. Everyone was there to help and say thank you when you were leaving."

The hope is to keep the pop-up garden center open and add other services over time, officials said.

While some wrinkles still need to be ironed out, D.C. Department of General Services Director Brian J. Hanlon said the garden center could stay open anywhere from six weeks to nine months.

A longtime Frager's customer herself, D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton drew parallels between the Frager's fire and the three-alarm fire that gutted the East Hall of Eastern Market in 2007, displacing merchants until the city rebuilt the historic landmark and reopened it six months later.

"Now to see another beloved institution burn, it hits you in the heart and the gut at the same time," she said. "John Weintraub had some insurance, and that's his responsibility. But when you become a neighborhood institution, the responsibility must be shared."

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