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Capitol Hill has had its share of heartbreak by fire over the past few years. A 2007 blaze ravaged Eastern Market, and in 2011, a kitchen fire took beloved dive The Tune Inn out of commission for six painful months. When a four-alarm fire broke out on Pennsylvania Avenue SE on a pretty evening in June, drawing 200 firefighters to the scene and sending up smoke that could be seen in Virginia, neighbors held their breath waiting to learn what was alight. The news couldn’t have been worse: Frager’s Hardware was the site of the fire, and it was all but destroyed.
Frager’s is the sort of plucky little establishment that inspires maniacal loyalty from its patrons. It has history (90-plus years in business), cheerful employees (with encyclopedic memories of the store’s limitless stock), and a hint of Mayberry (regular customers have tabs). Its tall skinny aisles offered a wonderful hodgepodginess that made you want to wander them in search of serendipity. The morning after the fire, Hill residents showed up in front of the burnt carcass of Frager’s and spoke in hushed tones about the keys they’d had copied there or the times they’d lost their husbands in the store only to find them puttering about the nuts and bolts room.
After a bit of eulogizing, both Frager’s and its customers rallied. Four days after the fire, the store opened a pop-up across from Eastern Market to sell the only part of its inventory to survive the fire—its plants. Navy and orange T-shirts bloomed across the neighborhood; according to Weintraub, the idea to sell the shirts to generate a little revenue came from customers desperate to contribute to the business. The community ponied up $130,000 in donations for the store’s employees, about half of whom lost their jobs and many of whom are working reduced hours.
The rah-rah spirit is probably cold comfort to the 20 people who got laid off, but Weintraub is grateful for the support. Business is at only 30 percent of normal, but Weintraub says the store is surviving. In November, Frager’s opened a space for equipment rentals at 1323 E St. SE and a paint store at 12th and Pennsylvania Avenue SE, and Christmas tree sales might reach last year’s numbers. The reopening of the main location, which six months after the fire still looks like a charred mess, is at least two years away. Weintraub juggles the operations of his three retail locations out of his house and says he’s not interested in selling or letting the business go in the wake of the fire, which turned out to have been caused by a cigarette butt. “We’re interested in going forward,” he says.