Black Friday looks pretty gray on Minnesota Avenue NE.
It’s the day after Thanksgiving in the midst of the longest economic expansion in the history of the United States. According to the hype, this biggest shopping day of the year will feature everything short of hand-to-hand combat over Pokemon and Mr. Potato Head. Metro traffic reports focus on midday tie-ups around Tysons Corner, Pentagon City, and the Toys “R” Us on Rockville Pike.
No surprise, then, that a small crowd of men linger in the parking lot of the Discount Mart department store at Minnesota Avenue and East Capitol Street NE this morning. But when Discount Mart’s doors open to the public at 10 a.m., only a few walk in. Most gravitate toward the neighboring liquor store just as they always do—Black Friday or just another manic Monday.
If the first official shopping day of the Christmas season has you ready to hang yourself with garlands of green, Ward 7’s Discount Mart may be your perfect antidote. “Last year, it was busier,” says store manager Brenda Gray. Even two days ago, it was busier: Customers crowded the aisles looking for cut-rate aluminum pans and cooking utensils the day before Thanksgiving, Gray reports.
But the day after the holiday—the day retailers from Macy’s to Wal-Mart open predawn to greet shoppers eager to separate cash from their wallets—Discount Mart lacks almost any manifestation of the Christmas spirit in our latest gilded age. There are no traffic cops directing cars into parking spaces. No plastic Santas wiggling to “Jingle Bell Rock.” And, most importantly for one the few struggling retailers east of the river, there are very few customers in the store’s aisles.
So much for the day annual retail profits are made of.
It’s the chicken-or-egg conundrum that surrounds economic development in this part of the city. Retail outlets that promise shoppers bang for their buck—like Best Buy or Bed, Bath and Beyond—mostly exist outside the District and beyond the Beltway. So, in the relative retail vacuum that is Ward 7, most residents with disposable income to spend—and the colonial homes in Hillcrest and Dupont Park prove that there are quite a few of them—steer their Lexuses and SUVs past the ghostly urban retail strips fueled by the first postwar boom and head to the suburban malls and big-box stores in Montgomery and Prince George’s Counties.
Places like Discount Mart fill in the void. Four plastic Christmas trees and a wall of Nikes and Timberland boots on the right usher in whatever Black Friday shoppers the store attracts—either intentionally or by default. On the biggest shopping day of the year, two Discount Mart employees unload bargain Christmas ornaments and tchotchkes. Hardly anyone asks for help or anxiously grabs items from their hands.
As store speakers pipe in Tina Turner’s “What’s Love Got to Do With It” to an area about as big as an old five-and-dime, about a dozen shoppers roam electrical-taped carpets and aisles filled with an eclectic assortment of First Down winter jackets, VO5 beauty products, and a black three-piece panther table set—yours for only $179.97. Instead of Pokemon, Discount Mart stocks Chinese checkers and the game of Life. Very few walk the aisles with Santa’s wish lists: Most shoppers have come in for a three-pack of tube socks or everyday toiletries like shampoo and toothbrushes.
“You’re on Minnesota Avenue. Christmas shopping doesn’t start until the 15th or even the day before Christmas,” says Rob Smothers, owner of His & Hers, a clothing store down the street from Discount Mart. “Maybe at the first of the month.”
Here’s the other paradox: The few remaining retailers complain that neighbors drive their dollars out to the suburbs. But lack of competition makes Discount Mart none too eager to please the customer. “To Err Is Human,” reads a pink sign dangling above the beauty products section. “We do not honor mismarked merchandise. This is our store policy. No exceptions.” With “Majic”102.3 replacing the tuxedoed piano player and a Polaroid wall of fame displaying shoplifters instead of gold-card rewards at the register, Nordstrom it’s not.
But Discount Mart offers its own particular brand of customer service—as well as personal shoppers. Around 3:30 p.m., a tall woman places a Gold n’ Hot Crimps Professional Crimping Iron in front of Gray. A few days ago, she explains, one of Gray’s colleagues advised her to purchase this iron for her hairstyle.
She complains that the iron makes her hair crinkly, not straight. Gray apologizes and quickly pops out from behind the register to grab the correct iron—or, at least, the best Discount Mart has in stock. Meanwhile, the crowd in line weighs in on the dilemma: “You wear your hair straight a lot?” the woman next in line asks. She says that using the large Gold n’ Hot will make hair “fry” and “fall out.” “I’m not a beautician, but my mom is,” she credibly adds. It might be New Year’s before someone takes time out to aid a fellow consumer gumming up the line with a return at Macy’s or Best Buy.
Gray quickly returns with a smaller iron and helpfully demonstrates how to use the attachment. She offers to test it and plugs the iron into an outlet beneath the counter. In a few minutes, it heats up, the customer thanks Gray, and she exits with an even exchange.
The courtesy isn’t exactly contagious. Over in the electronics department—a small room to the left of the front door that has a metal garage door hanging from the top—clerk Rafi Katan patrols the counter where a woman and two children eye the products under glass.
“You know what you have saved up,” the woman tells the kids. “If you can’t get it, well, then, hey.”
The young boy taps the glass with his index finger, and Katan reluctantly grabs another PlayStation CD. “Why don’t you get that radio and a watch?” she prompts. He taps again.
They leave without making any purchases.
But plenty of customers have money to spend. Mark Jones, who lives nearby on B Street SE, stopped by a half-hour ago with his girlfriend, Serena Sullivan, and 8-month-old daughter Ashley to grab some laundry detergent. While inside, Sullivan apparently caught the Black Friday bug.
Jones knows he’ll get what he wants this Christmas. “I just tell her I like them boots,” Jones says as he points across the counter. “It usually works.”
Meanwhile, Sullivan makes headway down the toy aisle. She passes over Hawaiian Steven—a brown-skinned doll who claims he’s a “friend of Barbie.” Sullivan has set a $100 limit on toys for Ashley’s first Christmas. In the end, she settles on the Merry-Go-Round Carousel, Groovy Tunes, the Little Snail, the Sing-A-Long Animal Train, the Bear Stack, a plastic horsey, and a toy vacuum cleaner that brags about its “Realistic Sound.”
“She can’t push that,” Jones says as he inspects the loot.
“She’s almost ready to walk,” Sullivan answers.
Sullivan’s grand total: $104.29. She puts down two 20-dollar bills. “I can pay that off next week,” she says. Sullivan will be back to buy some clothes, which, she notes, the discount store doesn’t put on layaway.
Not bad for someone who just came in for some Wisk. As Katan puts Santa’s presents in a taped cardboard box, Jones and Sullivan lean over the shoe counter, and he puts his arm around her. They take in the vista of Nikes and Timberlands. “I like them brown ones,” Jones says nonchalantly. CP