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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

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