H Street NE shop Men’s Fashion Center, once the choice outfitter for local legends like Chuck Brown, closed its doors in 2012 after six decades in business. With their vérité documentary, Fate of a Salesman, Ben Crosbie and Tessa Moran (an occasional Washington City Paper contributor) chronicle the store’s final year with gentle curiosity and wistful imagery. The directors follow laid-back owner Jerry Goldkind, whose immigrant father opened the business; manager Willie Carswell (shown, right), whose demeanor is as colorful as his wardrobe; and the rest of the store’s cobbled-together family as they ponder what comes next.
The film premieres Thursday night at the Atlas Performing Arts Center, which sits just a few blocks from the store’s old location at 918 H Street NE. When it reopened in 2005 after a major renovation, the Atlas building seemed to represent an early sign of reinvestment in the neighborhood; the next seven years would bring millions of dollars of development to the corridor, displacing longtime businesses like Men’s Fashion Center. But here the filmmakers only suggest that gentrification sealed the store’s fate; there are no overt denouncements of the changing commercial strip. We do get brief glimpses of the area’s whitewashing, though, with footage of supposedly community-oriented street fairs that look more like a party for newcomers.
Men’s Fashion Center may have closed for a complex set of reasons, but Crosbie and Moran don’t explore them in much depth. They hint that the store’s managers were spending a bit too lavishly in 2002, their most profitable year, instead of planning for a less prosperous future. But they don’t look at other factors, like, say, the streetcar construction that curtailed foot traffic on H Street NE for years. Instead, this 30-minute film offers mostly a sad resignation to the fact that nothing lasts forever, especially not businesses.
Crosbie and Moran shoot in an elegiac style, their camera drawn to small images that tell a full story: Carswell, from his sidewalk post outside the store, silently observing foot traffic; signs announcing the clearance sale of everything in the shop, including the shelves; the pile of hangers that slowly accumulates on the floor as the owners clear out inventory.
The duo’s previous film, Keeping the Kibbutz, looked at a completely different kind of world: the isolated lives of people living on an Israeli communal farm. But Crosbie and Moran find parallels in the story of Men’s Fashion Center. The shop, to them, also symbolizes a way of life that seems increasingly at odds with today’s shifting socioeconomic currents. With Fate of a Salesman, they seem to say: Here is an uncertain old-world Washington, in miniature.
The film shows Oct. 10 at Atlas Performing Arts Center and airs on WHUT on Oct. 18.
Photo via Fate of a Salesman‘s Facebook page