New Members and their staffs will inevitably find the place unfamiliar and a little quirky. It’s unclear where the hallways in this Capitol Hill landmark will take you; there are interesting, antique items all over the walls; opposite sides of the building serve distinct and important purposes; and everyone in the area can tell you how to get there.
At this Capitol Hill institution, you might pass a Senator in the corridor, but the employees won’t be wearing suits, ties and wingtip shoes. They’ll be wearing simple black T-shirts with a Frager’s logo on the chest.
Frager’s Hardware Store, which has occupied the same block of Pennsylvania Avenue Southeast for 90 years, has developed almost as much of a following as Congress over the past century, and it has a considerably better reputation for solving problems than the legislative branch of government. Frager’s includes four different storefronts (all on the same block) offering garden supplies, hardware, paint and rental equipment. What started in 1920 as a family-owned shop is one of the most beloved businesses in the District.
The next Member of Congress who navigates Frager’s narrow aisles won’t be the first.
“I remember seeing Dick Gephardt, and a couple other Senators have been in,” said Nick Kaplanis, the store’s general manager and a 15-year employee. “George W. Bush was here once to make a statement to the press, but he did buy some dog treats.”
The variety of merchandise inside Frager’s is staggering, especially in the hardware store. Customers can find Christmas stockings, pickling salt, carpentry glue, TV cables and soap. The aisles are cramped and packed to the point of overflowing like the winding streets of an Arabian market — except you don’t have to haggle. Every person interviewed for this story mentioned the top-notch customer service as one of the main reasons they keep coming back — and one of the reasons the store has managed to remain profitable over time despite competition from bigger corporations.
“Frager’s is a Capitol Hill institution that really is like the anti-Home Depot,” said John Scofield, a principal at the Podesta Group and an 18-year Hill resident. “It is fully staffed, people know what they’re talking about, are exceedingly helpful, and you name it, they have it.” Scofield said he mostly shops at Frager’s for gardening equipment but has also purchased bicycle tubes and tennis balls, and he was also able to rent a wheelchair for an injured relative at the store.
Compared with many customers, Scofield is still new to the Frager’s scene. George Ingram and Donna Scheeder have lived in the Eastern Market area for close to 40 years and have been shopping at the hardware store for nearly that long.
When they moved into the neighborhood, Frager’s was still owned by the Frager family. The family sold the store to John Weintraub and Ed Copenhaver in 1975. Weintraub and Copenhaver kept the name, the business’s welcoming feel, and the plaque at the store’s entrance that declares the store closes on Saturdays at 5:55 p.m. on the dot.
Scheeder said the store is more or less the same as it was when she started shopping there, although there were fewer gardening options back then. Scheeder, who works at the Library of Congress and is the chairwoman of the Eastern Market Community Advisory Committee, has gone to Frager’s for screwdrivers, shovels and even mouse traps, and she commended Frager’s for its willingness to give back to the community.
Ingram also praised Frager’s for the community events it holds; the store sometimes organizes lectures to teach Hill residents how to accomplish home-care tasks, he said. In his case, Ingram learned how to use yellow lime mortar to repair the mortar and brick on his aging home.
Ingram owns several black Frager’s T-shirts, and he said he has gotten used to leaving them in the closet when he needs some carpentry equipment, lest he be confused for an employee.
“They’ve kidded me sometimes that I don’t always clock in when I go in,” he joked. “I have been in there a number of times that people sometimes ask me for help. I’ve learned not to wear my T-shirt to Frager’s.”
Scofield expressed a similar feeling: He compared wearing a Frager’s shirt to the store to wearing a band’s T-shirt to their own concert.
Whether they own a Frager’s T-shirt or not, District newcomers can find whatever they need for their homes at 1115 Pennsylvania Ave. SE. Kaplanis said the store gets a lot of traffic after election cycles, as newly elected Congressmen make their way to the city. Those Members-elect and their staffs can start to understand what it means to live on the Hill with a quick visit.
“When they find the Washington that’s beyond the monuments, they will really love it,” Scheeder said.