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Frager's Owners Regroup After Devastating Fire

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The Fragers Pop-Up features plants that survived the June 5 fire.
Rebecca Sheir
The Fragers Pop-Up features plants that survived the June 5 fire.

On June 5, 2013, a 93-year-old Washington institution was feeling the heat in a most devastating way. That night, for reasons still unknown, Frager's Hardware, on 11th and Pennsylvania SE, caught fire.

Longtime owner John Weintraub — or J.W. as he's often called — remembers the evening all too well.

"It was a normal day at Frager's," he says, standing outside the now-boarded-up store. "And our main cashier, Melinda, I think a customer tipped her off they smelled smoke. Where was it coming from? Well, our side door out to 11th Street.

"So I opened the door and just saw this total blackness, smoke. I could tell that it was serious."

Weintraub says he didn't see any fire at first, but he grabbed a fire extinguisher and tried to move into the space, "but it was so pitch black, and the heat got to be too much."

When he and some employees ran around the side of the building to 11th Street is when he saw the flames.

"In the median strip, I just watched it burn," he says, choking up. "I was crying almost. From 6:30 to about 12:30. We had to talk to the fire marshal. And then it was still burning. And I think it probably went on all night."

It took more than 200 firefighters to control the blaze, which left behind a path of utter destruction.

"The roof and the second floor collapsed, and you can see the sunlight streaming through on these tangled, charred remnants of what it was," says Kristin Sampson, one of the store's managers.

But, she says, despite the way things look now, nothing can erase Frager's vibrant, community energy.

"I mean people would be like, 'I'm having a really bad day so I thought I'd come and see you all, come to the hardware store,'" Sampson says. "That's huge!"

That's why she says she can't help but imagine the store coming alive again.

"When you picture it with all the life, all the activity, all the relationships and the stuff, you want to get that back," she says.

It takes a village

Little by little, Frager's is 'getting that back.' On 7th Street SE, across from Eastern Market, the city helped open The Frager's Pop-up. In addition to selling special commemorative t-shirts, the temporary store is peddling a variety of garden goods: including the very same plants it used to carry at 11th and Pennsylvania — from annuals to perennials to all kinds of herbs and vegetables.

"All of [the] plants survived the fire," says garden co-manager Matthew Lovelace. "Fortunately it was a blessing that the fire didn't get totally out of control."

Lovelace started working at Frager's eight years ago, when he was fresh out of high school. And he says immediately after the fire, he and his 60-some co-workers seemed to be first and foremost on the community's mind.

"I've had an outpour of help," he says. "People were offering positions at certain places, so apparently I've impacted a lot of people."

Owner John Weintraub says he's keeping as many staff members on payroll as possible. To help with that effort, the Capitol Hill Community Foundation has begun channeling donations.

"Capitol Hill Community Foundation basically responds to lots of needs in the community as they arise," says president Nicky Cymrot. "But on that evening, I was getting emails from people saying, 'I just made a $500 contribution to the Frager's situation; I hope you all are going to do something.'"

So, they did. The foundation quickly established a special fund to pool all the donations coming in for Frager's.

"Immediately, overnight and over the next several days, contributions were just coming, ding ding ding, on my telephone," Cymrot says. "I put it so I could hear them!"

Rebuilding Frager's

As of earlier this week, the Foundation had collected $110,000 - not just from Capitol Hill, but also from all over the country. Because the way garden manager Matthew Lovelace sees it, when you shop at Frager's, you're family.

"Eighty percent of the people who stop by, we know who they are," he says. "And by us building these relationships, we're touching everyone. And by this happening, no one could ever see Frager's leave."

Lovelace says as he looks toward the future, he hopes "that Frager's rebuilds, bigger and better and stronger than ever."

John Weintraub feels the same way. For now, he and his team are operating on a more or less impromptu basis, using temporary offices, the temporary garden shop, "and we're close to maybe getting some warehouse space, temporary warehouse space nearby," he says. "Then we'll have a real space to store stuff and keep stuff."

But in the long run, he says, he hopes to rebuild on the same corner where, for nearly a century, faithful customers have flocked for everything from seeds and screwdrivers to pet supplies and popcorn carts.

"That's one reason why I hate to give up," he says. "People look at me and say, 'Hey, why don't you walk away?' But it's hard to walk away when you've got a functioning, good staff and such loyal customers.

"You're just lacking one thing, and that's a building to sell it out of! But it looks like it's going to be a long, hard road."


[Music: "The Summer Knows" by Eric Alexander Quartet from Gentle Ballads V]

Photos: Frager's Hardware

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