When Woodward & Lothrop — or “Woodies,” as it later came to be known — officially opened its doors in 1886, it was considered to be Washington’s very first department store.
Michael Lisicky is a department store aficionado who’s written six books about iconic department stores in America. As he writes in his new book, Woodward & Lothrop: A Store Worthy of the Nation’s Capital, Woodies eventually became what he calls “the Buick” of Washington, D.C. department stores.
“A Buick is a car you’d aspire to drive,” he explains. “And Woodward & Lothrop was a place you’d aspire to shop at, whether you were buying something small or something big. It’s not a Cadillac; that’s down the street at Garfinckel’s. It wasn’t a Chevrolet where you packed the kids and needed a mode of solid transportation; that’s Hecht Company," he says.
Samuel Woodward and Alvin Lothrop hailed from Boston, where they operated some dry-goods stores. After moving to D.C., they referred to their first seven years of Washington business as “the impossible years.”
As Lisicky explains, “it’s a struggle getting a new concept going. One-price stores: that was unheard of. Haggling was the way to go. And that’s what they didn’t like in Boston. But they did it. It wasn’t without hard work, but they did it.”
Lisicky says the Great Depression was an interesting time for department stores, since “this was a time you needed entertainment. These stores were free entertainment.”
Plus, he says, “a lot of places developed their loyalty during the depression. Hecht’s and Lansburghs took care of the people that needed some of the help.But Washington didn’t suffer the Depression as much as other cities did. That helped Woodies.”
By the 1930s, Lisicky says Woodward & Lothrop was like “a small city within the greater city of Washington.”
“The point with a department store is you don’t let [the customer] out the doors,” he explains. “You could live within a department store. You could sleep, eat, dress; there was no reason to leave!”
But after World War Two, Lisicky says, city-based department stores began expanding to the suburbs. Woodies opened a branch in Chevy Chase, Md., while Garfinckel’s opened in Spring Valley and Hecht’s opened in Silver Spring.
“You had to follow your customer,” he says. “And once the war ended people were moving away.”
At its height, Woodies operated around a dozen stores. But it wasn’t long before that empire began to break up.
“You’re looking at ways to cut costs,” Lisicky says. “So you start cutting back on employees. And as you had the competition. Woodies lost some of its direction. And then change of ownership and merchandise mishaps: that certainly didn’t help with the longevity.”
Something else that deeply affected Woodies were the April 1968 riots — or “the disturbance,” as a Lansburgh’s spokesperson once said.
Prior to the riots, “Woodies was not a very open store. [For blacks and whites] they had separate entrances, restrooms, and drinking fountains,” explains Lisicky. “That unfortunately was the practice; all these stores basically did it. The one store that catered was Morton’s, which left in 1993; that was an open store.”
Lisicky says after the riots, business at Woodies dropped about 50 percent within a few years.
“This [area] was considered dangerous,” he says. “You didn’t want to come here. And once that happens, the selection of merchandise drops.”
Fast-forward in time, and we come to the 1980s, what Lisicky calls the most eventful decade in Woodies’ history, especially since it lost its local ownership in 1985.
“The 1980s were all about mergers, takeovers, and some of those takeovers were hostile,” Lisicky says. “Woody’s was susceptible. The businesses were not bringing in the cash but the real estate was worth something. You had a corporate raider come in 1983. You had families leaving the department store business, and they needed to survive. So they bring other people to invest and keep the store going.”
Lisicky says after the store’s big 100th anniversary gala in 1986, “Woodies tried to keep its head above water as long as it could.”
“It was just like ‘okay, where are we as a business, how are we going to survive,’” he explains. “The writing was on the wall. You had Nordstrom coming into town. That puts the fear of God in places like this!”
Woodies eventually closed its doors for good in 1995. And yet, Lisicky says, he feels the store is still important to Washingtonians.
“If Woodys was not important, we would not have a building that still says Woodward & Lothrop at the corner of 11th and F Northwest. You would not see [the name] over the canopy, and you would not have that [WL] flag above it,” he says. “It’s still an iconic building. It’s an institution.
“When I started writing these books, I really didn’t think anybody still cared,” he continues. “And what’s really touching and wonderful is that they do. And that means people still care about their identity. This is part of their lives.”
[Music: "Don't Have To Shop Around" by The Mad Lads from Stax-Volt: The Complete Singles 1959-68]