Serving platters, tea kettles and kitchen towels line the perimeter of the 14th Street shop Home Rule. A quirky sink display overflows with glittery gold sponges, and shower curtains hang from the ceiling.
The small store, no larger than a studio apartment, stocks everything one might need for the home — from bathroom mats to cake pans. But perhaps the most important thing it houses is a mosaic of broken window glass mounted to the checkout counter.
The shop’s owners discovered the glass when they renovated the space 20 years ago. The front of the building had been boarded up after the 1968 riots, and the shattered windows went untouched.
“[The glass] is an incredibly important part of D.C. history, and we loved the idea of the metaphor — piecing it back together,” said Home Rule co-owner Rod Glover.
The counter is one thing Home Rule founder Gregory Link plans take with him when he closes his 20-year-old shop at the end of March.
Memories from the community he helped to build are another.
Revitalizing after the riots
Today, the 14th Street corridor is one of the city’s most vibrant neighborhoods. It’s filled with coffee shops, restaurants, music venues, art galleries and luxury apartments.
But when Link opened his home goods store near the corner of 14th and S Street NW back in 1999, the landscape was much different. Link remembers an auto repair shop nearby and an unusual number of parking lots.
“I remember my first tour of D.C., I’d asked, ‘What’s the deal with all these parking lots?’ And someone said, ‘That’s where buildings stood, but they’d all been burned in the riots,’” he said.
But the desolate and somewhat depressed surroundings didn’t deter Link from opening a store there. At the time, he lived a few blocks away and said there wasn’t a place in the neighborhood to buy everyday household items, other than Safeway and a hardware store. Plus, real estate was affordable, and he had a good feeling that the community was ready for change.
“I got asked 1,000 times: ‘Why would you put a store on 14th Street?’” Link said.
“I just had that sort of sense that something was going to happen to that street.”
He was right.
Shortly after Home Rule opened, other retailers followed. The furnishings store Ruff & Ready was already across the street; Go Mama Go moved in next door, and Pulp, Garden District and Vastu followed.
“And I think at that point, I began to say, ‘Hey, it’s happening,’” Link said.
“There was that sense that we were all doing something together.”
The neighborhood’s development hasn’t stopped since Home Rule opened, but many of the original stores that ushered in its revitalization have closed. And on March 31, Home Rule will join them.
Link said the store’s closure is not about profit loss or increased rents. He owns the building and sales are still healthy. The three co-owners (Link, Glover and Grace Allison) decided “it’s just time.”
“We wanted to do it while we were still having a good time; we wanted to do it while the store was still making a profit, also when we could make the decision before someone else had to,” said Link, who now lives in Davis, California.
But closing on their own terms doesn’t make it any easier to say goodbye to the store’s customers — many of whom have become close friends in the last 20 years.
“Christmas became really difficult for us because all the neighbors would invite us to their Christmas parties and you’d be so tired (from being) on your feet all the time, but we still wanted to go celebrate Christmas with these friends,” Link said.
“People really had a vested interest in that neighborhood and seeing things grow and improve.”
The 14th Street neighborhood is one thing that has changed in the last 20 years; the retail industry is another. A 2016 Pew Research Center survey found that 80 percent of Americans shop online, and in cities such as D.C., where real estate is hot, it’s not unusual for brick-and-mortar business owners to be pushed out by escalating rent prices.
“The name Home Rule was really important to me because I didn’t want to be somebody who worked on somebody else’s land or whatnot, and I’m really happy to be owning the property,” Link said.
Several small businesses still operate along the bustling 14th Street corridor, but most of the neighborhood’s new retailers are restaurants. Doi Moi, Compass Rose and Ted’s Bulletin are all just a few doors down.
“I think small retail is a really big question for the country as a whole, not so much this neighborhood or this city. You see it surviving very strongly in San Francisco and places like that, but I think it’s going to depend on the place and the community and how the support of their independent retailers will maintain them,” Glover said.
“I think it’s a critical time and there will be a lot of changes, and I think it’s a difficult environment for retail, generally.”
Home Rule will remain open through the end of March and will run closing sales throughout its last few weeks. As for what comes next, Link is still figuring out what to do with the building he owns and how to say goodbye to a home store that’s become a home.
“We’ve been so thankful and lucky over the last 20 years,” he said.
Glover added, “The neighbors just made it a really rich and rewarding experience.”
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