Behind the scenes of the (legal) DC-area fireworks stand: A tradition old as freedom

WTOP's Matt Kaufax speaks to owners and customers at fireworks stands across Virginia

I decided to hit the streets of Virginia this year to see what new — and legal — items were for sale for this Fourth of July. After all, putting on your own fireworks show is an annual tradition for many in the area.

“[You’ve got a lot of] pyros around here,” said Oscar Thrower, assistant manager at the Alexandria Gorilla Fireworks stand. They’re located in the Rose Hill neighborhood of Alexandria, Virginia — in the Safeway parking lot.

Thrower and his boss Christine have been at that location for the better part of a decade … and he’s something of a local celebrity.

“Catch me at the Wegmans, catch me out shopping … I’ve had people stop me like ‘you’re the guy who sold me the fireworks right?'”

Some of the selections offered for Fourth of July fireworks this year. (WTOP/Matt Kaufax)

“Hands down, I’d say we’re the best stand,” Thrower added. “Come see us and ask for ‘Big O.’ He’ll get you right.”

One of my favorite things every year has to be the fact that the names of fireworks keep getting more and more ridiculous.

Thankfully, Oscar and his co-workers didn’t disappoint.

“We’ve got the ‘Machine Gun Kelly,'” he said, rifling through his inventory. “We’re actually one of the only stands that has the ‘Night Sabers’ too. On top of that, we have the ‘Super Swords.'”

“Ba-da Bing,” “Doubloon Fountain,” “Fantasy/Reality” and “Fat Cat” were a few other favorites.

My search for the best deals on legal pyrotechnics took me all over, from Rose Hill to Annandale (near the Home Depot), to Burke (just past West Springfield) and even to the Plant Land TNT stand in Manassas.

“Right now, it’s just buy one and get two free,” said Aura, the Plant Land TNT stand manager.

While extra free fireworks weren’t flying in Rose Hill, they had some other creative tools to engage buyers.

Fireworks stands are popular for those wanting to put on their own shows. (WTOP/Matt Kaufax)

“Everyone gets a lollipop at checkout,” Christine told me. “Jellybean-flavored.”

“Any firework we sell, we have a ‘no dud’ policy,” she added. “If it doesn’t light or half goes off, you bring it back to me and I’ll replace it. If we don’t have that item in stock anymore, you choose something of equal or lesser value, on us. We want you to have fun!”

“Any color on the spectrum you can imagine, we’ve got,” said Mark McKenzie of the stand in Kingstowne, eager to throw his hat in the ring.

He and assistant manager Ryan Watson told me they could potentially bring in six-figure sale numbers on their inventory just from July 3 through 6 alone.

That’s because of a little-known phenomenon customers like my new friend Dave, a fireworks consumer I ran into in Alexandria, know all too well.

“I’m going to go the [5th of July] where they have the buy one get four free,” he told me. “I’ve done that a couple of times.”

“Sounds like post-Fourth is a big bear market to build up the arsenal,” I replied.

“No doubt,” Dave confirmed, adding that he’d still be going before the 4th as well.

While Dave and I traded fireworks stories, it gradually dawned on me that he’d helped me realize something about fountain fireworks sold in the DMV region.

“It does appear when you go to the different stands, it’s a lot of the same stuff,” Dave remarked. “Just a different sea container essentially.”

My mind was blown by this. He was absolutely right. No matter where I went, the same names kept popping up. Seems like a byproduct of laws that mandate only a certain type of firework be sold in Virginia is that some of the products become … derivative.

“It doesn’t matter where I go,” Dave asserted.

With a saturated market of similar products, buyers I spoke to tell me it becomes about the intangibles.

“So maybe you find someone you like, and you go back to them,” I said, still in shock, fishing for a new game plan.

“Right,” Dave said matter-of-factly.

Or not.

“It’s usually just whatever we can get at the last minute,” he admitted.

In the end, I realized: there’s really no pyrotechnic science or magic to it. Buy from the vendors you like (great customer service like the warmth from the folks at Rose Hill I encountered goes a long way). And buy what you want. In the end, it’s about that sense of family and community you get from setting off those fireworks responsibly with friends and family on Independence Day.

“We’ve been doing it for years, so people [from the neighborhood] just bring their stuff here,” Dave said, tactfully.

“So what you’re saying is you asserted dominance,” I remarked.

He shrugged. “I think I just provided the venue.”

Very diplomatic.

Before I end this story, I’d be remiss if I didn’t include this reminder for our audience:

Local authorities remind you that the safest way to enjoy fireworks is to let the experts set them off. Anyone who does decide to purchase their own, should check with their local jurisdictions on what’s prohibited.

So have a happy — and safe — Fourth of July.

Matt Kaufax

If there's an off-the-beaten-path type of attraction, person, or phenomenon in the DC area that you think more people should know about, Matt is your guy. As the features reporter for WTOP, he's always on the hunt for stories that provide a unique local flavor—a slice of life if you will.

Federal News Network Logo
Log in to your WTOP account for notifications and alerts customized for you.

Sign up