It was two years ago when married couple Anne Stom and Lyn Stoesen were walking together to the Metro near their home in the Park View neighborhood adjacent to Petworth in Northwest Washington, both headed downtown to their government agency jobs. It was unusual for Lyn to take the subway to work, but that morning she made a discovery about her spouse. Anne knew lots of area residents, greeting them by name and exchanging pleasantries along the way.
Anne’s partner began chiding her that she should run for mayor, so many people recognized her. Anne cast aside the humorous suggestion with her easygoing laugh, but responded by saying “What I should do is open a hardware store.”
And that’s exactly what she did.
Long before the Feb. 7 opening of Annie’s Ace Hardware at 1240 Upshur St., N.W., residents of both the Petworth neighborhood where the 7,000-square-foot former auto repair building is located and surrounding environs heralded its planned arrival with celebratory postings on community blogs. An entire portion of Northwest D.C. east of Rock Creek Park above the midtown area — spanning Crestwood and 16th Street Heights through Columbia Heights and Park View and north to Petworth and Brightwood, and stretching into adjoining Northeast neighborhoods — responded enthusiastically to the announcement of Stom’s undertaking.
Nothing signifies that a neighborhood is destined for continued growth and invigoration like a full-service hardware, home improvement and gardening store. Neighborhoods advancing toward broad-based revitalization and experiencing an accelerating influx of residents witness the arrival of new restaurants, bars and retail projects, spurring additional retail and other community amenities.
Risk-taking new entrepreneurs like Stom, discerning a neighborhood need and business opportunity, provide what she describes as an “anchor to the community” extending beyond the enterprise. More than commerce, business investment yields an affirmation of a neighborhood’s future and consumer convenience close to home.
Petworth and neighboring areas have slowly become one of a number of hot new destinations for District living. Couples with children and young singles, including a significant influx of gay and lesbian residents, have in recent years joined local inhabitants. Stom notes with gratitude that both longtime residents and new arrivals have welcomed and patronized her establishment.
Stom was not one who found an Allen wrench instead of a baby rattle in her crib, but she learned the basics over time living her life. Years ago when working at Daedalus Books she built bookcases to hold the library she had begun assembling. While constructing a simple two-step stair outside an earlier home she eagerly invested in a circular saw, a moment she now chuckles as symbolizing what would lead to a stint working as a carpenter’s helper. She later volunteered with Habitat for Humanity homebuilding projects in Anacostia and grew increasingly comfortable with her expanding tool collection and new avocation.
Seven years ago Stom found herself spending evenings and weekends renovating and modernizing her then Park View townhouse when not at her job as project director for the Department of Labor’s national Youthbuild education and training program for disadvantaged youth. She recalls being frustrated that there were no home improvement retailers in the area and found herself hopping in the car to drive across town to a poorly stocked and inadequately staffed national behemoth warehouse outlet for the inevitable forgotten item needed for the day’s construction project.
Nestled on the two-block stretch of Upshur Street separating 13th Street and Georgia Avenue near the Georgia Ave.-Petworth Metro station and north of Columbia Heights, Annie’s Ace Hardware occupies a prominent and attractive building among a string of tidy industrial style structures.
The 12 parking spots outside Stom’s DIY nirvana of more than 18,000 items are continuously accommodating the arrival and departure of customers, with ample curbside parking handy for the surging stream of weekend shoppers beginning Friday evenings through Sundays. Two Zipcars are at the ready, offering either a sedan or pick-up for the wheel-less wondering how they will haul home that shiny new Weber Grill or lawn rake and bags of fertilizer.
It’s not unusual to find locals stabling their bikes at the racks outside for a quick purchase. Neighborhood residents traveling on two wheels soon discover that the store also offers a popular bike repair and maintenance clinic every Saturday from noon to 3 p.m. conducted by non-profit Bike House volunteers.
Inside you’re likely to run into gregarious staff member Rodney Lancaster, one of 13 store employees all living nearby. Sizing up the muscular mountain of a man, with a professional background as an auto mechanic, it’s no surprise to learn that he was a high school linebacker playing on the Roosevelt High School football field across the street when younger.
Like many an independent small business owner, Stom is hands-on and currently on-site every day — ably assisted by energetic store manager Brian Smith. His engaging personality and comfortably competent manner are combined with significant retail experience and previous renovation and landscaping work.
Stom has assembled a diverse and attentive staff, representative of the well-deserved reputation enjoyed by the five franchised Ace Hardware locations in D.C. for providing a welcoming environment and helpful customer assistance.
With the store’s early success, it would be easy for Stom to overlook the 19 months of relentless challenges bringing the business to fruition and laboriously managing the city’s often cumbersome permitting and regulatory maze. Informed by her former federal government project management experience, she would advise city officials to further streamline the path to small business development. She recommends assigning case managers to assist in detailing the intricate sequencing and extensive regulatory requirements for opening a local business. Otherwise, licensing delays are common, backward steps are necessary, costs increase and obstacles breed failure.
When a businessperson invests all she is worth utilizing every available financial resource — and, in Stom’s case, humbly accepting self-initiated investment offers by supportive residents eager to see the business meet the significant capitalization final funding in a tight commercial lending environment — she is making a commitment to both an aspiration and a community, to both economic development and employment creation. She also takes on the resulting responsibilities and risks.
Whether it’s a local homeowner grabbing a big bag of bark chips for a flowerbed landscaping project, a nearby resident popping in for an extra can of Benjamin Moore paint to finish refreshing the kitchen, two young apartment dwellers grabbing light bulbs and vacuum cleaner bags, or a novice needing guidance and tools for a home project — a neighborhood has become more complete and self-sustaining.
All because of a woman’s courage and vision — and that first circular saw.
Mark Lee is a local small business manager and long-time community business advocate. Reach him at OurBusinessMatters@gmail.com.