When local clothing retailer Universal Gear moved four blocks north on 14th Street last week, Yeme Mengistu made sure business was interrupted only one day. She and the staff packed up the store on Sunday night, moved on Monday and re-opened on Tuesday.
That’s the high-energy effervescent personality that has earned her the affection of legions of store patrons over the years.
“I love ‘love’ and I love life,” she is known to say, failing to sound corny. “This is my dream job,” Mengistu explains, “I’m giggling 24 hours a day.” Known to many only by her first name, she’s a smart and sassy woman who easily wins friends with her quick smile, easy repartee and infectious attitude.
Spanning 21 years of success under the stewardship of owner David Franco, Universal Gear is newly set up in a spacious street-level storefront in the new Harper apartment building at 1919 14th St., N.W., a half-block south of U Street. At the center of one of the city’s busiest commercial corridors, the new corner retail space offers floor-to-ceiling windows on two sides, brightening the interior with light and connecting it to the bustling streetscape.
Mengistu began working at Universal Gear a little more than a year after the original 17th and Q streets location opened in 1993. Living in her first apartment nearby, it hadn’t taken long for the 19-year-old Howard University nursing school student to become a familiar face in the neighborhood. Preceding short stints working on the patio at the former Trio Pizza adjacent to the namesake restaurant and at Java House across the street provided a mutual introduction.
She would often host early-morning gatherings in her home after the area’s bars had closed. “It was a crazy time and I did it all,” she recalls of those halcyon days. “I was a foreign-born young woman adopted by this gay neighborhood family while figuring life out,” she says, noting her Ethiopian heritage. Her parents sent her to D.C. at the age of 13 to attend school.
Mengistu will briefly return to her homeland for two weeks this month to finalize conversion of her grandmother’s bequeathed estate into an orphanage – to be named “Love Mission.” Her voice cracks when describing the children who have lost their parents to HIV. “I always come back heavy-hearted,” she quietly offers, “now it is my time to give back.”
When Mengistu landed a job as emergency room nurse following graduation, she thought her retail days were over. After six months “of the constant trauma coming through the door,” however, she discovered she “couldn’t handle the stress” of her chosen profession. Married to NASA photographer Chris Gunn and pregnant with their now 13-year-old daughter Blaine, she devoted herself to her offspring’s first two years.
She kept in touch with Franco and then co-owner Keith Clark, accepting their invitation to return evenings and weekends while her husband covered childcare duties. Once her daughter began school, Mengistu again took on a full schedule. She later assisted in opening the former Rehoboth store and in the 2012 opening of the first of two New York City locations.
Now company director of operations, Mengistu frequently travels north to oversee the Chelsea and Hell’s Kitchen stores. The 45 storewide employees “usually know when ‘Momma’ is coming,” she laughs.
Most days, though, you’ll find Mengistu in D.C., constantly popping out from her office to chat with customers wanting to say hello.
“I go home happy every day,” she points out, “the beneficiary of the same ‘retail therapy’ we provide our customers.”
She’s also spreading a lot of love along the way.