As Business Closes, Owner Looks Back at Decades on H Street

George Butler is closing shop after nearly five decades. His men’s clothing store, George’s Place Ltd., is an H Street NE institution, one of the longest-running businesses on a corridor now synonymous with gentrification. But the recession, online competition and H Street streetcar construction led him to call it quits.

The 73-year-old managed clothing stores on the street in the 1950s before opening his store in 1968.

“I saw a future in H Street and my being in the neighborhood, I knew a lot of my customers,” he said while sitting in the back of his store on a recent afternoon. Hats and shoes lined the walls, along with 50 percent off signs.

Through it all, he’s had a front row seat to all the ups and downs of the corridor: from the heyday when  it was “it was like Connecticut Avenue, like downtown,” to the 1968 riots. “I’m a vet, and I saw things I never saw in the war,” he recalled of the riots. “The street was unreal. Fires were everywhere. It was just burning down.”

The riots marked the commercial decline of the street, beginning decades of empty storefronts. “People left and never came back,” Butler said.

In recent years, new restaurants and bars have opened up, breathing a new kind of life into the corridor. But he feels there’s little impetus to support black-owned businesses. He said they’re being pushed out to make room for upscale restaurants and bars catering to whites.

“It was like Connecticut Avenue, like downtown, all the way down to 15th Street.” – George Butler

He said that the streetcar construction, a project meant to improve the corridor, took a toll on sales.

“Customers couldn’t park. It basically forced me out of business.”

Assistance programs are available to businesses hurt by the streetscape project. Ward 6 Councilman Tommy Wells even called out George’s Place in a press release about tax relief for businesses affected by the construction. But, as Butler sees it, such help came too late.

Butler admitted other factors, a declining economy and competition from big box chain stores with low prices, also contributed to the closure. “And I’ve been in retail for 54 years. I’m tired.”

Butler then stood up to greet old customers, men he knows by name. “When are you closing up?” one asked. “Not for a few months,” he responded.

“I’m going to miss this place because it made me feel good to come here and see the things I like. I can walk from where I live,”  said Marc Humphries, 56. “I was down here a few weeks ago and we were talking about the changes on H Street. I felt like it was going to be any minute now.”

Some would say that Butler is hardly a victim of gentrification. His property is now listed at $1.4 million. (There are no buyers yet, he assured me). He agreed that he stands to make money in the end, but “I don’t look at the money in my situation. I look at how long I’ve been here.”

  • Was

    “victim” is not the right term.

  • Anonymous

    Thanks for commenting — what’s your take on the situation?

  • Pterim

    Wow. This is the type of stuff I complain about on H st. His cool lil store will probably be replaced with a few hundred hipsters drinking more PBR… DAMN!!

  • shark

    Lots of” victims ” would love to have a million dollars in their pockets after working 54 years. The man deserves his money but he isn’t a victim.

  • LibrariNerd

    I’m no expert on men’s fashion, but the clothes displayed in his windows seemed to skew older. I’m don’t think you’d see anyone under 50 – regardless of ethnicity – wearing those clothes. The stores that cater to a younger crowd seem to be doing OK, as far as I can tell. Still, it’s sad to see it go – I always loved the dapper outfits he put together.

  • Christopher

    The City Paper ran an article on the declining fortunes of old-style H Street NE clothiers last October; but among several factors it cited one that isn’t mentioned in this article at all:  whether there’s less demand for the type of clothing they sell from the black community itself.  As one person interviewed put it, “people don’t dress up like they used to.”

    Worth reading:

  • H St

    The construction on H Street was no simply the “streetcar construction.” It was a complete DDOT streetscape remodeling with new sidewalks, lighting, furniture and and trees. (These streetscapes have happened all over the city although H Street is a very long corridor.)  The utilities also took the opportunity to do upgrades at the time which added to the time frame of the project. 

    That project had been planned since 2001.  The streetcar tracks were added  to this project much later in the planning period mostly to take advantage of the streets already being torn up rather than going back in to install them later. This also put H Street in the running to be the first line for the streetcar which if people recall was up for debate for a while.   I think journalists like to use the term “streetcar construction” a because  don’t do their research but mainly because it is a trigger  for debate and a quick way to incite the tired old vs new, black vs white  story that does not present the reality of this neighborhood. Read Harry Jaffe’s piece about the amazing Festival we just had down here.

  • Anon

    Isn’t it amazing that when you begin writing a story with an agenda that all of the conclusions seem to support your agenda.  This man is no more a victim than local video store owners, small electronic stores, or blacksmiths were victims.  The market changed around them and they were unable to adapt.  That may sound contrite to some and I truly will miss some of the diversity that makes H St. different from most of the neighborhoods in DC, but it is unfair to turn the argument against change and progress and to hang the prospects of this store owner on those who are seeking a better life for their families by paying fair market for real estate in the area.  Unlike some of the store owners, who have a legitimate beef because they rented in the area and truly got “priced out”, this gentleman seems to be well positioned to make a healthy sum of money by the “evident gentrification” that the author demonizes.  If he were so inclined he could take those profits and move his store to an market that would support it or in this case it sounds like he can just salt that away and enjoy his retirement.  I am considered a liberal by most of my friends but this story seems like an apologist screed against any change whatsoever lest it might upset the delicate balance of yesteryear.

  • oboe

    How many suits you buy over the last 5 years, Pterim?  Don’t be ridiculous.

  • oboe

    Mr Butler’s clientele consists largely of aging african americans who have moved out of the city as they retired.  Rather than adapt to folks who now live in the neighborhood, he’s decided to close up shop.  I grew up in an area of Rockville that has a large and growing Hispanic population.  Long-time businesses there have tailored their offerings to appeal to Hispanics as well as long-time residents.  If they didn’t, they’d go out of business.  We certainly wouldn’t say the shopkeepers had been “victimized.”

  • Was

    my take? in business, you must adapt or die. or retire. the guy had a great run. 73 and still working in the same industry after 50 years? impressive. but looking at the photos reminds me of stores i shopped at in the 1970′s. that means he never updated the look of his store, unless he’s going for a retro thing. and who knows, maybe if he could hold out till he’s 80′s that might be the thing. 
    but he’s not going to live forever, and sitting on a possible 1.4million plus presumed profits sounds great to me. 

    i also question the validity of a retail business that can’t afford his taxes, but this article doesn’t mention what the taxes are. 

    i do agree that property taxes in general are too high. and yes, that is somewhat a result of gentrification.

    but “victim”? hardly. it’s allowing him to retire of he sells. 

    it is a great warning to all those that go into business for themselves. 

  • 13 & H

    Not only all of that… but I understand that he’s been offered loads of cash for his building and is refusing to sell for a reasonable number as he thinks that he’s owed more than market rate.  Just because, I suppose.  Word is that he’s turned down several offers– one from Ben’s Chili Bowl. 

    He’s no victim.  Adapt your merchandise and curtomers will be there.   You don’t see a lot of stores selling Ataris anymore.

  • Was

    how do you know he thinks he’s “owed more than market rate?” Maybe he’s just holding out because he can. that’s his business. just because he may not be willing to update his store or change with the market doesn’t mean he has the sense of entitlement you seem to be suggesting.