The Bethesda community is rallying to keep Bruce Variety operating in its longtime location in the Bradley Boulevard Shopping Center, but store representatives say they will need to move because of a rent increase.
The store is coming to the end of a 10-year lease, and owners say the new rent will make it unaffordable for the community fixture to stay on.
“We have made many adjustments to make sure we stay profitable, and when we’re faced with our lease that’s just going to spiral out of reasonable affordability, we have to make a business decision to move,” said Linda Ridenour, wife of owner Richard Dimock.
For 60 years, the store has been a one-stop-shop for Bethesda residents in need of items ranging from clothing and kitchenware to crafts, toys and novelty gifts. Loyal customers have started an online petition asking Sam Barrow Jr., who is one of the Bradley Boulevard Shopping Center’s trustees, to renegotiate the terms of Bruce Variety’s lease. Wednesday afternoon, the petition had nearly 1,600 signatures.
Barrow did not return a call and an e-mail from Patch seeking comment.
Owners say a down economy and the opening of the Montgomery Mall Home Depot have contributed to a decline in customers at the shop in recent years.
“We used to have people getting in fights out front over parking spots. Now, on any given day, you drive by the center and the parking lot’s half empty,” Ridenour said.
The store is already struggling to meet its current rent -- $22,000 monthly – and owners have made adjustments to worker hours and reduced inventory to stay profitable.
“If you’re selling $400 shoes, you can make that rent,” Ridenour said. “We’re selling erasers and spools of thread and your basic variety items.”
What Bruce's hasn’t done, Ridenour said, is raise its prices.
“We could probably triple our prices, but we can’t do that to our customers. If we come by some inventory at a special rate, we pass that right on to our customers. That’s always been our business philosophy.”
Some shoppers have been loyally patronizing Bruce Variety for 40 or 50 years, Ridenour said. The outpouring of community support, she said, has been “amazing.”
“We’ve always felt the community has been like family to us,” Ridenour said. "People are teary-eyed and hugging us and telling us how they remember coming in here when they were a young child. If you work here on a daily basis, you see the same faces all the time, and you can’t help but have a relationship.”
Many loyal shoppers are expressing dismay through comments and letters to the editor on Patch.
“From kazoos to hairnets to darning eggs and modeling clay, from collar extenders to wallet inserts to wax lips and more, we may as well get used to not being able to find things like this anymore,” commented Patch user Anna Tyce.
“If the community isn't completely outraged, then they are not paying attention......this is an end of an era, and the beginning of a nightmare for the rest of us as we will now be faced with making half a dozen stops, to find the handful of items that we need.”
Others are addressing Barrow directly.
In an email sent to Barrow and shared with Patch, longtime Bethesda resident Ruth Handelsman wrote: “Bruce Variety is a community-beloved institution. Often, a needed errand to Bruce’s is what draws me to the shopping center, where, once there, I visit other stores. Please consider making its survival possible.”
Ridenour said that while the store hopes to move, the owners haven’t found a new location. While they’re hoping to remain in Bethesda, they’ve considered Kensington, Silver Spring and even Northern Virginia.
“We’d hate to have to leave our customer base,” Ridenour said. “The name recognition and all of that takes awhile to build up.”
Will you be sad to see Bruce Variety go? What are your memories of the shop? Tell us in the comments.