As employees calmly dressed in smock-style clothing entered the Joy Oil and Hardware on U Street and looked around, they were quick to note: It’s the longest-running convenience store in America, the oldest in the District.
Now, there’s a lot to look at. The back room – equipped with space for floor heating – smells like a sewer, with gas that permeates the walls and ceilings. Paper wraps line the wall shelves. “Never call them by their name,” a smiley, white-haired gentleman instructed a woman. “Do you need anything? I have no one here, do you need anything?”
Except the real “people” aren’t here: The bar stools have remained empty for months, with the stock of cigarettes, cereal and soda remaining. The shop is the oddest place to catch an email to work about it: The display on a front window has an X marked on it.
The Joy Oil and Hardware began in 1901. Before that, locals bought items from street-front vendors, then paid with bucks to fill up a barrel or bale of hay or bring groceries back to town on horseback. The store later moved to F Street, where it operated until the 1950s. The building is one of several in the 100 block of F Street – next to the retro-looking Terez Brown Deli. It was home to the Joy Oil Company before Prohibition — the gas station was once the only place for thirsty tourists to indulge their cravings for booze.
More than a century later, local citizens are still buying gas and using junked old gum drops for beauty products.
Since it began operating once again in 2014, it’s become a tourist draw. But the future of the store’s historical significance is uncertain, with landlord Sally Herring making small moves to help the store stay afloat, but many big decisions left for last.
Herring and a representative for District of Columbia Housing Authority declined to comment. The area has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places since 1992.
But it’s not just a renter’s problem, and not just a landlord’s problem. Also present are county fire codes, health codes and building codes that require the gas pump to stay empty for safety reasons. It costs more than $400,000 for a repair and cleanup on site alone.
Herring has suggested adding the store to a city program where commercial properties are rehabbed at no cost, a plan that she says will pay off for the neighborhood.
“I feel very strongly that a lot of progress and a lot of money has been made in this neighborhood,” she said. “You might make money from a single-family home, but you make no money on a building.”
Not everyone in the neighborhood likes the idea of adding people to the area with new business. Residents in the rear of the 100 block of F Street worry that more people could add to their nuisance problem – crime. But Patricia Kingsland, a Washington-based real estate broker, says that there’s probably “no less crime” in the area than any other neighborhood.
Both commercial and residential property value around the Joy Oil have spiked around the owner, making it a little more expensive to buy. Herring plans to look into converting the current store to another commercial use, potentially a restaurant or grocery store.
Vev Wright, a 25-year-old college student, said the store sits in a specific neighborhood – the “rooftop” of U Street, where the view of the Washington Monument dominates the building, facing the other way.
“I want to see a restaurant here or a fancy business here, or something that people can look up and see from the street,” he said. “We need it.”