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Hunted House's Mark Johnson on Bringing Mod to H Street

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Welcome to Better Know a Store Owner, a Racked feature focusing on the people who run our favorite boutiques around the city.

[Photos: R. Lopez]

For lovers of all things mid-century modern, chatting with fellow devotee Mark Johnson is half the fun of shopping at Hunted House. "That table looks like it could be in Roger's office," he'll say to a "Mad Men" fan, and it's good as sold.

But despite the perfectly styled vignettes of Danish modern credenzas and 1950s era bars, Johnson's background isn't in design. After gigs in communications on the Hill and at GLADD, Johnson was inspired to start his vintage furniture and clothing business in 2007 in a way that is so Washington — his boss lost an election. About a year after moving Hunted House from an upstairs space on 14th Street to the Atlas District, this D.C. native shares how his love of mid-century modern began with a trip to the Watergate, how he got over his fears about retail on H Street NE, and why he thinks more 14th Street businesses will look eastwards.

What is your background?
My background is certainly not in design. My background is kind of a mixture. I have a professional background in communications. Before I started this business I worked for a politician as a communications director, and my boss [chairman of the D.C. Council Linda Cropp] lost an election. I could've been the mayor's press secretary, but it didn't quite happen.

The reason I did this is because I had been doing mid-century modern selling on Craigslist when I worked in City Hall, sort of as a hobby but more as a way to get rid of stuff. I love mid-century modern, but a house just has so much space.

Between the election and us getting kicked out, I heavied up on the Craigslist stuff. I thought this is really cool, I like it, I'd always wanted to do a business. I didn't think it would be this, I thought it would be like a coffee shop that I would actually use the vintage furniture as part of the seating area to mix it in.

So what I did instead, this was when I was with my partner at the time, was to go to Eastern Market. We just decided that we'd do Eastern Market as a way to get our feet wet in selling things. We did Sundays. That went well.

Finally I said, I might want to try this. I lived just off 14th Street in Columbia Heights. There used to be this vintage store there on 14th Street and T, this old primitive space. It was a railroad apartment. People kept saying, "This is a really cool New York space." So we set it up as an apartment, to make it look it as believable as a living space as possible.

My old partner actually is a designer. I had the interest and the eye for mid-century modern furniture, but he knew how to put it together to make it look good. It was a nice team. We were actually partners in life as well as partners in the business. He was going through a personal issue so he moved back to Miami. So that dissolved our relationship and our working together. He's since moved back to D.C. and we are very good friends. Everything got resolved and he's back here. He still sometimes lends a hand in terms of design.

The good news since that time, that was six years ago, lots of designers have become friends of mine. Designers love furniture stores, period. And furniture stores love designers, because they are always willing to offer advice and suggestions. I think after awhile you learn how to put stuff together. I kind of wanted to still create the vignettes, the different living spaces. I think it helps people sort of visualize how it might work in their space.

Why do you love mid-century modern so much?
I don't really know. I guess I've always liked it. As I grew up as an older kid in the 70s, we didn't really have any of this stuff in our house because my parents weren't wealthy. We had more traditional stuff, I don't think they had the sense of mid-century modern.

But my father was an engineer, and his boss lived at the Watergate. I got to go to his boss's place a couple times. I'm sure I must have been the first black kid to swim in the Watergate pool. They were really nice people, they taught me to swim. So that was kind of an interesting story. But they had this furniture. I think I like it because I find it beautiful. I love clean lines. I just love the look of it.

I can remember watching all the movies as a teenager and just really appreciating the style. The clothes, the furniture, the 50s, 60s, and 70s. I didn't really care for 70s furniture because it seemed to be a little cold and not as stylish as 60s stuff. But now I actually prefer 70s. If you came to my house you'd see a lot of Lucite and chrome.

There was a crowd of people who loved mid-century modern furniture before "Mad Men" came on, and I think there's even more of a crowd after the show. But I think I've seen a difference in who likes it now, versus who liked it before.

Are shoppers younger?
Yes, that's exactly right. The question is, is it more of a fad for them? Not only the furniture, but the clothes. I started selling clothes a little bit on 14th Street, but I didn't think I wanted to make a commitment to it because A.) My space was small and B.) I wasn't sure exactly how well they would do. They did nicely, mostly with younger people. When I came to this space, because I had a different layout, we'll try to do more clothes, and it seems like it still appeals to people.

What made you want to come to H Street?
There's the two answers to that questions. The one answer, being the communications persons, I'm not sure I really want to say. But I don't mind if you write this. I didn't really want to come to H Street at first, because I wasn't sure that it was going to be a smart idea. I wanted to get a space like this, and I knew that H Street was becoming the strip, but I was afraid to come here. I didn't know that it would be that busy a street. 14th Street was clearly, clearly demonstrably busy. I couldn't afford a space like this on 14th Street, there's no way.

It was six years into the business, I felt like, you had to show some growth. It just seemed like if was going to do this, I needed to have a grownup space. And this I considered to be a grownup space.

One thing that was really good about being on 14th Street, was about three years into being on 14th Street, Room & Board opened next door. There was Ruff & Ready, they were there. They were actually the first vintage store on 14th Street, he had been there for like 30 years. I was in the next block, and later Pixie moved into the block at R Street, she had been on 18th Street. So that increased the amount of foot traffic for vintage and there were a couple stores on U Street too. And I didn't want to leave that. Because people knew that 14th and U was the vintage area.

So I didn't want to come here. I wanted to leave that space, but stay as close to my customer base as possible. I shopped around for other spaces in the U 14 area, and to tell you, the spaces that I saw were not that great.

And the people that owned this building were customers of mine. Originally they had thought to have a gallery, they wanted it to be something creative. They mentioned it to me and some other people, and it just worked out that I got it. This is exactly what I wanted. I just wasn't sure about the location.

But here's the thing: the spaces that I looked at, around Georgia Avenue and 9th Street and other areas, they were as expensive as this space, which is of course more than I was paying on 14th Street. But they weren't nearly as nice. Everybody kept saying, "You really shouldn't be afraid of H Street." And I kind of knew that, but I was still sort of new in business. Is it smart to go away from something that you know is busy to something that you just can't be sure about? You read Prince of Petworth? POP came in and he wrote that we were moving. And there's always this string of comments, many of which have nothing to do with the first. It happened again recently with another store.

Is that Foundry?
Yes, and Yvette [Freeman] and I are really good friends and I'm happy that it's her that's moving here. She and her husband came here like months ago, and I asked her if she was moving here, and she said, "No, no, no." But I was hoping that she was. Because 14th Street is dying for small business.

The comments [online] were all about "Is H Street really ready for furniture or any small business, because there's no one there." And the people who live here are always the ones that say, "Excuse you, but we're already here." There are people, who are just like the people on 14th Street, who want businesses also. There's always the sort of cockiness, and I live over there so I'm aware of it, that this is all there is in D.C.

A year and some months later, I see people who were customers on 14th Street, for a couple reasons. There's more to do over here, so they don't see North Capitol as the barrier that they might've have once seen it as. And there are a lot of new people who have come to town that fit that demographic who never knew about U 14, so they've always known about Convention Center and NoMa. A lot of the people that have been here for awhile, that were customers on 14th Street, they were renting and they wanted to buy a house.

This city's not that big. It's the same demographic of people that are moving into the city and moving all around the city. I thought about all that and I thought can it really be that bad to move over here? Yes, it will be more expensive, yes, it's going to be slower, and I wanted to take that on. But I think for the most part it's really proving to be good.

Do you feel like a pioneer for retail on H Street?
I really don't. That whole pioneer thing, sometimes I think that's reserved for other people and not for me. I think of this city as being such a small city, and I see that former boundaries are breaking down, it just feels like an extension to me. I don't feel like I've gone that far out.

Do you think that Yvette coming here helps?
Yes, because I think one of the things that worked about U 14 is that you could go from store to store to store. People weren't just coming to Hunted House, to Rough and Ready, to Pixie's. They were going from one to the other. People would say, "Ok, I'll be right back," and I knew where they were going to go. We all worked together. I would do some of her deliveries, she would do some of my deliveries. We wanted to encourage each other and it worked nicely. People saw us as a vintage furniture district, and we played nicely together.

I never thought for a second that people were going to make the trip over to Northeast just for me. If so, great, but I didn't delude myself into thinking that. I do think with a store like Yvette's, she has a great eye, she's really talented. We've talked about this, and I think having another store like hers over here is just going to do what it did on 14th Street, create a district.

Everybody knows that H Street is not to be dismissed. There's so much promise and activity here. If I had waited a few more months, this space wouldn't have been available. I do understand the fear about being on H Street, but I can tell you I think it's irrational.

I wouldn't be surprised, they will speak for themselves, but if more stores on 14th Street don't start looking eastwards. Because that strip, which used to be very funky, very independent, it's going. It's going away from small businesses. And my customers would say, one of the reasons we moved here in the first place is because we liked the funkiness of this area. We liked the vibe, we liked that there were a lot of mom and pop independent businesses, and now it's all going corporate. It's chain stores or restaurants, and it's losing a lot of that. I think H Street will probably go that way at some point, but in the meantime, it will pick up what 14th Street loses.

I can't see businesses caring about whether or not it's wise to move over here too much longer. It's going to be such a no-brainer. Or Petworth for that matter. Or North Capital. I think all those areas are going to make a lot more sense than they had for awhile because the people will be there and the excitement will be there.

Having this business has been really confidence-building. You never really know what you can do, what skills you have, until you throw yourself out there and try. I've learned a lot, it's been fun, a lot, a lot of work, but I really learned so much about what I can do, and what other people can do to help a small guy along. It's encouraging. And it's been fun.

Lightning round! 8 a.m. or 8 p.m.?
Definitely 8 p.m.

Instagram, Facebook, or Twitter?

Lady Gaga or Katy Perry?
Katy. She seems like she could've been more in the 60s.

Whiskey or Tequila?

Favorite vacation spot?
My partner and I went to Havana in January. That's my favorite vacation spot. Beautiful people, and it's like it stopped in 1959, because it did. Bertoia chairs are like nothing. Things that would cost so much money here. You see decaying Bertoia chairs, really beautiful 50s stuff just flung about. For someone who loves this stuff it's kind of sad, but it's really beautiful to see that. It's just stopped in time.
· Hunted House [Official Site]