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Pulp's Meryl Hooker On 14th Street's Most Beloved Gift Shop

Images: Adele Chapin/Racked DC
Images: Adele Chapin/Racked DC

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Restaurant opening upon restaurant opening transformed Logan Circle over the past year, but quirk-tastic Pulp gift shop was a 14th Street constant. Until last week, when we learned that the store would close on January 12 after 12 years in business. What a bummer for anyone in MidCity who wanted a D.C.-flag-emblazoned lunch sack, or needed to peruse hundreds of cards to find the perfect one to drop in the mail.

But Racked DC chatted with Meryl Hooker, the general manager, buyer and "Fearless Leader" of Pulp, who reminded us to buck up, buttercup, and remember the good times. Hooker's friendship with original owner Ron Henderson pre-dated Pulp's existence, and she shared a quick history of the opening of the shop — as for trivia, remember that there were once Capitol Hill and Provincetown outposts? — as well as the reasons for the shop closing. And of course she shared a few of her favorite products Pulp shoppers loved over the years.

Did you buy a Yodeling Pickle or a George W. Bush countdown clock? Check out the interview and share your Pulp memories in the comments. And today is the last day that all merchandise is 50% off, so get there and bid adieu.


Pat Leonard, Marcus Conway, Meryl Hooker, Vickey Ford

How did Pulp end up on 14th Street in the first place?
Pulp ended up on 14th Street around the fall of 2001. The founder and the original owner Ron Henderson, had moved to Washington that spring from San Francisco. The way the legend goes, is that he had come to Washington to take a government job and he was minutes away from signing the contract and he decided he couldn't do it. He was going to follow his passion, which was paper and people. So he decided to open the store.

In 2001 and 2002, there was nothing on 14th Street. Nothing. There were liquor stores and parking lots and the Swan dry cleaner. And that was pretty much it. And he chose this location, and opened temporarily next door upstairs in an old hair salon. And then that fall, they had finished the build-out and he came down here in the fall of 2002.

And it's always had this indie spirit.
Very much so. Ron was an amazing man. He was a psychologist in San Francisco in the 1980s and was very much involved in AIDS activism at that time. He was part of ACT UP. He was very, very active in San Francisco in the community there. I don't know the turning point of why he came to D.C. That's the only gap I have in his story. And I was friends with him for years and never asked. He was led here and opened the store here. He wanted to have a place where people could come and buy cool stuff and meet their neighbors.

Have your long-time shoppers in the neighborhood reached out?
We have certainly heard from everyone on how they feel about this. I counted it up and I had received over 200 emails from our mailing list. We had about a 10% response rate on that, and as anyone who works in direct mail knows, that is unprecedented.

Will you have a party to say goodbye?
The circumstances around the decision have been really hard for everyone. It wasn't like the lease ran out, or somebody got promoted. It's hard. It's the right thing to do, it's the right time to close the store, but it's still difficult.

Why do you say it's the right time?
Places like Pulp aren't supposed to last forever. They're just not. They are very special places that have a huge impact and change people, and in some cases, change people's lives. It's kind of like that summer romance you had that changed everything that would never, never last after you went back to school. It's ok that it comes to an end. It's difficult and it's sad and you kind of wish it didn't have to be that way, but it does.

I wish there was some kind of scandal, that the landlord was the devil and the rents were going up and we were being pushed out or Amazon was smothering us or Target was killing us or brick and mortar was dead but it isn't that dramatic. It's really about coming to the end of the road for the business, and the owner having a shift in priorities and unfortunately not being able to keep the store.

Pulp was certainly one of the anchor stores. It was Pulp, and Home Rule, and Go Mama Go. Those were the holy trinity that kicked it off for sure. But if it hadn't been Pulp, it would've been somebody else. So many of our customers are really concerned about what's going to go in here next, and so many of our neighbors have said, "Your success is what made it possible for us to open." And to them I say, "Thank you, but your success will make it possible for someone else."

People who don't live in Washington can think it's a boring town, and it's almost like Pulp showed D.C.'s fun, quirky, personality.
Absolutely. It absolutely epitomizes the difference between Federal D.C. and real D.C. We can see that in the kinds of people that shop here, and also in the kind of merchandise that they've been interested in.

We've had a huge resurgence in D.C. pride, local pride. You can put a D.C. flag on almost anything and you can sell it. And we have — from ornaments to t-shirts to coffee mugs to flasks to tea towels to baby onesies. It's crazy. Lunch bags, wine bags, coasters. With all of the residential development, there is a return to living in the city, which as an almost 25-year resident, I love. I love to see people coming back in the city and wanting to live here and identifying as being a Washingtonian, instead of some place that I lived when I was doing this other thing. To appeal to that real D.C. resident has been fantastic.

Do you have any favorite products over the years?
Of course, yes! My all-time favorite product was circa-2007-to-2009. It was the ultimate one-hit wonder. It was a little one by two inch key chain that was a countdown clock to Bush's last day. And so, whenever you bought it, it was counting down the days to 1-20-2009. We sold thousands of those things. Could not keep them in stock.

We did a ridiculous job with these hand sanitizers from a company called Blue Q, the "Maybe you touched your genitals." Sold a ton of those. The Mighty Michelle First Lady of Fabulous shopper. Gazillions of those. The Yodelling Pickle from Archie McPhee was a favorite. The Votivo candles, those beautiful candles in the craft boxes. People love those.

What's next?
I don't know what's going to happen with the building. That seems to be everyone's question, because 14th Street is rapidly turning into restaurant row. I don't know what the landlord has in mind. I personally would love to see another independent business go in here. That seems to be the trend of the neighborhood.

Everybody on staff is going to land some place great. When things like this come to an end, it opens up opportunities for everybody that maybe they had been thinking about, but hadn't really moved on.

Would you ever start something new in another neighborhood?
There has been talk about that: why don't you just move and go some place new? On the surface, that is the great idea, but part of what has made Pulp the special place it is, it is 14th Street and it is reflective of the neighborhood. It has grown with the neighborhood. To pick this model up and move it to another neighborhood, it would be like putting your shoes on the wrong feet. It looks a little strange and it doesn't feel right. Is this type of a business model transferrable? Absolutely, but it's going to have to take its own spin. It has to be reflective of that new neighborhood. I think going to a new neighborhood would require a whole new business.
· Noooo! Pulp Gift Shop on 14th Street is Closing [Racked DC]
· The sweet Pulp of 14th Street [Washington Blade]
· The Epic Guide to Genuinely Cool Washington D.C. Souvenirs [Racked DC]

Pulp

1803 14th Street NW, Washington, DC 20009