By Natalie McGill - 10/04/06 12:00 AM EDT
A somewhat-bewildered older tourist recently wandered into a bright purple storefront while exploring Capitol Hill. After a full day of the standard “everyone stay together now” tours around D.C., he asked owner Ron Henderson, “Is this a politically incorrect store?”
Henderson admits to pondering the question for a few seconds before finally answering.
“Yes, I think we are,” Henderson replied.
With an enthusiasm that caught Henderson off guard, the older man replied, “Great!”
Politically incorrect as it may be, Pulp on the Hill thrives as an off-the-wall and colorful gift store on Pennsylvania Avenue unafraid to poke fun at the commander-in-chief living slightly down the road. The 2007 Out of Office Countdown Calendar with a less than flattering photo of President Bush plastered across its front at the store entrance is proof enough.
“The anti-Bush stuff is by far the best- selling merchandise,” said Henderson, who acknowledged Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) would be lampooned similarly if he had won in 2004. “Because we are a democracy we have the right to laugh at our mistakes and have an opinion. [Bush merchandise] just blows out.”
Bright, amusing and inviting are just a few words to describe Pulp on the Hill’s three levels. Just inside the front entrance are picture frames of friends and loved ones who work or frequent the shop. Henderson’s dog, Sam, an Australian shepherd mix, is practically part of the staff, sauntering in and out of one room and loafing behind tables and cash registers.
At far end of the first level are Pulp on the Hill’s other big sellers: greeting cards. Cards like, “Incontinence hotline, can you hold please?” alert the more conservative customer these aren’t exactly your traditional touchy-feely Hallmark cards.
The zany merchandise does not stop there. On the same level you’ll find rather non-conventional refrigerator magnets with messages such as “War is terrorism with a bigger budget,” and “I was a gay cowboy before it got trendy.”
So where does he get all this crazy stuff? Henderson and his employees pick each piece by hand in gift and stationary shows in major cities such as New York, San Francisco and Atlanta. Having attended many shows, Henderson has become hip to what his customers crave.
“Over time you figure out the winners and the losers,” Henderson said.
The sand-colored second level walls are filled with artwork for sale of local artists such as Marcia Dale Dullum and Michelle McAuliffe, a deaf artist who represents the nearby Gallaudet University community, which also frequents Pulp on the Hill.
Visual art meets performing art, where a few steps further leads you into a musical corner playing the sounds of local R&B and jazz artists. CDs of local artists Fertile Ground and Maysa fill the far wall. The store also welcomes live performers. Local singer Angela Johnson performed at Pulp last summer.
Henderson stressed not only the importance of selling music appealing to the surrounding community, but finding people who were knowledgeable enough about it to give the best suggestions.
“I would go to a place like Tower [Records] and I’d be kind of lost, so you’re going to buy what’s on the radio,” Henderson said. “There’s no one there to help you. There are enough employees [at Pulp on the Hill] to know what’s cool and new. Here we play it more consciously.”
The third level is the Kuumba Room, an impressive amount of space the store leases out to nonprofit organizations, schools and any community group needing room to hold its fundraisers or forums. A lighter shade of purple fills its walls, which are bordered with painted words like “party,” “soul,” “creativity,” “compassion,” “purple,” words Henderson said patrons associate with Pulp.
Swahili for “creativity,” Kuumba, the sixth principle of Kwanzaa, means “To do as much as we can in all ways that we can, to leave our community more beautiful and beneficial than we inherited it,” according to the Pulp Web site.
Giving back to the community has been important for Henderson ever since he moved to Washington, D.C., from California, where he received government grants to do HIV prevention outreach to San Francisco adolescents.
A Los Angeles native with a special place in his heart for D.C., Henderson, a clinical psychologist, moved to the Shaw neighborhood outside of Howard University with intentions of working in government. After realizing a suit and tie job was not his cup of tea, Henderson decided to take advantage of a then-large commercial boom in Northwest Washington. Wanting to try something new yet give back to a struggling community, Henderson looked to start his own business.
A first time business owner, Henderson sought help in creating a business plan and looked for a space to rent while rates were still low during the area’s economic upswing. When he finally settled on Pulp’s first location, 1803 14th Street, Henderson said he still remembered seeing remaining embers from a fire during D.C.’s Martin Luther King Jr. riots. Looking past the damage, Henderson saw potential. To him it was more space than he needed for what he imagined would be a small card shop. With a lot of love and a whole lot of purple paint, Pulp opened its first store in November 2002.
“I wanted to make a place based on kindness and love,” Henderson said. “I thought if I love my employees then that love would spill over.”
Henderson’s love was so enveloping it eventually spread, leading to the fall 2004 birth of Pulp’s second location, a Capitol Hill neighborhood storefront on 303 Pennsylvania Ave., appropriately named, Pulp on the Hill. But rather than jack up prices to levels that drive residents away, Henderson wants to keep his business open to all members in both communities.
“We intentionally kept our prices low,” Henderson said. “Our base customers are diverse because we’re not high-end. We’re more low-end.”
Now the man who used to be part of the suit-and-tie crowd, watches the same crowd enter his stores, finding fun in all the political humor, gift cards, and an unusually high number of novelty multicolored gnomes.
“[Rep.] Katherine Harris (R-Fla.) comes in all the time,” Henderson said. “[The staffers], they get a hoot out of it. They get the humor in it.”