Bruce Variety: A 60-Year Story

There is rumor that has made its way from Bethesda, Maryland to Denver – and probably beyond – in less than a week. The news affects people from three or four generations. It has traveled by Facebook and email and texts. It has been on the local news. And it is triggering emotions from panic to nostalgia.

Bruce Variety is closing.

According to a DC local news report, the sign went up the day after Christmas. Everything half off. The rent is just too high.

Remember when Bethesda was just a small town? There was Baskin-Robbins next to the A&P, the Chinese food place, the Bethesda Crab House, and Montgomery Donuts. Not much more within walking distance… except for that small strip of stores on Arlington Road that housed “Bruce’s”.

Bruce Variety opened in 1953. The aisles are too narrow. The shelves are too cluttered. It always seems dusty. Yet if you grew up in Bethesda, you very likely went to Bruce’s again and again. If you live there today, you find yourself bringing your kids. You can probably put together your autobiography by thinking of different trips and various purchases over the years.

There was the annual trip in early September for school supplies. We’d inevitably run into our entire class in the over-crowded school supply row. Pure chaos. Comparing stories of our summer vacations, wondering about our new teachers, and trying to find the coolest pocket folder before someone else claimed it. All while our mothers tried to catch up on gossip while calling after little ones who’d wandered down more entertaining aisles.

1976 and the bi-centennial celebration at school. We picked out calico cloth at Bruce’s – mine was purple with little flowers – and had colonial dresses and bonnets made for the parade and worn again and again in our basement playroom. I felt like I was straight out of Laura Ingalls’ house on the South Dakota prairie.

Halloween costumes? Each October, Bruce’s was our first stop. It sold face-paint and reams of cloth and plastic masks and any kind of odd material you might use to create your own unique look for the school parade and trick-or-treating. The “undecideds” roamed up and down the aisles waiting for inspiration, while little brothers and sisters dragged their loot and tried to sneak cheap toys or puzzles into Mom’s basket.

When ribbon barrettes first came on the style scene in the eighties, the ribbon aisle at Bruce Variety became the place for girls to go for supplies. Thin silky ribbons in every color and shade promised gorgeous gifts for friends and showpieces of our barrette-making talents.

Mrs. Dater’s sixth grade scrapbooks before Scrapbooking was a multimillion-dollar business. The hardest I ever worked in school. The most I ever wanted an A++. You could get that if your scrapbook page was elaborate enough. But you didn’t survive Mrs. Dater’s class without hundreds of trips to Bruce Variety. Gorgeous scrapbooks about Africa and South America required paint, pastels, strips of cloth, ribbons, beans, beads, buttons, glitter, fake grass, anything you could glue to a piece of construction paper.

And the many colors of string at Bruce’s captured the imagination of the Edgemoor swim team. On rainy days, the girls all sat chatting on the poolside porch making bracelets for each other in shades of blue to get excited for the next big meet against Kenwood or Congressional or Army-Navy. Chest paint for the boys, which they of course bought at Bruce Variety. Friendship bracelets for the girls.

The first week in February every year, we filled our basket at Bruce’s with pink and purple and red glitter, along with heart-shaped lace doilies for the two dozen Valentine’s cards my sisters and I each made with care. Or for those less interested in making them from scratch, Bruce’s carried plenty of Disney or other pre-made Valentine’s cards.

Tube socks for gym class. White tights for church. Cheap white T-shirts for tie-dye day. Travel toiletries for camping trips. Flip-flops for opening day at the pool.

I keep wondering how far the news will travel. To what cities or countries. And how fast.

Bruce Variety is closing.

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