D.C. Jewels

The closing of a historic shop is a triumph of meaning over means.


Abraham Lincoln's family never did pay off the balance he owed Galt & Bro. Jewelers the night he was shot; the Galt family took back some of the items the president had purchased for his wife, and forgave the rest of the debt. Nor, a century later, did Lyndon Johnson's White House pick up the plaque Galt's made for a gift that John F. Kennedy was to have given the Sultan of Zanzibar in December 1963. Kennedy of course died before he could make the presentation, and the plaque was still in Galt's vault, along with records of purchases made by Jefferson Davis and Ulysses S. Grant, when the 199-year-old Washington store finally closed earlier this year.

According to its owners, last year was Galt's most profitable ever. So why did the business close? Because its owners decided that if the store could not continue to live within the identity created by generations of customers and managers, then it would be better simply to honor that long tradition by quietly shutting the door. The decision meant foregoing the certain and handsome profit that would have come from selling a two-century accumulation of illustrious good will. It is a striking act of creative destruction.

Galt's remained, from beginning to end, a privately held company, and the details of its finances cannot be independently verified. Even so, this last story of its closing is a fitting cap to generations of remarkable stories in which it has played a role. The last owner to have borne the name Galt, for example, was Mrs. Edith Galt, who became the second wife of Woodrow Wilson.

In fact, she was rumored to have fulfilled the president's role herself after Wilson's catastrophic 1919 stroke; she later admitted "stewardship" of the office. (She also figures in the most famous newspaper typo in D.C. history. During Wilson's courtship of Mrs. Galt, The Washington Post noted that the president was seen with her at the theater. Intending to report that Wilson had been "entertaining" Mrs. Galt in a loge at the National, early editions instead printed that he was seen "entering" her there.)

In any event, Galt's last president, Edward Hall, is 70; the firm's vice president, J. Montague Hatcher, is 71. Both men had long been looking forward to retirement and put Galt's up for sale. But the only likely purchasers, in the end, reportedly were national chain jewelers, and the prospect of the Galt identity being subsumed into a chain made them uneasy. "We don't want to see Galt's become a chain operation of poor quality and poor service," Hall told the Post in November.

The sentiment may smack of carriage-trade snobbism, but the story is more complicated and more interesting than that. Hall's views come not from pride of class, but from pride of achievement, his own and his predecessors'. As Hall told the Post, he joined the store's staff in 1952, a Navy veteran looking for work; he found it fixing watches as a Galt's apprentice. Having participated in the long Galt narrative for half a century himself, he ended—as president—by seeing himself and his colleagues as that narrative's stewards. For Hall and the others, closing the store and surrendering the potential sales profit was a final way to honor an institutional identity of which they were caretakers.

In short, Galt's had not only history, but accumulated meaning as well. Of course, the issue of commercially derived meaning in market societies is an extremely contentious one. Advertising and consumerism revolve around frequent commercial assertions of "brand" identity, claims that try to lure buyers by offering them products with purported meaning. Critics regard the whole enterprise as shallow, evanescent, wasteful, and noisy. But in fact the system works as well as it does because buyers are clearly interested in participating in the meaning trade. They use what they find there to fashion and refashion themselves throughout the various stages in their lives.

But the meaning that seems most important to people is not one contained in an ad campaign; it is the meaning that they have helped construct through their own participation. That is why there is often an outpouring of popular regret, and sometimes even anger, at the closing of such commercial enterprises as old movie theaters, neighborhood bars, small bookstores, night clubs, and specialty shops—or at the transfer of professional sports franchises. The character imputed by people to such businesses derives from having participated in the making or survival of their meanings. Commercial meaning implies an investment of self.

Galt & Bro. Jewelers, established 1802, Washington's oldest private business, determined that its survival would be at the cost of its meaning, and so it closed. With it went a dimension of the city's—and the nation's—history as well. Such places are built on the desire of generations, and their now-closed ledgers house an unwritten—and unwritable—history of us all.