If you’ve only visited Washington, D.C., you probably never heard of Frager’s. If you live in the district, there’s a good chance you know of the venerable hardware store that first opened in 1920. And if you ever lived on Capitol Hill, Frager’s was likely a staple in your life. Living only two blocks from there, I can attest I would visit at least once per weekend to pick up something for the house or yard.

On the evening of Wednesday, June 5, a four-alarm fire engulfed the Capitol Hill store, burning everything to the ground except for the brick façade. As the fire burned, hundreds of people gather around watching an institution go up in flames. Some may be surprised by the emotional reaction and the outpouring of support from locals. To understand the brand power of Frager’s on Capitol Hill is to understand the relationship it has with its customers and the community.

How did a neighborhood hardware store build up such a strong and loyal following with its customers – a diverse group of long-time residents and transient type-A professionals trying to change the world? And what lessons can others companies, even those in technology, healthcare, and public sector, learn from the relationship Frager’s created with its customers and the community? Below are three branding lessons from Frager’s that all businesses should consider.

  • Be Authentic – Frager’s Hardware has been on Capitol Hill for more than 93 years. In a neighborhood known for its classic row homes and beautiful gardens, Frager’s offered everything you needed for your home. With every imaginable type of home good merchandise available, all stuffed into extremely narrow floor to ceiling aisles, Frager’s was not for the claustrophobic. The organized chaos has been referred to as a Home Depot crammed into the space of a 7-Eleven. But customers embraced this labyrinth-like store with its creaky wooden floors. And customers knew they could find (often with the help of extremely knowledgeable staff) plenty of unique and quirky items that none of the big hardware stores carried.
  • Connect with Your Customers – Despite its intimidating physical space, the staff at Frager’s were always available to help and were some of the most knowledgeable and friendly people you could ask for. Whether you were fixing a toilet, looking for a good shade plant for your hanging basket, or doing a full fledge renovation, the employees could help you with just about any project. With many customers living within walking distance, staff would often help you carry large purchases back to your home or lend you a dolly.  No matter what business you are in, if you do the little things it takes to connect with your customer and provide them a good experience, that will go a long way towards creating fierce loyalty.
  • Create a Relationship with the Community – Today companies are using the latest technologies and social media platforms to try and create a virtual sense of community. Frager’s did it the old fashioned way. On any given day you were just as likely to bump into your neighbors (and their dogs, which were allowed inside) as you were to spot some of Washington’s power brokers such as House Speaker Boehner or President George W. Bush. Over the years Frager’s was known to employ many neighborhood teens, often providing them with their first job. And like any strong relationship, the love is reciprocal. Immediately after the fire, numerous fundraising efforts were started and several local businesses offered temporary work for those affected by the loss.

It is not a question of if Frager’s will come back (the owners have already vowed to rebuild), but – more importantly – when and how. It will be interesting to see how the store and the customer base transition through this period. One thing’s for sure – there will be no lack of support from the community that see this humble hardware store as the embodiment of a successful small business.