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Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Annandale loses another longtime family-owned business

Alan Shaffer in front of American Rental years ago.
When American Rental moved from Annandale to Springfield in January, Annandale not only lost its only equipment rental business; it also lost a store that’s been owned and operated by the same family for three generations.

American Rental had been at 7245 Columbia Pike for nearly 30 years, says owner Eric Shaffer. The company was started by his grandfather, Wesley Shaffer, who sold it to Eric’s father, Alan, in 1985. Eric purchased the business in 2011. Another longtime business on that block, Annandale Florist, closed in December.

The new American Rental store.
American Rental reopened at its new location, 7101-H Wimsatt Road, Springfield, Feb. 7. It’s not that far from Annandale; it’s inside the beltway, accessible from Backlick Road and close to the Washington Post printing plant.

H.Z. Retail, which purchased the building on Columbia Pike that housed American Rental and the former Sunset Grille from Burk and Herbert Bank last summer, has totally gutted the structure and plans to develop a restaurant there. The Sunset Grille closed May 31 after serving as Annandale’s premiere dive bar for more than 20 years.

Eric’s family moved to the Broyhill Crest neighborhood in Annandale when he was 6 or 7. He started helping out at American Rental while a student at Annandale High School. After graduating from George Mason University, he worked there full time. “I realized I like working with my hands and enjoy the work,” he says.

The business has evolved over the years. When his grandfather started, the store specialized in party supplies, such as chairs, tables, and dinnerware, Eric says. In the early 1980s, the focus shifted to tools and construction equipment rentals. Tools have gotten much lighter and easier to use since then, he says. In the 1980s, chain saws weighed about 45 pounds; now, they’re about 15 pounds.

American Rental, in the middle of the building, just before it moved.
Chainsaws are still one of the most popular items, especially after big storms. The store also rents a lot of   jackhammers, concrete saws, and lawn care equipment. About 60 percent of American Rental’s customers are contractors; the rest are homeowners working on do-it-yourself projects.

Eric says it makes sense for homeowners to rent rather than buy equipment they don’t use that often. An aerator for lawn care, for example can be rented for $50 for four hours or $90 for the day, while a new one would cost about $2,900.

Renovation under way
During all the years Eric spent at the store, he had a front-door view on the changes happening in Annandale. He remembers when the Burke and Herbert Bank site on Annandale Road  was a gravel parking lot and there was controversy when Toll House Park was developed around the corner in 1992. “People would come into the store and ask why money was being spent on that tiny park with the clock when no one ever walks there,” he said. And when he visited his old neighborhood recently, he was surprised to see “so many huge mansions.”

“We used to go to Fuddrucker’s all the time as a kid,” he says. That restaurant, across the street from American Rental, was where all the youth sports leagues had their end-of season banquets, and “it was the place to hang out for teenagers.”  Fuddrucker’s closed last spring, and the building was demolished last week.

Construction of a  Walgreens drugstore on that site is expected to start soon. It should take seven months to get the building done, said Larry Leber, president of Upshire Realtor Advisers, which is managing the building construction. But that is probably optimistic. “Inevitably these things take longer than you thought,” he says.

Eileen Garnett and Helen Winter walking along Columbia Pike by American Rental. The photo was scanned from a Jan. 14, 1998, Washington Post article about Annandale revitalization.

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