The cult of Costco


There are few better places to experience the hot breath of American consumerism at Christmastime than the Costco Warehouse at Pentagon City. Long lines of shoppers begin lining up at the doors each morning before 10, looking to pile high their carts with every manner of product, from holiday shrimp platters to jumbo packs of toilet paper.

The 170,000-square-foot shopping mecca is the second busiest Costco on the eastern seaboard, racking up yearly sales in excess of $100 million. Membership costs $50 per year, which gives shoppers the right to shop the no-frills warehouse composed of cinder blocks and corrugated metal. Our 10 busiest days of the year are the 10 days before Christmas, said John Rohr, the warehouse manager and a 20-year Costco veteran. We have the busiest bakery in the entire company.

On a typical weekday in December, holiday sheetcakes and meat-and-cheese platters by the thousands fly out of the store, with each receipt dutifully checked off by a loss prevention clerk at the exit. In December, Costco Pentagon City moves into high gear, running its bakery and kitchens 24 hours a day to meet demand, staffing up to 400 workers who unload a half dozen 18-wheelers a day filled with goods. The driving force is parties at the Pentagon, Rohr said. He then chuckles, Theyre supposed to be protecting the country, but this week they seemed to be having a lot of parties.

Sixteen-dollar chocolate mold centerpieces of the Pentagon and Capitol Hill are hot sellers during the holiday season, as are cases of Burgundies and Chardonnays, and sheetcakes by the thousands.

It seems like everyone comes in here in a frenzy, Rohr said. Embassy chefs, catering company owners, social doyennes and cooks from high-end restaurants come in wearing their white aprons with insignias, often looking frazzled and desperate for that missing ingredient to the menu or holiday party. One day last week, Attorney General Michael B. Mukasey was seen loading his cart with palettes of bottled water, as his security detail stood by his side.

Former President Bill Clinton caused an even bigger frenzy at the store in October, when thousands lined up to have him sign his new book, Giving. Former President Jimmy Carter was in a week later for a book signing, and Bob Dole, Newt Gingrich, Hillary Clinton, John Edwards and Tom Brokaw conducted book signings recently. Democratic politicians appear to score the most visitors, Rohr said. But I think Hillary sold a few more of her books than Bill. Either way, President Clinton caused a real frenzy. It was almost cult-like.

The cult-like appeal of Costco appears to be the haphazard way in which the goods are lined up, with thousand-dollar HDTV’s placed across the aisle from giant boxes of cheese curls. We do the best job on the high-end of the customer base, Rohr boasts, pointing at $110 bottles of Chateau Margaux, a hot seller. Our customer is very discriminating.

On Monday afternoon, litigation specialist R.T. Traib of Alexandria was cruising the aisles in a snappy pinstripe suit, his cart filled with a smorgasboard of items. I usually come in for diapers, but if I see something like this Ill buy it, said Traib, selecting four vintage 1999 Dom Perignon champagne gift bottles he picked up for $110 apiece. I plan to give French truffles and champagne to my clients to thank them. I do this about four times a year.

Traib then pauses, and turns to Rohr. Do you have any gummy bears?

No idea what to get your kids for Christmas yet? Dr. Robert Wineland of Hollin Hills has been working all year on a most imaginative gift for his four children and seven grandchildren.

Wineland, 83, a pediatrician who founded his practice on Belle Haven Road back in 1954, has published a 150-page book of his fondest memories, Staying out of Trouble, which he plans to unveil for his children on Christmas Day. He even had it illustrated.

Winelands life story is the stuff of legend, torn from the pages of Tom Brokaws Greatest Generation. He was born at Alexandria Hospital in 1924 and grew up on a small farm in Oxon Hill, several miles due east of where National Harbor now stands. His father ran six movie theaters in Alexandria and southern Maryland, and raised his children with a strict work ethic.

It was nothing but farms back then, Wineland recalled Tuesday. There were several houses, a gasoline station and a whiskey store. Back then, you could hop a trolley car from Congressional Heights and head downtown to work.

Architect Tom Kerns, also a Hollin Hills resident, was honored last month with the William Nolan Award, the highest individual award bestowed by the Virginia chapter of the American Institute of Architects.

Kerns, 64, was bestowed the lifetime achievement award in recognition of his body of accomplishments and leadership in the state architectural community. He was honored by the AIA at a black tie event Nov. 9 at the Patrick Henry Building in Richmond.

Locally, Kerns commercial design work may be seen in the Blessed Sacrament Catholic Church on W. Braddock Road, which he designed two decades ago, St. Pauls Episcopal Church in Old Town, and the Armed Forces Benefits Building at 909 N. Washington Street.

I was very touched to be honored in such a way by my peers, said Kerns, whos lived in Hollin Hills for 35 years and is president of Kerns Group Architects in Arlington. It was really flattering.