Watching long-time Men’s Fashion Center manager Willie Carswell talking to passers-by on the sidewalk, it’s tough to tell whether he’s about to launch into a sales pitch or a sermon. Like his loud, orange pinstriped suit and freshly polished wing tips, the store, virtually a relic amid the developing H Street scenery in Northeast Washington, DC, seems like it had passed through a portal from an era when retail business was conducted with a handshake and wasn’t concluded until stories about the kids had been exchanged.
Immersing us in this world is “Fate of a Salesman”, an insightful, stylish documentary in which co-directors Tessa Moran and Ben Crosbie (the husband and wife production team behind Eidolon Films) chronicle the everyday dealings of Willie, owner Jerry Goldkind and salesman Steve Davidson during the store’s final year-and-a-half of business. About as unobtrusive as it gets, this 27-minute day-in-the-life observation celebrates the style of clothing and strength of the community more than it laments our country’s economic issues, approaching the gentrification of H Street with considerable attention to the emotional impact it has on the real-life characters instead of regurgitating statistics.
And the story, remaining predominantly within the four walls of the shop (which at the beginning we see decked out in beautiful retro style), is a very personal one. Willie is a war vet and recovering alcoholic who will tell just about anyone about his 30 years of sobriety. Steve struggled with the loss of his son. Jerry fears he’ll need to close up shop, a business that his Polish immigrant father established in 1952.
“We always intended for it to take place in the store itself,” Moran told me. “We thought that it could be our canvas – our stage, in many ways. So we shot it intentionally almost like a play in which the camera would not move that often and we would stay in the same setting.” She added, ““In many cases, it was a microcosm of a greater issue that was going on, not just on H Street but in urban areas around the country. You could even extrapolate to say that this was a mechanic’s shop in Detroit.”
Crosbie explained of their decision not to expand too much on the subject of gentrification, “We’d shot a few different things during the course of production that were outside the store, specifically talking about the new street cars that are coming, because that’s something that the characters talked about while we were filming. But when we tried to work that in, it felt like it started to pull too far away from the story… it started to feel too political. We really wanted to keep it in the voice of the characters.”
While the pinstriped suits and feathered hats might be fading from the commercial landscape of the H Street corridor, historically a retail district where DC’s first Sears Roebuck store laid its foundation, “Fate of a Salesman” conveys the positive attitude of a community to which Men’s Fashion Center was integral.
Moran said, “I always think that people connect to people and the shared experiences through which we, as human beings, define ourselves in large part to the communities in which we live. And it’s very traumatic when those communities change and we have to sort of redefine our identity.” She recalled, “[The guys] were very open with sharing their stories. People who come into their store are considered family and part of the community. That’s just how that store is. Sometimes people would just come sit down, hang out and talk for hours. This was a place of storytelling”.
To watch the film now, visit fateofasalesman.vhx.tv
(Below were the showtimes when this article was originally published on October 9th, 2013)
“Fate of a Salesman” premieres at 7:00 PM on Thursday, October 10th at the Atlas Performing Arts Center at 1333 H St, NE. Look for the film’s broadcast premiere Thursday, October 17th at 8:00 PM on WHUT (Howard University Television) in Washington, DC. Click here to learn more about the film.