Friday’s Washington Post carried the story below about Noi Chudnoff, a woman who considered everyone who lived in or passed through our neighborhood as a friend. Noi died suddenly Tuesday.
The Shopkeeper Whose Sign Was ‘Open’
By Annie Groer
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 9, 2007; C01
Like some exotic bird chirping a clipped yet singsong call, Noi Chudnoff delivered her simple greeting to virtually all who entered Go Mama Go! And if it were a return visit, they’d often get a “Hi. Dear” followed by a hug and kiss.
From her arty/quirky/earthy home decor shop, its burnt orange facade visible for a block along a once-forlorn stretch of 14th Street NW, Noi sold a carefully curated mix of goods: stylish china, linens, lighting, art and tchotchkes.
The store’s opening in August 2001 helped this daughter of Bangkok anchor a neighborhood in transition, and it made possible her charitable gifts to local theater companies, arts groups and gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender organizations.
But on Tuesday, six weeks shy of her 60th birthday, the tiny dynamo, who stood just over five feet tall and weighed under 100 pounds, died after a fall at Sibley Hospital while awaiting surgery for colon cancer.
Quickly and somberly, friends and customers flooded the shop to offer condolences, swap Noi stories, hang flowers on the wrought iron gate and tie fuchsia ribbons to the bars.
“She brought a very lively and successful retail business, but her interaction with all sorts of people really made a difference in terms of revitalizing that particular block,” said D.C. Council member Jim Graham, who ran the nearby Whitman-Walker Clinic from 1986 to 1999, during some of 14th Street’s grittiest years.
“One of the things about Noi is she came here and just got it,” said Greg Link, who opened Home Rule, the hip housewares emporium, in 1999 with Rod Glover. “She loved the neighborhood, the block, for what it was. She loved our shop and came in and told us she wanted a store right near us.”
Chudnoff had spent more than a decade in retail, managing the Classics for Kids clothing store in Kensington and selling Japanese dinnerware with a partner on weekends at Capitol Hill’s Eastern Market. Friends kept urging her to open her own place, and after much looking, she and husband Jonathan Chudnoff leased 2,400 square feet of space at 1809 14th St. near Logan Circle. Go Mama Go! opened after a four-month, $100,000 renovation.
“Noi began shopping madly and scavenging for secondhand stuff — aprons, souvenir plates — that she’d put on ironing boards,” he recalled. “She met artists. She put two rows of picture rails on both sides of the store and hung their work.”
The staff was a mixed bag of bureaucrats, policy wonks, actors and artists. All spoke of her generosity, kindness and style.
Frank Spector, a Commerce Department employee, spends weekends working at the shop. “The employees were family and the customers made it a community,” he said.
Roger Limoges, another Saturday-Sunday clerk, recalled that after he was mugged a few weeks ago in broad daylight, a stranger asked if he could help. ” ‘Yes,’ I said, ‘go get the little Thai woman across the street.’ Out she comes with her orange parasol, in her Thai high style.”
Jeffrey Johnson, artistic director of Ganymede Arts, which focuses on the GLBT experience, is in her debt on two fronts. She hired him when he was between gigs and she gave generously to his company.
“She was really the first person to come on board to say I believe in you guys, I have the means to really help you and I’ll open my arms to you,” Johnson said. “We became extremely close and she ended up becoming our board president. Every move she made she opened a door for us.”
She was, says Johnson, something of a frustrated artist. “She wanted to be an artist when she was a little girl,” he says. “Her grandmother was an artist. But her parents wouldn’t let her. That is what kind of inspired her to enjoy art.”
On Wednesday night, a stream of customers and friends came to pay their respects to Jonathan Chudnoff and their son, Nissim, 25. A computer science major, he is a senior at New Mexico Tech who graduates next spring.
Oh the irony of a notoriously low-tech woman spawning a computer whiz son.
At Go Mama Go!, there are no inventory spreadsheets, no cash register, no computer. Receipts are handwritten. Paper money goes into an old tackle box, coins into metal bowls.
“She would never do a computer or BlackBerry. Just having a fax machine was a high technological advance,” her husband said.
Between phone calls and muted chats with visitors, he recapped her life. Born into a wealthy Bangkok family, educated at the best schools, she was 17 when she left for the States in the 1960s.
She earned an undergraduate degree in Renaissance English literature from the University of Washington and a master’s in journalism and political science from the University of Wisconsin. The couple married in 1974, and ultimately settled in Silver Spring.
By the time she was running Go Mama Go! (the family mantra that propelled her to open the shop), she worked such long hours that she rented the flat above Home Rule and slept there rather than drive to Maryland. (Later she moved to another nearby apartment.) And her husband, a real estate lawyer, came down on weekends to work with her.
Although Noi’s father left her a good deal of property when he died, all she wanted was a blue and white Ming dynasty bowl and lid that belonged to her artist grandmother. It is where her ashes will rest after her cremation today.
On 14th Street, amid the grief-stricken exchanges of her friends and notices about the celebration of her life planned for the Source Theatre tomorrow, a condolence book rested on the counter of Go Mama Go!
Limoges penned the first entry:
” ‘Hi, Dear’ will never sound the same.”
Photo credit: Rich Lipski — The Washington Post