People forget their wallets a lot at King of the Hill market. The place would be called a bodega in other cities: a living room–size hodgepodge of potato chips and pantry staples and craft beer. After 20 years, Abraham Aklilu doesn’t hesitate to tell a forgetful customer to just pay him later: “If he’s a good person, he’s gonna come back and be a loyal customer—and if he’s a bad person he’ll go out of his way to never come back.”
Two decades ago, the apartments above King of the Hill rented for $200; Aklilu worked 16-hour days in a bustling neighborhood full of pedestrians, students, artists. The Ethiopia-born proprietor embraced the challenge as a worthy trade-off for working for himself, sometimes running home mid-shift to take his kids to swimming lessons before returning to his store.
Aklilu earned respect not only from his customers, but the apartment dwellers around him and fellow Hill workers. Everyone knows the King. “They see me as a neighborhood bodyguard. For some, I’m like their dad,” he laughs.
From behind the plastic curtain in the store’s front corner, Aklilu muses over the deep conversations he has with customers: about Africa, politics, history. Aklilu once read the entire American constitution to continue a discussion. He gives hungry comers food, sometimes taking extras to homeless encampments.
He’d never been robbed until last fall, when a series of break-ins rattled him and landed the events on Q13’s “Washington’s Most Wanted” TV show. Broken windows meant erecting plywood on the store’s exterior, but a mystery artist came overnight to create a mural of Aklilu wearing a jeweled crown at a jaunty angle. He still doesn’t know who did it.
Now the residential units in his building are pricey condos, and many of the other neighborhood businesses have lost their real estate to shiny new buildings. Aklilu’s children are in college and beyond. The King endures, selling birthday candles and kombucha and whatever else you need, far into the night. “I’m just a guy from Africa,” he says, “living the dream on Capitol Hill.”