John Hays is a second-generation owner of the Phoenix, Georgetown’s longest surviving retail store. John’s mother, Betty Hays opened the Phoenix with her late husband in the 1950s, after deciding it would be much more exciting to sell Mexican arts and crafts than to work for the government. In his interview with Elizabeth Barentzen, John discusses his experiences growing up in the Georgetown area, from integration and Martin Luther King’s famous speech on the National Mall to the present-day challenges and fulfillment he has received as a member of Georgetown’s business community.
Elizabeth Barentzen: This is Liz Barentzen interviewing John Hays. We are at The Phoenix store, which is on Wisconsin Avenue between Volta Place and P Street, Washington DC NW. Today is Tuesday, March 30 at 1:15 PM. Why don’t we get started with our interview? When and where were you born?
John Hays: I was born in New York City, April 21, 1941.
Elizabeth: How did you come to Georgetown?
John: Well, my parents came down. My father came down to work for the government when I was about two years old. We moved to Bethesda first, and then they bought a house in the Palisades when I was five. My father got out of the government in the late ’40s and started an automatic laundry across the street where Hugo Boss is. They had a laundry there for about five years, and then went to Mexico in the early ’50s, and fell in love with Mexico, and decided that washing laundry was really not a lot of fun and didn’t have any creativeness to it.
They loved Mexico, and had a friend, Walter Marlow, who’s an architect locally here in Georgetown, and asked him to find a store, they were in Mexico, find a store and draw up some plans. They started buying things from Mexico and came back with purchases. Walter had found the store we’re in today. The store has been operating since 1955 in the same location.
My wife and I married in Boston and worked with children in group homes and halfway houses for about 15 years when my parents were considering retiring and asked if we’d like to come down and try the business. So we came down, and had a wonderful year, and decided to stay. That was about 28 years ago. We’ve been going to Mexico and been here ever since.
Elizabeth: What are some of your earliest memories of Georgetown and this store in particular?
John: That backs up to my memory. Of course I went to Western. I actually went through all the public schools starting at Hardy, Gordon Junior High School, then on to Western, which is Duke Ellington now, of course, and worked in the laundry on Saturdays. Memories certainly of the trolleys were very high on my memory list because they stopped right in front on Wisconsin Avenue on the 1500 block and changed there overhead to underground so that somebody was in the street under the ground there pulling this thing, this cable, down. It was always exciting to watch the changing of the trolley.
I was going to school here, going through the integration, which was very smooth at Western. I was playing football at Western, and we integrated. Our teams integrated, and the classrooms. It was a very smooth transition. It was certainly anticipated, and people were wondering what would go on, what would happen. It was a great transition, and we made many friends, friends that I’ve had, both black and white, since high school and kept in touch with quite a few kids.
Elizabeth: What year was that? Do you remember?
John: That would have in ’59, actually ’58, when it started, the integration. I graduated in ’59. Memories of taking the trolley was another, because it also went by where we lived in the Palisades. It went up to Glen Echo, and we’d take the trolley. We’d take the trolley from Georgetown back home.
Of course, going to Glen Echo for the pool, that was another big issue of integration, and it was very interesting to see that changeover. Glen Echo was always a lot of fun. We went on the roller coasters, and of course all of the things that have now been brought back.
It’s wonderful to see the merry‑go‑round and a lot of the other buildings being revamped ‑ actually, there’s a trolley, an old trolley, that’s in front of Glen Echo right now ‑ and to have the train that used to go right by my house also. The B&O would come down from Maryland down to Washington.
Of course, memories of using the canal and the river, having a small rowboat that I bought in Georgetown and rode up to Fletcher’s Boat House. I actually went to school with the Fletchers, so I knew them quite well, and because we lived right above Fletcher’s Boat House on Potomac Avenue. That’s where I grew up, so I spent a lot of time down on the river and down in the canal.
It was wonderful to watch the changes with Justice Douglas having been able to secure the canal as a park and get the towpath converted. Now I use that all the time for biking and hiking, as do people from all over the world. It’s just a wonderful resource.
Great memories of growing up. Then really not as much involvement in The Phoenix, just enjoying our trips to Mexico. My parents would, as we were growing up, from about 14, we would spend summers in Mexico.
They would be buying, and my brother and I would be enjoying all the things that kids do on a summer vacation for three months, which we’d spend in Mexico, did all kinds of great stuff there.
Elizabeth: Your mom had said in her interview that you would drive down in the car.
John: We’d get in the station wagon and drive to Mexico, which would take about five days to get down, and then just spend the whole summer in Mexico, getting as far as the Guatemalan border and actually into Guatemala. It was wonderful growing up in that area.
Elizabeth: Did you ever work in The Phoenix?
John: I never did. Until I actually took over, my wife and I took over The Phoenix, I never worked here. I never was really involved in it. I was very interested in Mexican things. I really enjoyed the folk art and collected some things when I was there myself as a kid, things that were interesting to me, but never as I was with the laundry. I worked at the laundry. But I was away at college by then, well, actually, high school, and busy doing things. It wasn’t really the kind of thing for a young boy to work in the way our daughter, who was young. She joined us when we were here. She started working at an early age at The Phoenix, and now continues to work full time, joined us about eight years ago. That’s been just a wonderful treasure, to work with your children, and now have our grandchildren. They live just across the street from us, so we see them all the time.
Elizabeth: That’s fantastic.
John: Great fun.
Elizabeth: The house that you lived in in the Palisades, were you the first owners of that house?
John: It was built in the early ’40s. Lachlan Currie built it. It was funny. I think my mother probably mentioned it also. The neighbors thought of it as the queer brown house at the end of the street because it was one of the first modern houses built in that part of Washington. Great house to grow up in at the end of the street. Lots of wonderful neighbors and kids that we’d play with. Now my mother’s still in the same house, and it’s been just a great resource. A great place to be in.
Elizabeth: And so after college you moved to Boston and then moved back here.
John: Well, moved to Boston and we started a group called DARE, Dynamic Action Residents Enterprise, working with kids coming out of jail. They were just released into the community without any kind of supervision, and the state of Massachusetts decided to close juvenile facilities and put the kids back into the community. So they needed residential programs, so we started a large program to house these kids in the community and provide work and school for them. We started that in ’65, and then worked seven years in Boston. Then in the ’70s decided it would be fun to start to move to a rural area and move part of the program up to Maine and ran a farm. A family farm with six kids and learned how to milk cows, grow crops, maple sugar and sugaring, and learned how to live on the land. It was a wonderful experience for another seven years before we came down to Washington after that, and the program continued after we had left. It was great.
John: Yeah, it was wonderful. Very interesting.
Elizabeth: How do you think Georgetown has changed since then?
John: I always think of Georgetown as sort of a roller coaster, and it goes up and down all the time. We’ve been just incredibly fortunate at The Phoenix. We’ve had such great community support, and that’s been really interesting. Some other owners will say that we’re not getting supported by the community. We look at our database because we keep, of course, a record of our customers, and most of our customers really are in the Georgetown area in the 07 zip code.
And in terms of changing, it’s always changing. Sometimes it’s incredibly wonderful, and sometimes it’s sort of slow. It’s been fun being part of the business community because I’ve been involved in the Business Association as well as forming the BID. And again, there are ups and downs about any association.
I got involved first because I went to a meeting with the Citizens Association. For so many years the Business Association and the Citizens Association were at loggerheads and not looking at the community as a place where we all live and we all work. We have our homes here, and we have a stake in it both ways.
I really made the point at that meeting that we’ve got to work together and not just look at it as what’s the best for the business community? Or what’s best for the Citizens Association? So that’s how I started getting involved with the BID and with the Business Association thinking how it can be a joint venture as opposed to individuals working on their own and trying to get the most out of that for themselves.
Because we all spend so much time here, whether you’re working elsewhere and you come back home or you’re working here and go to a home that’s out of Georgetown. So you’re both spending equal amounts of time here, and so it should be a wonderful place for all of us. And that’s what brought me to make that statement and to try to follow up on it.
That’s why I look at The Phoenix as a place where I work and to make it a comfortable place for everybody to be in. So that’s been a lot of fun, and I think people react to that. It’s been just a good experience.
Elizabeth: What are your memories of other retail stores and how they have changed from around the Phoenix?
John: I think of Appalachian Spring. The folks there was, it was fun getting to know them and watch them grow. They were a small store up on the 1600 block came down to takeover… they took over the store that’s down across the street in the 1500 block and trying to remember what the name of the store was it that they took over… Ann Taylor. There was a big Ann Taylor store across, that’s right. They took over their store. And lower down the street. We have been friends with a fellow who live just couple of doors down. He ran that store for many years… and has real‑estate in the neighborhood. The Wheelers, both Mr. Wheeler and Jim Wheeler and the whole family have been really nice to know them. They have been good friends for a long while. Work with, worked with them on the business association, both of them, Jim and his father.
The Georgetown club has been come under different management. Sometimes they would, they had a whole period about five years or more where they’d have a Christmas party for all of the neighborhood businesses. It was is lot of fun and we’d all get together and that they would open up the club to all the local neighbors.
It’s a big family and I think people share the action: the cleaners both the cleaners, the one that’s two doors up from us and the one that’s just around the corner that is called the New York Cleaners. Both really nice people and so you’ve got a lot of businesses that have been here for 10, 15 years along with us. We’ve been here 50 years.
But even more than that, these other businesses and so you get to know your neighbors. It’s been, that’s been very collegial and people seemed… it’s not a competition. It’s really a… it’s a neighborhood and it’s a neighborhood of businesses as well as a neighborhood of families that have homes here. And that’s the way to look at, I think your life: you share experiences and you know get together and enjoy each other.
I guess one thing I didn’t… .or wanted to cover. We were really sad to see the movies go away, I mean that the movies been bought up by CVS. That was a period which I thought was really a loss for all of us.
Elizabeth: Oh! In the Palisades?
John: No, in Georgetown.
Elizabeth: Oh! The CVS in Georgetown was a movie theater?
John: The one, well, we had we had two movie theaters the Biograph which is a big CVS down on, on M Street and then… I don’t remember the one, there was and there was another theatre down where American Eagle is. Both those theaters were a real loss and I never actually… the Georgetown theater which is now a jewelry kind of emporium. So three theaters which we had locally were wonderful. I used to go to the theaters here and we lost of course the MacArthur theater down, Potomac Avenue where I live. Not Potomac, on MacArthur Boulevard.
Elizabeth: When, did that happen?
John: Well, it happened probably about, let’s see, 20 probably 20 years ago. Over a period of about three or four years they were not doing well and CVS bought them out. People tried to convert them in to local venues for communities, the way the Uptown.. what’s the one? The Uptown?
Elizabeth: The Uptown, yes.
John: That’s just a wonderful resource. That’s been very successful for community development. [coughing] Excuse me, let me go and get some water.
Elizabeth: You had mentioned integration as a specific historical event that affected your life. Are there any other specific historical events that you can remember while you were here?
John: The marches, down the course of the Mall when King spoke.
Elizabeth: You were …?
John: Yeah. That was a very impressive event, life changing, and certainly one of my heroes. I was involved in the Peace Corps, so Kennedy was certainly another person that inspired me, but King probably even more so, as we got to hear more of his speeches. Of course, that was the only one that I was able to actually be physically at, but recently in the last years each time his birthday comes around, we hear more of his speeches and get to know more about him, and appreciate the loss that we’ve had, all of us, for not having with us, and having him be able to speak the truth. So, I think that period, certainly the ’60s, our experience in working with kids for 15 years in Maine and in Boston were crucial parts of our life, and then being able to travel. Phoenix has been a wonderful opportunity to travel. In terms of Washington, being involved in sort of local politics with helping to form the BID, looking at it as a way to help organize ourselves. I think was a big issue of getting involved; instead of having people just sort of go to their stores and then go home, but be able to form more of a community? That is what I was hoping to do when we formed the BID.
Actually, before that we had something called the “Uptown Georgetown Association.” It was more of a really local group within the 1400 to 1600 block. That was a lot of fun. Again, a lot of the store owners, managers of the businesses. We put on art walks, we had different events, where we got together and promoted this local, small area. That was a lot of fun. We did it for about four years of different events, and then the BID came along. So, that was more encompassing of all of Georgetown area.
The thing I would really love to see is one Sunday a month, we close Wisconsin Avenue. I mean, something to look forward to. Going to Mexico or going to other cities, where you see walking streets, and people really able to get off the sidewalk, and be able to just enjoy the streets without the traffic, I would think would just really be a great thing. Especially in Georgetown, where we think of it as a community, and a small village, to have places where you could just be walking, and not have to worry about the traffic would be great, and I don’t see no reason why we couldn’t do that for the future.
Elizabeth: Interesting. In New York they do it. Amsterdam Avenue is closed down.
John: It would be so good. It is not for deliveries. They could do it easily, just ‘click’ and get it going.
Elizabeth: So, the Phoenix is the oldest family run business in Georgetown, or the oldest retail business in Georgetown.
John: I think so. As far as I know. I don’t know of other ones. The plumbing business down ‑ now, it is upstairs. It was a hardware… I was thinking of Meenahans, but Meenahans is gone a long time ago. They have plumbing fixtures. They are down, again near American Eagle. What is that called? I can’t think of it, but they’ve been here for quite awhile. They were down on the first floor with the plumbing, and all kinds of hardware, and then they’ve gotten out of the hardware, and into just specialized plumbing. Besides that, I can’t think of other… of course, Riggs Bank was there before it changed over. But other businesses in Georgetown, I don’t know of other ones. It’s been fun. It’s been lucky.Our daughter has really enjoyed working with us. So that’s third generation, and who knows? She’s got a daughter and son, and one of them might be interested, you never know.
Elizabeth: Right. Well, do you have any specific memories of special clientele in your store?
John: Well, of course a lot of people lived in Georgetown, and we have a lot of memories of people. I don’t think I’ll go into that. It sounded sort of more private then…
Elizabeth: Sure. No. Just any interesting stories that you can think of.
John: Well, Mrs. Ochenklaus was a very good customer. She would just walk around the corner when she lived on Volta, and the Kennedys would occasionally come in. Actually, I was thinking now, Aretha Franklin that was a really amazing event. Because I happened to be up on a ladder in front of the building, painting the roof of the window that’s there. She came across the street with a number of other people with her. I was painting, and my wife ran out of the store and said… she recognized, who it was, and said, “Be very careful. Don’t drop paint on Aretha!”
John: She came in, and they had a lot of fun. She was here for about an hour, and really enjoyed her self. It was a lot of fun to have her here. Then another one that was really fun was… let’s see. Who was a lot of fun? Let me think about it. I’m drawing a blank. Let’s see, our last President… I am totally blanking on this.
Elizabeth: Our last President?
John: Yeah. W., and his wife’s name is …
John: Laura Bush.
Elizabeth: I think you blocked the name.
John: I totally blocked his name out, which is probably…anyway.
John: So, I’m coming to the store, and all of a sudden I see men in black, out front, with the little earpieces, and come around the back and Laura is in, and Sharon’s had a wonderful conversation. She again, spent about an hour. She was looking for Christmas gifts for her two daughters, and found some wonderful candelabras. Sharon had a really interesting time just chatting with her, and it was really a good experience for both of them. It was a lot of fun. So people come in and out. It is a lot of fun.
Elizabeth: Do you know anything about the history of this building, that we’re in, this property?
John: I showed you the picture.
John: As far as I know, before it was a dress shop… I think from ’50 to ’55, it sold Mexican, it was a Mexican store. My parents took it over from the person who was running it as a Mexican. So, it was very strange that way, but before that, and before the ’50s, in the ’40s, it was a women’s clothing store. The picture we have from probably the ’20s and ’30s, it was like a grocery store.
Elizabeth: Right. That’s the picture I have seen.
John: Yeah. So, I think that is as far‑‑it was probably built about 1880. I think sort of this whole area was built then. Mrs. Manox, the Manox’s owned it from the ’40s on, and lived upstairs. Then they sold it after they had died, the building was sold.
Elizabeth: Do you now how The Phoenix got its name?
John: Yeah. I had asked my mother about it, and I think the story is that the idea of something that really could generate into almost any direction. It wasn’t just Mexican. I mean, my memories was that it came from the ashes of the other Mexican store, because it initially it was only merchandise from Mexico. But she said basically, the name could be used for any kind of store, it wouldn’t have to be… Because our store now really, the clothing is really all US designed. The jewelry is from all over the world. The Mexican flavor of it is really the folk art. The clothing and jewelry has really moved away from Mexico, because styles change, and our interests change. I do the buying of the jewelry and the folk art, and my wife and daughter do the clothing. Actually, my daughter works with me on all of it, but we’ve sort of separated the buying part that way.
So, The Phoenix becomes a symbol for new beginnings, and it has worked very well as a symbol for us. It is great.
Elizabeth: Do you do the buying? Do you still travel to do the buying now?
John: We go to Mexico twice a year for the silver jewelry and the folk art, but we go to New York for buying the clothing in most cases, and also for the shows in Philadelphia and Baltimore, and often people come to see us. So, it’s sort of multifaceted as well. We’ve worked with AID as volunteers, and done about eight business projects around the world, where we’re assisting small business in Zambia, and Georgia, Thailand, Namibia, and some of these products then find their way back here, and we assist them for finding markets.
John: Yeah. That’s been really fun.
Elizabeth: That’s great.
John: Waiting for the next project.
Elizabeth: Fantastic. Well, is there anything else you’d like to share today?
John: No. I think that is about it, unless you have other questions.
Elizabeth: I’ve covered everything on my list, but I just hope the Phoenix continues.
John: We do too. It’s been fun. I think the reason why it has continued is it’s been fun. We first enjoy the neighborhood. We enjoy Georgetown, the people, the interaction we have, and the products we carry. It’s just a lot of fun, and being able to work with your daughter. It’s been a good life.
Elizabeth: Great. Excellent. Well, thank you.