In a remarkably informative interview with Emma Oxford, brothers Richard and Philip Levy relate a complete social and commercial history of Georgetown from the early 1920s to the present day. Beginning with the extended family’s relocation from Southwest DC to M Street, the brothers discuss the expansion of a vibrant Jewish merchant class that developed along M Street and was well established by the early 1940s when these sons of Sam Levy were born.
The brothers recall a Georgetown that has changed significantly during their lifetime, moving from a small southern town with a racially mixed population and an industrial area below M Street through several transformations to the community we know today. As children, they talk about the freedom they had to explore, the police who walked the beat, the ethnic characters who lived across the street, the rich southern music traditions that marked Georgetown nightlife, and riding the streetcar “through people’s back yards” out to Glen Echo. Richard Levy is managing principal of The Levy Group and Philip is the owner of Bridge Street Books on Pennsylvania Avenue.
Emma Oxford: This is Emma Oxford with the Citizens Association of Georgetown Oral History Project. Today I’m talking with Richard Levy, managing principal of the Levy Group and his brother Philip Levy, owner of Bridge Street Books.
It is Thursday, June 19, 2014 and we are at Richard’s home, 2808 P Street. I know you’ve both got a lot to talk about, but let me just start by noting that the Levy family connection with Georgetown dates back almost a century, to when your grandparents came here about 1915.
Richard can you tell me what brought your grandparents to Georgetown?
Richard Levy: In fact, they came here a bit before that. My father was born in 1912 and they moved here in ’14, maybe. He was a little over a year old. There are different stories. [laughs] He won’t interrupt me. Anyway, they were living in Southwest which was a very vibrant Jewish community. Al Jolson’s father [a prominent rabbi] lived there and there was a whole community.
There was a merchant class that was emerging, a Jewish merchant class that was emerging at Georgetown. My grandfather and several of his relatives, and I don’t know what the sequence was in which they moved here, but by the time I was born they [many of my father’s relatives] were all living here and they were merchants along M Street. My grandfather, my grandmother’s brother and sister, two sisters all had buildings here and businesses in Georgetown, then cousins, etc.
It was M Street and the merchant, there was a real bifurcation between the merchants of M Street and they were basically striations. Everything below M Street was predominantly industrial. Having emerged from the port town to the industrial center of Washington at one point and then moving up the hill you had the merchants. Then, the retail, such as it was, and services along M Street and Wisconsin Avenue.
Then you had the residential area north of M Street. Even in the ’40s, certainly when my father was growing up. In Georgetown residential, there was a significant African American population, probably as much as 50 percent.
A lot of the homes had been turned into boarding homes and divided up into spaces, etc, much like the Brooklyn that I arrived at in the early ’70s. Then you see the gentrification, which really began with the Roosevelt administration and you had the New Dealers coming in from New York and Cambridge etc. and they wanted to live in the city, in the center of the city and they bought these houses and renovated them.
Directly across the street [from here] was Dean Acheson, even when I moved here in ’86, Alice Acheson, Dean Acheson’s widow, was still living there. Growing up on M Street was, again, very different from somebody that grew up above M Street. M Street was at that point in the late ’40s, early ’50s was the more predominant retail area and Wisconsin Avenue was secondary.
There was still the ice cream factory where the Georgetown Inn is now. There was a pie company where CVS is. Before it was CVS, it was People’s, but it was way before that it was an old building there that was a pie factory. A little further up, the streetcars ran up and down Wisconsin Avenue and then turned on to M Street. The electricity was underground until you got up to between P and Q Street where the wires began overhead.
There was a Laundromat. There were used furniture stores. I’m not talking about antiques, used furniture stores. It was almost unimaginable compared to what you see today.
Emma: Richard, were you born in Georgetown? When were you born?
Richard: I was born in ’42. My older brother, who’s now deceased, was born in ’37. We were all born in Georgetown and then Philip following me. We all grew up here and lived above the store until 1970.
Philip Levy: No.
Richard: 1960, I’m sorry. 1960.
Emma: You were the youngest of three brothers?
Philip: I still am. [laughs]
Emma: Still are. Which year were you born?
Philip: The end of 1944, December of 1944.
Emma: Where was the family living at that point exactly?
Philip: Living above the store. That building was built in 1940, when our father built a new store and we lived above. When I came along they were living there. M Street was, I’d say, predominantly filled with Jewish merchants and lots of them lived above the store like we did.
Emma: What was the address?
Philip: 3059. That was the major reason why there was an Orthodox synagogue left to this day. It’s the only Orthodox synagogue in the heart of the city. There is one further up 16th Street.
M Street, like Seventh Street downtown and H Street NE corridor, were the three major Jewish merchant corridors in which there were vibrant Jewish neighborhoods.
The original synagogues in Washington were near Seventh Street and that was the heart. Everybody started on, it’s now Half Street, it was called 4½ in Southwest.
Then people branched out into these neighborhoods.
Emma: What type of business did your parents run?
Philip: It was a men’s clothing store. Our aunt and uncle had a women’s clothing store next door. It was our father’s sister and her family.
Emma: What was the store called?
Philip: Our store was called “David Richard.” When I came along they couldn’t change it to “David Richard Philip.” So it remained David Richard.
Emma: So it was named after your two older brothers?
Emma: Can you describe what it was like to live on M Street at that time?
Richard: If I may depart slightly, just to give you the history of the evolution. My grandfather, my father’s father came to this country. He was initially a shoemaker when they lived in Southeast.
Richard: Southwest. Sorry. Then they came here, then upgraded to selling work clothes to the folks who worked in the industrial sector down below.
When my father graduated from high school [in 1930] he ended up, [laughs], many stories, but to keep it succinct, he ended up not going to college. He had the option to do that and decided he was not a scholar. He was not a student.
He ended up initially working for his father. Then his father put him into business in the building next to the building that we grew up in, which was owned by an aunt.
Philip: Up the street from his store.
Richard: Yeah, my grandfather’s store was where Paper Source is now and half of that building. My father opened the store up the street selling similar things.
Emma: You grandfather’s business was also on M Street?
Richard: 3019 [M Street]
Philip: Selling what he made.
Emma: You were at 3059?
Richard: My father was initially at 3057, which is where Miss Saigon is now. In 1939 he bought the building next door and tore it down and built the building that is there now. It’s been renovated since, but it was completed in 1940.
Until then, he and my mother and my older brother had been living with my mother’s parents at Third and Shepherd, Northwest.
That was the beginning and that’s where my father learned you could buy things, you could do things with other people’s money, when he was able to buy that, build the building and create a store, and over time upgraded the store from work clothes to middle class clothes to ultimately one of the finest men’s stores in Washington.
Philip: All during the Depression.
Richard: He started in 1931.
Emma: Did customers come from all over Washington to shop at your store?
Richard: It changed over time, but initially most of his customers were coming from the businesses below M Street. We were selling work clothes. So it was folks working at the lumberyard or the steel mill, the paper mill. Stuff like that.
In time, as they got out of the Depression, then we came in to World War II and the rationing. At that time he was upgrading but goods were at a premium. I think his clientele gradually changed as he improved the quality of merchandise.
But, by and large, maybe until the ’60s, the folks who were buying stuff, the residents of Georgetown did not support the merchants of Georgetown. That’s a fairly recent phenomenon as the quality of retail has improved.
The big shift of life in Georgetown was the beginning of the Kennedy administration.
Philip: He didn’t have some of the finer clientele, the judges or…
Richard: That was later.
Philip: Not in the ’50s?
Richard: Not in the ’50s, no, late ’50s.
Philip: I know it’s true in the ’60s.
Richard: I remember I was waiting and it was Christmas time and I was 10 years old, roughly. So you’re talking ’52, ’53. Yeah, it was the early ’50s. I was waiting on this woman and she was buying things. By then he already had Hathaway shirts – that was a premium brand at that time.
Philip: You were waiting on her at 10?
Richard: Yeah. It was Mrs. Drew Pearson or Mrs. Dean Acheson. I can’t remember, I forgot. It’s not conflated.
Philip: It’s probably Mrs. Drew Pearson. [note; It was Mrs. Dean Acheson!]
Richard: Whatever, it was someone. She was buying stuff for her help, not for her husband. So that was the ’50s, by the ’60s, and the Kennedy administration…
Philip: I would say by the late ’50s he’s selling Ivy League.
Richard: Yes, you’re right. Exactly, that is correct.
Philip: I began high school in ’60 [correction ‘59] and I’d become very aware of fashion.
Richard: He had already renovated the store by ’58 or something like that.
Philip: But I still remember him saying, he didn’t make any money, as he put it, until 1940. In other words, he made enough money to be able to build this building with other people’s money, but have enough money to be able to do that.
I remember him saying to me that he didn’t really make money when he made, I guess he made some substantial money, but maybe they survived.
Richard: My mother was still working in a department store downtown as a cashier to help support the family.
Philip: But this is the Depression. It’s amazing that he progressed during, because over time…
Richard: But that doesn’t tell you about Georgetown.
Emma: As young people growing up and living on M Street, describe M Street to me. What was it like during your childhood? The businesses there then, were very different from the businesses there now? Did you have much freedom as children?
Philip: It’s funny you say that because I remember we looked at this picture where the butcher shop was at the end of the block. Do you remember?
Richard: 30th Street.
Philip: His [Richard] being three years older, he remembers things that I don’t. When I saw this picture, it’s 1952 and it’s probably gone by ’53. I don’t know, but I do not remember this butcher shop.
Now it’s true I’m only seven years old, but my realm of knowledge, maybe it extended up to People’s Drug Store [currently Michael Kors] that was the next block up. That was important to me because it had a soda fountain. I still remember having to drink milkshakes after I had my tonsils removed.
But M Street during the ’50s, Georgetown was much more southern. The expression of the southerness was the honky tonk bars and entertainment places that were on M Street, mostly west of Wisconsin Avenue. There was a famous place called the Shamrock.
I mean Patsy Cline is one of the great, early, female Country singers. Now she grew up in Winchester and she played at the Shamrock.
Emma: How old were you when you were allowed to go to these places?
Philip: I know about this in retrospect, but I’m aware of these clubs that are on M Street. Why, because Virginia had ‘blue laws’ that had restrictions on live entertainment and alcohol.
So, people would come over from Virginia and we were the entertainment spot for Country, Western and Bluegrass.
Richard: Yeah, for white collar.
Philip: Blue collar, working class. This is Georgetown, was like a southern town, in so many ways. What sticks out in my mind is getting to know the police. Police walked the beat. Precinct is on Volta Place, Precinct Seven.
There were two policemen that stuck out in my mind. One, I swear his name was Officer John Friendly and the other was Roy Le Mar, one white, one black. Oh my God. As a kid I had the most positive experience of the police.
Richard: They were part of the community.
Philip: You would see them every day. Another ongoing memory, I don’t know if it tells you about Georgetown, is that it tells you about being a kid in the ’50s.
I remember sitting in front of the store. It’s Friday night, which maybe I’m not supposed to, listening to the Eagles play the Pittsburgh Steelers football on Friday night. It’s probably 1954, ’55. I’m 10, 11 years old.
I’m in the car, because I don’t think the radio in the house could get this station from Pennsylvania. All I remember is I’m listening to this game as a kid. Why am I caring about these two teams? They are not my teams.
But I knew enough about the players on the team. What I do remember was, I listened to it enough and of course I ran the battery down. I got in big trouble for it.
It’s like a Southern village. Here I am sitting in front of the store that’s open until 9 o’clock at night and listening to the game. I could’ve been out in the country or something.
Emma: Did you ride around on bikes? How did you get around?
Richard: I got around on my bike. That was my freedom.
Philip: He did. Not me.
Richard: My bicycle was my freedom, all over, up into Bethesda and Chevy Chase and through the park.
Philip: At what age did you go to Bethesda?
Richard: Before I was 16, way before I was 16. So I would say 12, 13.
Emma: Where did you attend high school?
Richard: [inaudible 17:17]. He was at Sidwell as well. I started in third grade and before that I was going to public school in Northwest.
Philip: David started in…
Richard: Sixth grade. To pick up on the [inaudible 17:31] say about the feeling. Outside of the Shamrock on a Friday night, you’d got the bikers coming in. The noise of the motorbikes and [bikers in their] leather jackets. It was a rough crew. It was very threatening.
The other thing you had in Georgetown was two funeral homes. You had the funeral home on the Southeast corner of 31st and M and on the Southeast which was Chambers. Then you had the Birch’s on the Southeast corner of Thomas Jefferson and M, which is right now…
Philip: …car dealerships, across the street where Nike is and where Barnes and Noble was, was Parkway Ford Motors.
Richard: On the north side of the street directly, Parkway motors had their used car lot. My grandfather acquired the old stone house with a partner in the early ’40s. I meant to go back and see what date that was, because I have the deed.
That was a used car lot. The whole, what is now the parking lot and the park around the old stone house. Next to the old stone house which is the driveway of the parking lot is another old house, that some say was older than the old stone house.
There are all sorts of legends around, but we on the weekends would play baseball, on Sundays when nobody was there. We would go out there and play baseball.
Philip: That was our big backyard because we had a much smaller backyard. We had a basketball hoop. We had a little hill that we could use for croquet.
Richard: It wasn’t so little for Georgetown backyards.
Philip: That’s true, but it was little compared to the parking lot.
Richard: We did play baseball in our backyard, but it was limited.
Philip: Played for it.
Emma: Richard, the Old Stone House, you said your grandfather acquired it. Then what happened to it to become a historic site?
Richard: My grandfather had offered the [National] Park Service the house. He was willing to move it down to the Canal, because Safeway, if I remember the story correctly, or Giant but I think it was Safeway, wanted to rent the whole thing and put a supermarket on the land at the back and have parking in front.
When word of that went around, Eva Hinton, who was one of the founders perhaps of the Citizens Association, certainly was an important leader of that and had influence with the Truman administration.
He got the Federal government to condemn it. Take it by eminent domain, not purchase, but take it by eminent domain.
Philip: I remember asking my father. I figured when you hear eminent domain, the government just came in and paid whatever they want for it. I said, “Did you get a fair price for it?” He said, “Yes.”
Richard: That was the lawsuit. I don’t know anything about that.
Philip: But we did get $50,000. That’s what I remember him saying.
Richard: They offered $45,000 or $50,000. It was sold. The deal was $90,000.
Philip: It was $90,000?
Richard: I believe that is correct.
Emma: So your family…
Richard: It was two families. It was two different families.
Emma: Two families owned it and the National Park Service…
Richard: Took it. The Federal government took it.
Philip: Which our father realized was a very good thing.
Richard: It created the best park in the…it broke up.
Philip: Well it’s just the park. The building still stands. We have a little bit of history left in Georgetown.
Emma: Moving on to turning points in that period. Richard, you’ve said that when John Kennedy was elected President, it was as though a light switch flipped.
Richard: The major turning points were at the beginning of the Roosevelt administration, which is what really put Georgetown on the map and began the whole transformation. Certainly from my father’s perspective who grew up here as a kid.
Philip: The New Dealers came in to look at Georgetown. It was not a nice place to live. There were big, well‑established homes but by and large, Georgetown was heavily working class and not really considered a fine place to live.
But the New Dealers, being progressive as they were young, they looked at Georgetown. You could walk to the White House. You could buy or rent at a very reasonable price. That was the beginning. That was the first step.
Emma: That was one turning point.
Richard: Yeah. That was a major turning point. Then, obviously by the time that Kennedy was elected President he had already lived in Georgetown for quite some time. He was not alone. You had Justice Brandon here. You had Scoop Jackson here. You had Senator Scott here.
Philip: John Sherman Cooper. I don’t know when he comes.
Richard: By the ’60s it had already become a place where politicians chose to live. It was one of the places they chose to live.
Philip: It’s becoming [inaudible 22:54].
Richard: You had Drew Pearson, who was the major columnist in the “Washington Post” syndicated around the country.
Emma: Drew Pearson?
Richard: Drew Pearson who lived at the corner of Dumbarton and 29th Street. You had the Alsop brothers, another set of columnists. By ’60 there was already a significant group. But for Washington as a whole, it was a sleepy town.
There was limited food in Washington.
Philip: Sidewalks with [inaudible 23:24] on the weekends.
Richard: It was quiet over the weekends. Culture was limited to what happened at either the National Theater or the DAR Constitution Hall or maybe at Lisner Auditorium a little bit.
It was not a cultural center by any stretch.
Philip: The National Gallery [inaudible 23:43].
Richard: The National Gallery was before the East Wing.
Philip: I mean the East Wing
Richard: The East Wing is much later. It was a quiet town. It just went to a whole other level. Going through Truman, the Truman administration and the Eisenhower administration were really quiet years in Washington.
Emma: That was the 1950s?
Richard: Yes, the late ’40s, early ’50s, in the late ’40s through to ’59. Eisenhower was elected in ’52 and Truman served six years before that.
Emma: So the election of Kennedy in 1960 was pivotal?
Richard: Yes. It was [electrifying], like somebody flipped a switch.
Philip: One thing you start to hear, the term “Georgetown cocktail party.” That’s an expression of the high society, the politics. Kennedy puts Georgetown on the map in that sense, though I do have a book in my bookstore which is no longer in print, but we still have a few copies left, called “Camelot in May”. It’s pictures of the Kennedys, John and Jackie, in May of 1955. It has them walking around Georgetown. It has them in their house. You get the sense of this is something, that this is a nice place to live.
It’s all changing. What we’ve described of this working class neighborhood is starting to disappear after the war. It’s when people start to invest. It’s become gentrification. The people who were at the lower levels of the economic ladder could no longer live here if they didn’t own their places. If they did, then the taxes went up. But if they didn’t own, they found their places being rented to somebody else.
Emma: Your family, you said at some point moved out from the house on M Street.
Richard: Let’s go back to before that because my father was part of the gentrification. He not only had a clothing store, but in building his own building began to understand you could work with other people’s money.
He started buying properties and renovating them and selling them. Then, with a partner, they were very active throughout Georgetown.
A number of grocery stores, or buildings that had been grocery stores on corners, that no longer could sustain themselves as grocery stores, but Safeway and Giant were just off the street.
Emma: Can you mention a couple of those buildings specifically?
Richard: Yeah. One is on the corner of 28th and Olive that has the bay windows in the front. That was a grocery store. There’s another one on Avon Place. It’s either where you lived or next to it. I can’t remember which one.
Philip: Next door.
Richard: I think it’s where you lived.
Philip: It was where I lived.
Richard: In ’66.
Philip: Bob, what was his name, Pittle, not Bob Pittle?
Richard: There was another one on the northwest corner of 34th and Dent Place. But that’s not all. There were other places.
Philip: You can tell if you drive around Georgetown and look at the intersections, you can notice that, you will see houses to this day that have the door caddy‑corner facing the corner.
Richard: On the [inaudible 27:32] of the…
Philip: …and almost every one of those or maybe every one of those, was a grocery store. You had a grocery store on every block.
Sometimes you will come to an intersection and you will see two or three.
Richard: Yeah, diagonally across the street.
Emma: Corner shops we call them.
Richard: Corner shops.
Emma: So, there were many more small grocery shops?
Richard: Yeah and some specialized in something.
Philip: What’s left today is Scheele’s. There’s one, but it’s no longer a grocery store, over on the west side of Wisconsin Avenue.
Richard: 34th and Dent on the southeast corner.
Philip: That’s not a grocery store.
Richard: I don’t know what it is now.
Philip: It’s like a bodega.
Richard: So, he and his partner got very involved in that and also then bought commercial and renovated it. What they bought in terms of the commercial is part of the core of what I now manage and am involved in and have expanded et cetera.
I worked for them. There’s still Sara’s, right here on Q Street and the building right next to it, a little two‑storey townhouse, it was a mirror image of Sara’s, a one‑storey building that had a tailor shop in it.
My father and his partner bought that and renovated that, and also the house on the other side of Sara’s. Both of those were more or less the same time. It was the summer of , my junior year of high school, sophomore year. No junior year of high school. I take it back, sophomore year high school.
I worked as a common laborer at 75 cents an hour.
Richard: Hauling bricks, hauling lumber.
Philip: Stachowski [at 28th and P Streets] was a grocery store back in the ’50s, because I think in the Arlene Francis interview it has Jackie walking by there or walking out of there.
Richard: Yeah, she does and there’s a shoemaker right next door. The house next door and she also walks in and out of the cleaners [at 27th and P Street].
Philip: The next block down though.
Richard: Yeah on 27th Street. That is now Washington Fine Properties.
Emma: When you were in high school, were you still living on M or had you moved to a different house?
Philip: We moved when I entered 10th grade.
Richard: Which was my freshman year of college.
Emma: Where did you move to?
Philip: We moved to 3245 N Street. I still remember, Richard will correct me. We’re driving by and our father noticed, was aware of this piece of land. That you could just drive by and not even notice because the width is, was it 20 feet?
Richard: Yeah. It was the side yard to the apartment building that is still there. That is partly rental.
Philip: But he identified this as maybe this is something…
Richard: I don’t know how he heard that.
Philip: They’d been looking. How many years had they been looking?
Richard: Well, they almost moved into the house on the other side of Sara’s.
Philip: That was 30th and Q Streets.
Richard: Then he bought one on 31st.
Philip: Oh, did he buy it?
Richard: Yeah, he bought that and then decided…
Philip: I took responsibility, I didn’t want…
Emma: Did he build the house at 3245 N Street then?
Richard: He bought it from the owner of the apartment house.
Emma: This was about 1960 now, was it?
Richard: Yeah, ’59, ’60.
Emma: Again, he built a new house.
Richard: A mansion as far as we’re concerned.
Emma: A mansion, which gave more space for the family.
Philip: It was three bedrooms, but it was a very large three bedroom compared to the three bedroom, two floor apartment we lived in, in which everybody was on top of each other. This had room, one could breathe.
Richard: It was bigger. It was much bigger than our apartment, yes. It was a very nice house. I remember he kept being quite concerned about how much it was costing, much more than he intended to. I was part of that, because I was involved in aspects of the design.
Philip: Did it cost over a hundred?
Richard: No, I think it was…
Philip: Was it 90?
Richard: I think it was $90,000.
Philip: That’s what I’m…
Richard: All in…
Emma: To build it.
Richard: Well, the lot and…
Emma: Took the lot, buying the land and building.
Emma: About $90,000.
Philip: You think for the whole, really?
Richard: Yes. It was less than a hundred.
Philip: The lot, it’s narrow.
Richard: It’s not, its same size as this one. It’s 20 by…
Philip: It’s a bit deeper.
Richard: This is 20 feet wide. That’s a standard lot.
Philip: Also it was over 100 feet long, as I remember though. That was the big thing, not only did we have a parking place behind the backyard, but we built a garage for two parking places and then if you needed, you could park a car across the garage, so four parking places in Georgetown. I mean, that’s unheard of.
Emma: That’s worth a fortune. At this point, you, Richard, were off at college?
Richard: I was in graduate school.
Emma: Philip, you were getting through high school and then, no doubt, also moved away. Were you both living away from Georgetown for some years? Maybe first, Richard, you could just briefly say, what period were you away from Georgetown and what brought you back and when?
Richard: At some point, I’d like to regress, because I think that it’s really interesting, in terms of talking about Georgetown in the ’50s. Some other people talked about it that I’ve seen, is the real texture of everything below M street. I don’t think we’ve captured texture sufficiently in what we’ve talked about.
Emma: Well, let’s talk about that now before we go on to the later period.
Richard: The C&O Canal was wild and scary as a kid. The area around it, rat infested. It was before they brought the barge back to the C&O Canal. One of the things that is missing throughout is the accessibility of the history of Georgetown.
You had the barrel makers, the Warren brothers, who ultimately ended up doing numbers, but they were making barrels.
Philip: The area would be described as light industrial.
Richard: Yes, it was definitely light industrial. On the waterfront were concrete companies. You had Maloney and you had Super Concrete.
Philip: Maybe this is later, but Jefferson was filled with car repair places.
Richard: You had Jefferson Springs.
Philip: That’s where Snavely started.
Richard: It had such a completely different texture.
Emma: Could you even walk along the waterfront?
Richard: You couldn’t walk along the waterfront, no, because there were piles of sand, and there were these big piles of stone, et cetera, in these big water towers and stuff. The trucks would come in and they would get filled up with the stuff that made the concrete in the truck as the trucks drove around town, mixing it as they were driving.
Philip: You had a railroad track.
Philip: On K Street that brought the coal for the power plant.
Richard: The heating plant?
Philip: The heating plant.
Richard: Yeah, so that went all the way up through what is now the Crescent trail.
Philip: You [inaudible 35:30] into the fifth?
Richard: Yeah, but it’s now the Crescent trail, it was the railroad right of way. You had W. T. Galligher Lumber Yard, a major lumberyard.
Philip: There was a major fire. There are two major fires that I remember. I guess that’s from the ’60s. The other one was when W.T. Weavers Hardware first burned.
Richard: In terms of texture, then you have Hoffmeyer fat rendering plant that emitted a terrible odor.
Philip: When the wind blew the wrong way, when it blew off the river, and it would come right up.
Richard: You had Washington Flour. So, you had the flour mill, you had the paper mill and warehouses, then amidst that you had the Bayou, the Bayou was still down there, which was countryside.
Philip: Dixieland band.
Emma: The Bayou was the…?
Philip: It was a music venue.
Emma: Night club, music venue.
Philip: Yeah. It’s terrible they tore it down. It reminded you of something that would have been built in New Orleans, built along the water. It was rough wood, it had a balcony in the back and along the side. It was something that you felt that this was…
Richard: It was New Orleans.
Philip: It was a waterfront type of building. The entertainment as a kid, I didn’t really pay attention to it, though it remained a music place up until, I don’t know, the ’80s.
Richard: The ’80s, the mid ’80s.
Philip: Yeah, the late ’80s. You know, I saw the remnants of The Band play there, and it had some good rock ‘n’ roll, but by then, you had a number of places in Georgetown where the country western places.
Richard: You could also get on the streetcar on M street, the Cabin John streetcar and go out behind Georgetown University and went all the way out to Glen Echo.
Philip: Went through peoples’ backyard. It was like, as a kid, I felt I was taking the train to the country. That’s what you felt like.
Emma: Was the river still being used for commercial…?
Richard: No, the river was, yes.
Philip: You didn’t want to fall in the river.
Richard: It was polluted.
Philip: I remember as a kid, if you fell in the river, you better go get a tetanus shot.
Emma: Were the docks still being used?
Richard: Not like they were according to the history books at the turn of the century. I think some barges did come up to drop sand off to the…
Philip: I thought Father would talk about what they used in the ’20s, because I thought our father would talk about a horse and buggy bringing stuff up from the river. That’s what I remember him talking about that.
Richard: You’d have to back there. I mean it’s before my time.
Philip: I was just a kid.
Richard: Georgetown was no longer a poor town in my day, in my younger days.
Philip: No. Matter of fact, Kathy Smith has written a book, which is no longer in print unfortunately, a wonderful picture book of Georgetown, from port to urban neighborhood.
Richard: It’s not so much that picture. It’s a very [inaudible 38:42] history. I have her book.
Philip: No. I have a number of pictures, I have her pictures and it’s from 1776, or something like that, to 1920, is what I remember.
Richard: It really goes from port town to industrials, into not a primary, but an industrial center, a secondary industrial center. That texture all changes as you’re going into the ’60s. That’s when retail begins to change also. Jackie shops in Georgetown, you had Dorcas Harden women’s clothing.
Philip: It’s a wonderful picture. Which store, what’s she’s looking in, it’s on Wisconsin Avenue, and the pictures taken of her from inside the store, and she’s outside looking at the window, and you get to see the cars on the street. It’s mid ’50s. I mean, it’s such a period piece.
Emma: Do you know what store that was? Was it a clothing store?
Philip: I don’t know if you could really tell. I was more interested in looking at her and the background. I don’t know if it was really identified. You’ll have to go look.
Richard: Certainly as a kid, I did not feel I had access to Montrose Park.
Philip: I will disagree, in the sense that I have very strong memories of sledding in Montrose Park. Going down that path, which if you look at it now, the hill has been so eroded away, but I would say, we were probably 12 to 14, something like that.
I mean the two places I remember sledding would be Montrose Park and sledding down Avon Place.
Richard: Avon Place, I remember well.
Philip: We were sledding in Montrose. It’s not so far away.
Richard: That’s my point. It was not.
Philip: I don’t even remember going to Rose. Did you spend time in Rose Park?
Philip: We were urban. That was the country. We were urban.
Emma: When you were boys, were you allowed to walk around this industrial area?
Richard: Oh yeah.
Emma: Below M street area, were you allowed…
Emma Oxford: We are starting the recording again with Richard and Philip Levy.
Richard Levy: What to me is interesting is how the texture of Georgetown has changed over the 70‑odd years that I have seen it, most of which has been close up, but some of it has been as a visitor as I have lived elsewhere.
Going back to the waterfront, the rough and tumble of the industrial waterfront when I was a kid, the lumberyard was very important to me because I did a lot of work with my hands and I liked working with wood. That and Weaver’s Hardware, where I had bought my tools, were two very important places for me as a kid.
These concrete companies, Super and Maloney Concrete, on the waterfront, the Washington Flour Mill, the paper mill, Hoffmeyer’s, there was nothing nice. It was gritty. What was interesting about it was there was nothing precious about it. Nice is the wrong word. There was nothing precious about Georgetown below M Street.
The canal was a lost piece of territory. It was something you stayed away from, rats, etc. It was not something that drew you to it. It was before the…
Philip Levy: I disagree with that. I just have one memory. My one memory is with Larry, and the canal has been frozen over. I am 10 or 12. That means Larry is 15, 17.
Emma: Who is Larry?
Philip: Cousin Larry, first cousin. I don’t know if there was somebody else with us, too, whether Chuckie was, another cousin. The canal was frozen over, which was unusual. I can’t remember last time it has been frozen over.
Somehow, we came across these very large poles. I don’t know if they had been used, but the barge wasn’t on the canal then. We broke up the ice and we played.
I have this positive memory, this one memory of playing. I must say, Richard knows that part better than I do because of the three years’ difference. He is more familiar.
I remember fearing it, but I don’t remember spending any time there either, except for this one memory of breaking up the ice and playing with it. I don’t remember seeing any rats. I know that would have affected me.
Richard: I think it paints the point that it’s much more engaging. [there is something missing, for this makes no sense.]
Philip: I could play miniature golf when he was going, sure, absolutely. [Nor does this]
Emma: Is there anything more you want to say about the personalities you really remember from those days?
Richard: I don’t know whether you captured it before, but as I said, taking the Cabin John Streetcar from M Street out to Glen Echo, and through the back of Georgetown University, as Philip said.
Philip: And through people’s backyards.
Richard: And through people’s backyards.
Philip: People’s backyards.
Richard: Yeah, through the Palisades and beyond.
Philip: It was a great adventure.
Richard: It was a whole different…
Emma: Describe the tracks that the streetcar ran along. How wide was it?
Philip: The track is still there.
Richard: You can see the tracks on O and P Street. Those are the tracks of the Cabin John Streetcar.
Philip: The one going out there.
Richard: That went over trestle bridge behind Georgetown University.
Philip: Which is still there.
Richard: And went on beyond.
Philip: That was really impressive, this very large trestle bridge is something you see out in the country somewhere.
Emma: That felt like going out into the country. It was going out into the country.
Richard: You were going to Glen Echo. It was, yeah.
Philip: It’s only, what, three miles, four miles?
Richard: Glen Echo was segregated. African‑Americans could not go to Glen Echo. It became part of the National Park Service and then more recently, it was taken over by a community not-for-profit arts project in collaboration with the Maryland State Parks Department.
Philip: I wonder if they owned it because usually, the history of amusement parks is people that owned the streetcar lines. This is the history. The history is people that owned the streetcar lines would want to build something that would bring people out of the city.
You put that out there. You take the streetcar there. Therefore, you’re not only making money by people coming out to your amusement park, but they’re using your streetcar. You’re developing the line. Maybe it will be more developed and people will build out there. Then they’ll use it more and more.
That’s the history of amusement parks.
Richard: That’s interesting. That’s probably true.
Georgetown had a very different feel in the ’40s and ’50s, and as it became more precious in the ’60s. When did they take the streetcars off the street?
Do you remember?
Philip: I think it was ’62 or ’63.
Richard: Yeah, because it was after I graduated high school.
Philip: Yeah, I remember a cousin of ours got a hold of this. This guy came to Washington every weekend because he knew the streetcars were going to disappear. He filmed every inch of every streetcar line, from being on the street and being in the streetcar.
It’s just fascinating to look at some of this. The only frustrating aspect is…I don’t know if you know the nickname of Washington was the City of Trees. The frustrating aspect of seeing a lot of this film footage from the streetcar, you don’t really get to see a lot. There are too many trees in the way, but it’s really wonderful to see a lot of this and where all the streetcars went.
Emma: In terms of personalities, who do you think of?
Philip: There was a very flamboyant owner of the little flower shop, Coke Homan, who had this little tiny flower shop on Wisconsin Avenue just down from O Street.
Richard: Like you said, but where it is now.
Philip: Oh, was he below M?
Richard: He was part of what is now Restoration Hardware, the part that had the Biograph there.
Philip: Oh, I’m totally wrong. Excuse me.
Richard: No, not Restoration Hardware. I take it back. Where Gap is. The left‑hand side of what is now the Gap building, [but then was Bishop Heating and Air Conditioning].
Philip: Below N?
Richard: Yeah, just below N Street.
Philip: I’m a block off. I think it was two blocks off, and it was a very tiny flower shop.
Richard: Let’s see if I have this right. Yes, the Gap building was an air conditioning manufacturing company and fabricating company called…[Bishop’s Heating and Air Conditioning]? It began with a B. I’m blocking the name. There was this one little space on the side of it.
Richard: No. This narrow, tall store…
Philip: Coke was the opposite of being a small owner of a small flower shop. Coke was very large. He basically could take up the whole store.
Richard: He was a hefty guy.
Philip: He was a very flamboyant guy. He was a customer [at David Richard], was he not?
Richard: Yes, he was.
Philip: I know he hung out in the clothing store, our father’s store. He was just one of those persons you always remembered about Georgetown. That’s funny. Beside talking about John Friendly and Roy Lamar, the two policemen…
Richard: Then you had Bryce Weaver, who owned Weaver’s Hardware, who was very important to me because he was the one who sold me my tools. Bryce was a significant person in Georgetown. He was one of the town leaders.
Emma: What was he like?
Richard: I would say he was an accessible adult. He was somebody that I could easily go to for advice, in terms of if I was building something, without any fear. Yet he was a significant member of the business community.
Philip: Don’t we have to talk about that?
Richard: You had the small tailors. You had Mr. [Morris] Shulman who was…
Philip: Who was our father’s tailor, who had a nice little clothing shop.
Richard: It was not a clothing shop. He was a tailor.
Philip: Yeah, a tailor shop up on M Street in the block before Key Bridge, on the south side.
Richard: What is now part of Cady’s Alley.
Philip: With a very strong Yiddish accent. East European.
Richard: Eastern European and [he and his wife] lived above the shop…
Philip: What we’ve forgotten about, how could we not talk about Mr. Fine and the kosher delicatessen that was across the street from where we grew up?
Emma: Mr. Fein? F‑E‑I‑N?
Richard: Yeah, F-I-N-E.
Philip: Then Mr. Gelman took it over from him. I guess it was Mr. Fein.
A famous old saying in the family was Cousin Larry went across the street to buy some lox for Sunday morning, lox and bagels. Larry asked for, I don’t know, a pound and a half of lox. I guess it was Mr. Fine said, “You want me sliced?” That was his Yiddish accent, instead of saying, “You want me to slice it?” He said, “You want me sliced?” That’s one that we never forget.
Richard: There were shopkeepers and then there were people who really…
Philip: How about Emil?
Richard: Emil Audette?
Philip: Emil Audette. Wasn’t dad ever in business with him before?
Richard: They were business partners before [dad teamed up with] John Snyder.
Philip: He [Emil] was one of the more well‑known real estate brokers in Georgetown. He had his own [one man] firm. Where was it? Was it on P Street? That’s somehow what I’m thinking.
Richard: I don’t think he had an office.
Philip: Oh, really?
Richard: Yeah, he didn’t.
Philip: The thing I always remember about Emil is as a young boy. You had to make sure when you shook his hand, you gave him a firm handshake. He’d been in the Marines, right?
Richard: He was a Marine, yes.
Philip: You had to make sure. That’s where you learned, “I don’t want any of this fish handshake. Give me a handshake like a man.”
Richard: I would agree. He’s the one who taught me how you shake hands. There’s no question.
Emma: What was his last name again?
Philip: Audette, A‑U‑D‑E‑T‑T‑E.
Emma: There’s lots to talk about there. Are we ready to move on to a later period?
Richard: Oh, yeah, let’s move.
Philip: Sure. We’re not going to have much time.
Emma: Because I know you both went away from Georgetown as young adults. Then each of you came back. Philip, I believe you came back and started a bookstore.
Philip: No. That came a little later.
Emma: Was that a lot later?
Philip: There were a lot of other things. I always describe myself as being the John Brown. I failed at a lot of things before I succeeded with the bookstore.
There were many things that I did, working for a radical institute, the Institute for Policy Studies. I worked for Ralph Nader. In between, I was a hippie messenger. I managed our brother’s movie theater for a couple years, which was a whole experience of being in the heart of Georgetown in the mid ’70s.
Emma: Which movie theater was that?
Philip: That was the Key Movie Theater. He originally helped start the Biograph Movie Theater, which was across the street from where my bookstore is now, which is now the CVS.
Emma: I remember that. Yeah.
Philip: He started that in 1967. After four or five years, he wanted to strike out on his own. He got a hold of and was able to buy the business of the Key Movie Theater, which had been what was known as a second‑run movie theater.
Back then, if you didn’t play first‑run, you would get it on its break. After it played in a big movie theater for six weeks, you would then get the leftovers, so to speak.
It was a nice commercial movie theater. He then turned it into what was similar to what the Biograph had been, but something even more…
Richard: More than that.
Philip: More advanced, in a sense. Rather than showing old movies ‑‑ though they showed new movies too, at the Biograph ‑‑ it was a mix of a lot of things. The Key was basically showing new American independent films.
Richard: The Biograph was more like a Film Forum [a New York City institution] in some sense.
Philip: That’s giving it a little too much credit.
Richard: I said in some sense.
Emma: Where was the Key Movie Theater?
Philip: It’s where Restoration Hardware is now, right at the corner of Wisconsin and Prospect.
Emma: You were working there at some point in the ’70s?
Philip: For two years.
Richard: When you were working there, it was a single‑screen theater, no?
Philip: Yeah. It was only a single screen.
Richard: Then he [David] took over the second floor.
Philip: Took over the second floor and added three small screens. He had four screens, and did very well for a long period of time. The economics of the business made it so it was time for him to get out.
Emma: What led you to open Bridge Street Books?
Philip: I really wanted to be a scholar, but I was missing certain things. I didn’t have the patience, didn’t have, I don’t know, the self confidence, wasn’t willing to do the work. I don’t know if it was doing the work. I don’t know what it really was. Something was missing.
Richard: You didn’t want to write.
Philip: I really did want to write. I got lucky and got a piece on the front page of “Rolling Stone” in an interview. That didn’t lead to further work with “Rolling Stone.” I got discouraged easily. That’s where the self‑confidence came in.
Then, I was able to get my father to support me to be a scholar for a couple of years. Was I going to go to back to college? I was not a young person anymore.
Richard: You were going to go to graduate school, you mean?
Richard: College you had done by then.
Philip: Yes. Richard likes to say he encouraged our father to make the suggestion. I like to say it happened five years before, when I kept him waiting outside of Blackwell’s in Oxford for six hours one day. I thought I had died and gone to heaven.
On a plane ride back, all three of us went. Our father and I went to London, the first time in ’73. The second time it was ’78. On the plane ride back, he said, ” I’ve got this space. They’re going to open up a hotel next door.”
Emma: That would be the Four Seasons?
Philip: “How would you like to start a bookstore?”
Richard: That was on the plane?
Philip: Yes. I didn’t want to go into business. I wanted to save the world. Business? Money? I’m sitting there and I’m thinking, “Jeez, I don’t have a better plan at the moment, do I? Maybe if I’m going to go into business, I can’t think of a better business to go into than books.”
He said, “Go learn the business.” I worked in a bookstore for two years. He said, “I’ll help you get started.” The rest is history.
Emma: That was 1980 that you opened the bookstore, was it?
Philip: June 27th. Matter of fact, we’re coming pretty close to that, aren’t we?
Richard: Which year did you open?
Philip: 1980, Friday at 3:30. It’s not like I remember every second of it. First of all, it took me six months to get it open, and then went through all that. Then finally, I was supposed to open that morning and the cash register didn’t work. The woman came from the cash register company. By 3:30, I got open.
Within a half an hour, people really walked in the store. I remember our father showed up around 5:00, 5:30. He knew [the men’s clothing retail] business. He didn’t know books. “Is this going to work?”
He was there. People came in. They looked at books. Even a few people came up and gave me money to buy books. I’ll never forget this. The expression on his face was like, “Maybe this will work.” It’s what every kid needs from their father whether they know it or not. Maybe not everybody, but for me, I certainly needed it.
Richard: I lived in London for a year and a half, my second time around in London. I was going to my junior year of college. I went back in graduate school when I was working on my dissertation. I fell in love with London. Life took many turns subsequent to that.
Philip decides he wants to go back to London and my father said, “Why don’t you take your brothers?” My older brother was not in a position to go and I was. I was in the midst of creating a new arts’ organization in New York. The timing was fine. The notion of being able to go back to London, I had some friends there, so we went back.
All Philip wanted to do was see plays and look at bookstores. He was in and out of bookstores. My story, which I will hold to, this was when you were in your years of being a scholar. I said, “Philip, you’re never going to back to graduate school. You love books. You love talking about ideas. Why don’t you think about a bookstore?”
Philip: I’m sure if you said that, I was, “I’m not going to listen to that.”
Richard: Yeah, that’s fine.
Philip: You’re not going to help me get started.
Richard: No, but I think your father heard that. We went to Oxford and all he wanted to do was spend hours in Blackwell’s. I knew Blackwell’s.
Emma: It’s easy to get lost in that bookstore.
Philip: I didn’t know what I was getting into. You go on the first floors and then there’s one room of 18th century English history and then 19th. It’s all hardback and it’s dark wood. This is just what I expected. Then I’ll go downstairs, what is this? This is a department store of paperbacks. Where did this come from?
It’s the land [property] next door. Some people told me it was Trinity College, but maybe not. I don’t know what it was that they dug under. They dug under. It’s bigger than the bookstore itself because it’s underneath somebody else’s building. I just couldn’t believe. Every two hours I kept coming out, “Dad?” Go back inside.
Emma: [laughs] You’re there with the bookstore and at this point, Richard, I believe that you were working in New York?
Richard: I went from graduate school in London. I did end up back in Washington at the Institute for Policy Studies in ’68, ’69. ’70 I was in Berkeley for a little over a year and then ended up, quite accidentally…I thought I’d left academia and ended up at Yale at the Economic Growth Center.
I was back in academia. I was then in New York teaching, with a child. While in New York and teaching, a friend of mine, who I’d met when we were living in Berkeley, wanted to start a circus. He was performing in a circus in France, called Nouveau Cirque de Paris.
This was September of ’76 when New York was on the cusp of bankruptcy. He said he was either going to start a circus like the one he’s been performing in or he’s going to move to France full‑time, because he’d been living half a year in New York, half a year on the road with the circus.
I said, “Paul, I’m teaching about the impending bankruptcy in New York and you want to raise half a million dollars to start a circus in New York? Go back to France.” Instead he was holing up in the Performing Arts Library [at Lincoln Center] in New York [researching the history of the circus in America].
One thing led to another. By December, he was going back to finish his contract. I said, “Let me take the draft of a proposal and talk to some people I know.”
I was an academic. It was not like I was in the center of New York or connected beyond a world of economists in New York. For the most part, a world of radical economists in New York, a pretty limited population.
I started talking to some friends, one of whom was the mother of a friend of my daughter’s, whose husband worked at Chase Bank. She thought it was exciting. One thing led to another, as it were. Then a friend of ours who’s an artist, Mimi Gross, just flipped out over it, “This is great.” I’m talking to people about it and it’s like I’ve discovered sliced bread or something.
I took a semester off of teaching and said, “Paul, get back here, I think we might be able to make this work.” In six months we were performing in Battery Park City [which at the time was just a pile of sand – landfill from the excavation of the World Trade Center site]. We had raised a little bit of money and a lot of debt, and created something called The Big Apple Circus.
Emma: The Big Apple Circus. That’s amazing.
Richard: [Prior to taking on the challenge of creating the Big Apple Circus] I was ready to leave New York many times over before then, and [in the process of creating the circus] New York became mine. That two people could run around with an idea and find a group of people that thought this was cool and help make it happen.
Philip: It’s like your father starting a business at the worst time.
Richard: Yeah, I wouldn’t equate it to that, though.
Philip: That was the Depression, I realize, but still you’re going against, and me, I started a bookstore.
Richard: It was a little bit different in that we had no connection to the town.
Philip: I’m talking about the economic atmosphere.
Richard: Yeah, but I’m talking about what it takes to put something together and how you have to…
Richard: In New York, we found our way to the center of City Hall and it just opened up. Then that led me to build a dance school for Eliot Feld which lead to creating The ArtsConnection, which is the last arts organization I built in New York.
From that I segued. I had done 10 years of raising money in the world of not‑for‑profit. I was ready to take on something else for a whole lot of different reasons. Started working with some real‑estate investors in New York. The last thing I did for The ArtsConnection was a real‑estate transaction that I began to put into place, but it took 10 years to realize that. I created the framework for it.
Philip: That’s when you [inaudible 24:28].
Richard: Yes. It was the old High School of Performing Arts.
Emma: What brought you back to Georgetown?
Richard: That my father’s partner took seriously ill and I was working with real‑estate investors in New York. We were doing both residential and industrial condominium projects. The thread that runs through all of my work is making change. It’s seeing something that should exist that doesn’t, figuring out how you put the pieces together to make it happen if you believe in it.
You have to believe in it, because otherwise it’s nothing. The fascination becomes in what you’re trying to create and then the sub‑fascination is how do you put the pieces together. Where are the pieces and how do you put them together?
My father’s accountant, as I was working on these projects in New York, said that you really should come back to Washington because your father and Johnny, his partner, were getting older. They really weren’t at the top of their game. Their interests seemed to be going to other directions.
I said, “What? I’m really happy with my life in New York.” Which I was, leaving New York was the hardest thing that I’ve ever done in my life. Two, was that nobody had asked me.
I’m going back to what, excuse me? Then, some time after that, many months after that, six, nine months, whatever, my father’s partner took seriously ill.
I’ll segue back with this. There was a time, maybe five or seven years before this, when my brothers and I were talking. I was really facilitating a conversation among the brothers, that at some point we’re going to have to deal with this business that our fathers created.
I knew a lot about it, just because it intrigued me and I paid a lot of attention while it was being built, and also physically worked on some of the things that they did. It was a two‑family business and the issue was, what was going to happen when they were no longer around?
We [my brothers and I] were talking amongst ourselves and we thought it would be a good idea to talk to Dad about this. I came back to Washington [for a family meeting]. Do you remember the breakfast at the Four Seasons? We had breakfast.
Philip: The four of us.
Richard: The four of us had breakfast at the Four Seasons. I was leading the conversation, “Dad, one of these days we’re going to have to deal with this. What are your thoughts? How might we be involved in a way that would be helpful down the road?” His response was, “What are you trying to do? Bury me?”
Richard: I said, “I think the conversation just ended.” We went on and talked about other things.
Going ahead, this is 1986.
Philip: When was the breakfast?
Richard: The breakfast would have been ’80, ’81.
Philip: The year before?
Richard: No, several years before.
Philip: Oh, you were at the right time, but too early, if you remember the Geraldine Fabrikant article.
Richard: No, but another time. He called and said, “Johnny’s sick. You’re working on this stuff in New York, but it would really be helpful to have you here. Are you…?” I said, “I’m not sure that I’m prepared to leave New York and I don’t know what you’re offering exactly, but let’s talk about it,” and we did.
It was a difficult decision to begin with, because I had been in New York at that point 13 years. New York really was home. I had developed lots of access and lots of interesting friendships and relationships, etc. Washington was still a small town in comparison, and it is.
We started talking. I had a daughter who was graduating junior high school. I was a single parent, but the primary parent, so there was the question of her life and what she was prepared for, etc.
It was a very complicated set of discussions, but ultimately, I agreed and my daughter agreed that she was going to make the trip with me. I gave her several options and that was the option she chose.
I initially was renting a house here and was renting my apartment in New York. I figured I would give it two years and if it worked, fine. If it didn’t work…
Philip: Weren’t you renting originally?
Richard: I did rent. I was renting from Sally and Ben, their guesthouse.
Philip: Oh, that’s right. How long did you live there?
Richard: I didn’t live there at all. We were negotiating the deal and we had a stumbling block over the insurance paragraph of the lease. In the meantime, Herb Miller, who was going to be renovating his house, came along and offered more money to get me out of the way. We had not signed the lease, so she rented to Herb.
At that point I could read the leaves. The person who was renting my apartment in New York really wanted to buy it and had an option to buy it. I couldn’t find anything else to rent that worked, so that’s what led me to buy.
Six months after coming back, it was like, “Oh, boy, did I make the wrong decision.” I’m about to sit down with my daughter and say…
Philip: We’re going back.
Richard: Yeah. I can’t do this. There are too many issues here to deal with.
Philip: You had this talk with her?
Richard: No, I didn’t have the talk with her.
Philip: You thought about it.
Richard: I was about to have the talk with her. She comes back from school. My daughter is a New Yorker through and through. She came back from school and she said, “Dad, I am really glad we moved here.”
I thought, “Oh, my God. How can I uproot her yet again?” Whatever, it’s a long story, anyway.
Emma: Here you were back in Washington.
Richard: We’re back in Washington.
Emma: In about 1986?
Richard: June of ’86. Yes, 28 years, almost to the day. [laughs] Certainly to the month.
Emma: How had Georgetown changed in the time that you’d been living away from here?
Richard: I never lost a connection to Georgetown, but the Four Seasons became a significant component to Georgetown, and ultimately, in the downturn was very important to me psychologically. That so long as the Four Seasons was still here there was an opportunity because by ’91…
How Georgetown had changed, when I came back I could feel the roots of its decline. You could feel that Georgetown was in serious decline. The quality of retail in Georgetown had gone down.
Philip: Is that when there were boarded‑up buildings?
Richard: No, that’s later. That’s late ’80s, early ’90s. That was already in by then, but I’ll get to that.
You could see the Redskins would win and kids would run through the streets trashing windows. That was happening even before I came back.
Philip: Halloween is not what you liked.
Richard: Halloween was a catastrophe. Nobody was paying any attention. People were complaining, but nobody was paying any attention.
Emma: Say a little more about what Halloween meant to Georgetown.
Richard: Kids from all over the city would come in.
Philip: 20,000 to 40,000 people would come.
Richard: Would descend on Georgetown.
Philip: When I’m managing that movie theatre in ’75, ’76, I’m seeing this is the beginning. There were people wearing costumes because Georgetown in the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s is the entertainment center.
Richard: Especially after the riots of ’68 when downtown was decimated.
Philip: Georgetown becomes the entertainment, nighttime focus.
Richard: The center.
Philip: There’s no competition. The only competition is Adam’s Morgan, which is still for young people and it’s really not all that sophisticated.
You don’t have 7th Street, you don’t have H Street, NE, you don’t have U Street, you don’t have 14th Street, you don’t have Clarendon. All have become, in their own ways, pockets of entertainment that people under 40 just gravitate to.
Georgetown is still very much Georgetown on the weekends, I will say that. Georgetown is still a thriving center of activity, but nighttime it’s more low‑key.
Richard: I’m talking about decline. I’m talking about by ’90, ’91, the city’s on the cusp of bankruptcy. My concern is that we were becoming the next Detroit, that we were going to be the hole. Not only Georgetown, I mean Washington. It was going to be the hole in the donut.
There was no political stability. There was no sense of a future. Tony Williams saved Washington [with the vision and leadership that he provided. He succeeded in getting people to believe in and invest in the city]. Absolutely, without question, I cannot imagine how [Washington could rebound]. There was no sense of where the savior [leadership] was going to come from.
Philip: There was no economic vibrancy in downtown Washington.
Emma: You had the crack cocaine epidemic at that time.
Richard: Yes, all of that was tying together.
Philip: And lots of violence.
Richard: Yeah. We became the crime [murder] capital of the country. It was really a time of despairing.
For me, I could begin to feel the roots of that when I arrived back and could see what was happening to retail in Georgetown. It was really a period of decline.
Philip: It’s funny, being in the middle of it, I don’t have that perspective because I’m too busy trying to build my store. I’m thinking how I’m doing better than I did before. It’s funny how I’m not seeing it.
Richard: The antecedents of that are the mallification of the suburbs. The suburbanites who were coming into Georgetown to buy things had other options and were not [shopping in the city as they once did]. They may come in on the weekends for entertainment to some extent, but it did not support [the retail establishments], and so the quality of retail just went [down]. Georgetown had become known for its T‑shirt shops and sneaker stores [no longer a center of fashionable boutiques].
Emma: Of course, you were in the real estate business. Still are, and what for you were the turning points?
Philip: There were still good restaurants.
Emma: What were you able to do that helped to turn things around?
Richard: As I said, you begin a year after being here, I walked into Max Berry’s. Max Berry’s a lawyer in town, now pretty much retired. He was politically a major player. He was at the center of Marion Barry’s earlier campaigns.
Philip: First two.
Richard: He was chair of his election campaigns and reelection campaign. Very involved in the arts, and his wife was an heir to the Giant Food markets and a writer on culture for the “Washington Post.” They were very involved.
Anyway, I’m in Max’s office. He starts complaining about the conditions of the streets. Georgetown looks terrible, there’s trash everywhere, etc.
I said, “Max, what we need is a BID.” He said, “What’s a BID?” I said, “Max, you go to New York. You’ve been around Grand Central Station, how much cleaner it is now. You see those guys walking around in uniforms cleaning up the sidewalks? They have on them Grand Central Business Improvement District.”
He said, “How do you create a BID?” I go through what you have to do, enabling legislation etc. I saw the whole evolution of the BID in New York from when I was first teaching, because it started around then.
Philip: It started in Philadelphia, I thought.
Richard: No, it started in New York. It started pre‑BID around the Fulton Street area when the merchants got together, when the department stores got together.
Philip: What are you talking about, early ’90s now?
Richard: No, I’m talking about early ’70s.
Emma: In New York?
Richard: No, in Washington.
Philip: The BID?
Emma: In Washington?
Richard: I’m talking about late ’80s. I’m talking about ’87.
Philip: The BID doesn’t come into it.
Richard: No. Can I tell my story? Max says, “What if I tell you…” I tell him what’s involved in creating a business improvement district. He said, “What if I told you it was going to take 10 years to realize?” I said, “We’d better start now.”
It was almost 10 years to the day before we got enabling legislation through the city council. We failed twice.
The third time, it was Joe Sternlieb, who is now head of the Georgetown BID, who was then the staff person to the Economic Development Committee of the DC City Council, which was chaired by Charlene Drew Jarvis. It was Joe who helped us figure out the [political] strategy of how we were going to get the enabling legislation through.
Philip: Why did he say 10 years? Because he thought that was what it was going to be?
Richard: I don’t know. You have to ask Max, I didn’t ask him why he thought. Because he knew how difficult it was to make things happen in Washington.
Then the Georgetown BID followed two years later. DC, downtown jumped on, but it was the Georgetown business folks who with the help of Foley and Lardner, who were our pro bono lawyers on this, who heralded the legislation through the city council.
The first five years we were getting organized, and then five years of getting it through the council.
Philip: Georgetown still improved before the BID comes into play.
Richard: There are certain things that happened. The Business Association and, all of a sudden, these guys in blue appear on the streets cleaning up the sidewalk [from a New York city not-for-profit organization] known as the Doe Fund. Nobody knew where they came from, and these were guys who were formerly in jail.
It’s an organization out of New York. They came to Washington because they were getting federal money and they wanted to have a federal presence. In fact, they were the clean street folks of the first couple of years of the BID, first year of the BID before we put it out to other companies, because it was not effective working with them.
For me, the way it happened is that as long as the Four Seasons had not taken their flag away and left town, that was an anchor. Riggs Bank was not going anywhere, although now it’s PNC.
Then in the midst of the downturn, Joel Dean and Giorgio DeLuca decided they wanted to open a store in Washington and [they] focused on Georgetown. There were others who tried to get in their neighborhoods. Joey Kaempfer, who was a big developer downtown, although he lived in Georgetown, tried to get them to come downtown. They decided that Georgetown was where they wanted to be and they needed me.
They opened in SoHo when I was building the Big Apple Circus, so I knew their evolution very well. I worked with them to help, as an honest broker, to figure out whether they could survive in Georgetown.
We went through a whole analysis because there had been another food company from New York called Glorious Foods who came to Washington and lasted a year. They were going to teach Washington about food. This was in the early ’80s. It was well before I returned here.
They had come and gone. They lasted a year in Washington, plus whatever, not much more than a year.
Washington has a real problem with New York, period. The sense of insecurity, the sense of the arrogance of New Yorkers that Washington sees.
Philip: New York has a problem with Washington the same way, in that they wouldn’t know how to adapt.
Richard: That’s it. That was my whole conversation with Joel and Giorgio, that you really have to understand that Washington…
Philip: Is not New York.
Richard: Is not New York, and you have to approach it in a very different way. We spent time talking about that.
Once, I remember very clearly they opened in ’91. Still, Washington was really dodgy. I remember, this was before they opened.
Philip: You’ve been here almost 25 years.
Richard: I walked through. Jack Ceglic who was the unnamed third partner of Joel and Giorgio, he was the merchandiser. Jack said, “Come on in, you’ve got to see.” Jack was this short, total energy ball. He died several years ago. Wonderful guy, incredible merchandiser.
He’s taking me, “Look at this, Richard.” He’s so excited about what he’s creating there and the way he’s displaying it. I walk out of the store. I’m standing at the stoplight in front of Dean & DeLuca, waiting for the light to change to walk across M Street. I’m saying, “If they’re gone in a year, we’re in deep shit,” if you’ll pardon the expression.
I said, “If they make it beyond, then we have hit the turning point. We’re beyond the nadir. This is the beginning of the upswing.” It had the Four Seasons, Riggs, Dean & DeLuca.
In economics you talk about the need to compress. You need to get to the core. When you’ve lost your mission, when you’ve lost the energy, you’ve got to get down to the center. For me it was getting down to the center of Wisconsin Avenue and M Street and building out. Looking at what can be done.
Then it was [creating] Old Glory, taking that, which is the first building my grandfather bought in 1920, which is still in the portfolio, and reimagining what that could be.
Then Patagonia arrived at my doorstep. They wanted to be in Washington. They thought they should be in Georgetown, and for them that Dean & DeLuca was here was an important marker.
I had these two buildings down on the canal. The one on Wisconsin Avenue was the first building I bought after coming back from New York. To take the building that we had behind it ‑‑ because it had no Wisconsin Avenue presence, it was really built as a scale factory ‑‑ to give it life, in my mind it needed to have Wisconsin Avenue presence.
I bought that and had rented out for five years to the Indian craft store out of the Department of Interior. They couldn’t make a go there. They left. It was vacant and the building behind it was vacant.
The broker [Eric Rubin of Smithy Braden] brought Patagonia to me. At that time [retail real estate] brokers were not looking at Georgetown. They’d given up on Georgetown. The Washington brokers were looking at Connecticut Avenue and Rhode Island, that whole stretch. That was going to be the downtown until there was a downtown.
Philip: Or how about upper Wisconsin? That became the downtown.
Richard: Yeah, but that was still later. That was after ’91. Mazza was there, but Mazza was not doing much. You had Woodward & Lothrop there, but it was not…
Philip: You had Lord & Taylor.
Richard: Yeah, but Lord & Taylor was never a significant player.
Emma: Here in Georgetown, what year did Patagonia open?
Richard: Patagonia opened in ’92, ’93. It was piece by piece, and then showing people.
There was an article in the “Washington Post” about the decline of Georgetown. I said this in my quote in the paper. I don’t know whether I still have the article, but I’m sure one can find it. They were talking about all the vacancies and I said, “This creates the possibilities.”
The Food Mart was the northwest corner of M and 31st Street. The northeast corner, excuse me, where Brooks Brothers is now, that was the Food Mart. It was a local food store. It had been a food store for as long as I’d been around. That was closed.
The vacancies, I remember the next one I bought would be in ’95. I remember in ’95 what is now Bluemercury, which is the building my father built in 1940, ’95 was perceived to be the…
This article is around that time, ’95. The building that Nike is in was empty. It had been a movie theatre and a garage after Parkway Ford was long gone. The space next to it, which is the entrance to Barney’s, was the entrance to the garage. It was an empty space.
There were a couple of other vacancies on that side of the street. There was no real retail. I bring a tenant of mine who had a video store, but also had a small cosmetics store on Connecticut Avenue. I said to her, “You should really open a store in Georgetown. It’s a great store, but it’s in the wrong place. It should be here.”
I bring her down to 3059 M Street and I said, “This is where you should be.” She said, “Why would I want to be here? There’s no retail around. There are all these vacancies.” I said, “One, because it’s a good rent and, two, if you watch the people walking around, they’re people with money in their pockets and they have nowhere to spend it. With what you have, they will be in your store.”
It was almost finished days before my father passed away. I remember we were bringing my father back from the hospital and took him in to see the store as it was almost finished. It was May of ’95.
It was just piece by piece. Literally, the number of vacancies we were carrying in ’94, ’95, our vacancy rate must have been…
Philip: 30 percent?
Richard: Yeah, I was going to say somewhere between 30 and 40 percent. It was certainly on an ad valorem basis. It was that.
Philip: Right before Dad dies?
Richard: Yeah. Where Aveda is was vacant. It had vacancies. It was a horrendous time. It was really Tony Williams who then comes in as CFO.
Richard: Yeah, when we’re under the control board. Then in ’98 runs for mayor and then becomes mayor in ’99.
That’s when people started believing in the city again. Investors began investing again. It was a really hairy time.
Philip: I’ve got to go.
Richard: You’ve got to go?
Emma: There is so much more you could both tell us.
Philip: If you want to stay, I don’t know if you have to go.
Richard: I have a few minutes. I have to go soon.
Philip: It’s better if I go now, I’m afraid. Do you need more out of us?
Emma: Thank you very much. Just a quick comment on being an independent bookstore all of these years, you’re still there. Bigger bookstores have come and gone. Where are you at now?
Philip: My cute comment on that is, the thing that served me best when I first started was being stubborn and stupid. What I mean by that is, if I had been smarter I would have given up within a year or two.
Richard: Barnes & Noble.
Philip: If I’d had a concept of how badly I was doing, but I wasn’t smart enough. I didn’t think in those terms. I didn’t even know if I’d have a successful bookstore economically. My whole concept is, I wanted to build a good bookstore.
I didn’t know if that would work or not because, I learned in the business early on, people didn’t care in the business whether you had a good bookstore. How many units do you sell? That’s what counts.
I did have a few wonderful, supportive sales reps who did care, but they were few and far between. Also being stubborn, I wasn’t ready to give up. If I’d really had a sense…
My first six months I grossed $20,000. $20,000? If I did $100 in a day, “OK, I’m getting up to triple figures.”
It was just staying at it. Yes, I’ve been fortunate, I had a wonderful father who gave me some advantages and was very supportive. His words of advice ‑‑ I always like to quote him ‑‑ he said, “Never spend money to save money.” That has served me.
When a sales rep says, “If you buy another 20 titles, you’re going to save two percent.” Well, do I really need those 20 titles? How much am I saving with the two percent anyway?
The concept of what he meant was, “You don’t go buy something on sale because it’s on sale. If you go in the store, and it’s on sale and you need it, great, but don’t be seduced.”
There were so many little things. “The secret to doing business is to do business when there’s no business.” Which sounds silly, but it’s like you’ve got to persevere when things are tough. You’ve got to go out and try harder.
Richard: The fact of the matter, you have survived because of the quality of your store and the quality of the customers who are attracted to the quality of your store.
Philip: It’s very nice being next to the Four Seasons and being near the World Bank and IMF. I make a joke, if you have an accent, you like us better than if you don’t.
We have a bookstore that appeals to an international clientele. They’re maybe surprised that you find a bookstore like this in the United States. Lots of Europeans feel, “You’re kind of a European bookstore.”
I’ve been very lucky. I’ve had a wonderful employee, Rod Smith, who has worked with me since 1988, except for two years when he went to help out a friend, but came back when his friend couldn’t make it.
Richard: He also went, didn’t he, to Iowa?
Philip: He took six months off.
Richard: Oh, that was six months.
Philip: To teach at Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Somehow we survived with him out there for that.
He will tell you that he needed a lot of help when he came back.
Philip: Rod, I’ve been very fortunate. I like to say I created a good bookstore and he made it a much better bookstore. He’s a generation younger and he’s tuned into areas that I’m not that strong in. We’ve really complemented each other very well.
Emma: Thank you very much for your time.
Philip: Pleasure. I hope it’s helped.
Emma: Thank you for sticking with it at Bridge Street Books and for organizing all of us today. Thank you so much.
Philip: Glad to help.
Richard: I will see you?
Philip: You’re here this weekend.
Richard: No, we go up Saturday morning. We’re going to see Audra McDonald as Lady Day Saturday night. I took your advice.
Philip: Good for you. Did you get a table?
Richard: That’s what I meant. We didn’t take your advice to see it.
Philip: I know that. You haven’t heard anything?
Richard: I have not heard anything. I will let you know. It will be a last‑minute thing.
Philip: I understand. All right.
Emma: Richard, maybe we can just have another five minutes before we wrap up.
Richard: I can do 5, 10.
Emma: We’ve talked about how people started believing in Washington again when Tony Williams became mayor in 1999.
Richard: Tony, I don’t know how well you know. Were you here then?
Emma: I was actually in New York.
Richard: You were in New York?
Emma: I lived in New York at that time, yes. [laughs]
Richard: Tony…I would say one of the best things about finding myself back in Washington over these past 28 years were the years – 9 years including the campaign – almost nine years and still continuing in other ways. As he was mayor, the eight years of working with him closely on reimagining city government and reimagining the city.
Tony, first of all, he’s a huge intellect, an intellectual, extremely well read. He’s a birder. There are aspects of Tony that most people do not know. He has an obsession with maps, which is what takes him to understand how cities are organized.
His vision, one of his first priorities, was rebuilding the city’s Office of Planning. I didn’t quite get it at that moment because I saw it as a bureaucracy. I helped find the person who became our city planner. So much of it was one accident on top of another, seemingly so.
It was like I was living in somebody else’s novel. To be there and to really understand why government is not working and how you begin to make it work.
Then, ultimately, close at hand when he asked me to take on the rebuilding of the DC Public Library system.
My goal was to get him to take over the schools because public education, I believe, is the key issue. That was what I was really involved in, in New York through The ArtsConnection, was rebuilding the schools using the resources of professional arts organizations.
Understanding how you get to the centre of what it takes to rebuild, what it should be, where it is now. It’s that same thing. It’s the process of transformation.
Emma: We’ve come such a long way just to bring us right up to the present. In our closing minutes, can you talk a little bit about your major projects in Georgetown at the moment?
Richard: [laughs] That’s part of my continuing involvement with Tony because he’s involved with us in that. Again, it’s a reimagining.
The Four Seasons really is the instigator in the sense that they’ve had to deal with this. The only five‑star hotel in Washington is overlooking this not‑maintained ‑‑ I’ll leave it to others to judge ‑‑ but from their perspective, not terribly attractive things to look at for their guests.
Emma: This is the West Heating Plant?
Richard: The West Heating Plant. How can this be better? Ultimately, it was a question of can we be a part of making it better? Getting a sense of what the community wanted, which was a reconnection to the park.
Before I even got into the history of the site, little did I know until I started doing the research that was the dry dock serving the C&O Canal. The building of the West Heating Plant completely obliterated what was the dry dock. You can still see it.
I’ve long wondered what these steps look like on the south side of the canal, to the west of the lock, Lock 1. This seeming step‑up to the ground was the entrance to the dry dock. What is the second riser up are really stacked wood that they would lift up in the water to bring the water in to float the canal boats into the dry dock for repair.
Emma: The West Heating Plant?
Richard: The community wanted to see something happen there in what had been a fortress and a piece of territory, two acres that had been cut off from Georgetown that is bordered by the canal and Rock Creek, aside from 29th Street.
It was an intriguing project. It’s something that you drive by and pay no attention to, generally speaking, because of the way it’s built off. It’s not in many people’s minds the most attractive building.
The notion was, how do you make this work? The Four Seasons was looking to, as they had done in many other places, create Four Seasons Residences [i.e., condominiums]. Because of what that can be, the value of creating that, was the opportunity to add value to create amenities for the community, the park.
If you go back to the National Capital Planning Commission’s vision for the Waterfront Park, it included transforming the whole site. Their fantasy was that the building would go away and the whole thing would be a [2 acre] park so that Rock Creek Park would sort of flow into the Waterfront.
Obviously, there was not the money to do that. The closest we could do was find a way to make that work, by making the building create the value to make the park a possibility. That’s where it began and we began talking about that with local architects and ultimately decided we needed to think beyond.
We were not getting the full vision that we were looking for, so we then did a very elaborate exploration, working with Paul Goldberger, who had been the architectural critic for the “New York Times.” Now writes for “The New Yorker,” “Vanity Fair,” and teaches at Yale and other places. We engaged Paul, and asked him, “Who should we be talking to?”
With Paul we went through the work of 18 architects. Then honed it down to eight architects that we interviewed. Of the eight, we commissioned three to show us, “How would you make this thing work?”
The three were Robert A.M Stern, who’s Dean of the School Of Architecture at Yale, Deborah Berke, who has done some interesting projects in New York, and David Adjaye, who is the lead design architect of the National Museum of African American History and Culture being built on the Mall.
Not coincidentally, I first knew David through Tony Williams. He has done two libraries for the DC Public Library system, which I would argue are two of our best. Just a person who really gets into context as well as architecture and architectural history, and he blew everybody away.
There were three of us who were the decision makers in the process, my partners and I. I know that one of my partners felt that Bob Stern was the solution, until the presentation. David just knocked the socks off of everybody in terms of the imagination, understanding how you respect history, but not be trapped by history.
We’re going through the entitlement process. It’s very complicated because of the way GSA put it out, if it had been built after 1950. It came along in 1948. This period of significance in Georgetown is 1950 and later.
We’re going through all of that right now. We have a bit more to go through, and hopefully I will be around to see it happen.
Emma: It’s a far cry from living above the store at 3059 M Street in your childhood, isn’t it? Who could have thought it? Richard, thank you very much, you and your brother Philip. This has been a terrific discussion. The Oral History Project is tremendously grateful. Thank you.
Richard: Thank you.