Betty Hays fell in love with Mexican art and culture while on vacation with her husband. So much so that they decided to open The Phoenix on Wisconsin Avenue and share their love of Mexico with Georgetown. As owner of one of the oldest retails stores in Georgetown, Betty has seen the area change slightly, but she steadfastly claims Georgetown has not changed very much – the character of the area is still here, “basically Georgetown is still Georgetown.” Read more about her time as a shop owner in her interview with Elizabeth Barentzen.
Elizabeth Barentzen: My name is Elizabeth Barentzen, and I am interviewing Betty Hays at her home and the address here is 4963…
Betty Hays: 4863.
Elizabeth: …4863, Potomac Avenue, NW Washington, DC. Today is Monday, August 3, 10:00 am. And we will get started with this interview.
So let me just start by asking: When and where were you born
Betty: I was born in Elmira, New York, in 1914.
Betty: Yeah, I believe. I am 95 years old.
Elizabeth: You are 95 years old?
Elizabeth: And what brought you to Georgetown?
Betty: My husband got a job with the government and, after Roosevelt died, he decided not to stay in the government any longer. We had been to Mexico, fallen in love with it, and decided we would import from Mexico. So we opened our shop in Georgetown called “The Phoenix”.
And we brought everything that we bought back in our station wagon, and it filled just a few shelves on one floor, but it was an immediate success. And we had to go right back and buy more. So we’ve had a very good for all these years.
Now, my son and his wife own and run the shop, and one of my granddaughters is also working in the shop. So it’s continued all these years.
Elizabeth: Wow. So you lived here on Potomac Avenue while you…?
Betty: No, not originally. We bought this house in ‑ I can’t remember the date ‑ but we lived here about, I guess, about 45 to 50 years.
Elizabeth: So did you live in Georgetown?
Betty: No, we never lived in Georgetown.
Elizabeth: You never lived in Georgetown?
Betty: In Bethesda.
Elizabeth: in Bethesda, OK.
Betty: So we’ve had the shop in the same location all these years, and thoroughly enjoyed it.
Elizabeth: Can you tell me a little bit more about the shop?
Betty: Well, we had no experience in importing, whatsoever. And I thought my husband was ridiculous to even think about doing that. But he said, “We will learn,” and we did.
Elizabeth: And you did.
Betty: So we went to Mexico twice a year, learned to love the people, and admired their crafts very much. And we were really very lucky. We opened the shop with what we brought back in our station wagon, which filled a few shelves, and it was an immediate success. So we went right back and bought more, and we have been here ever since.
Elizabeth: Where in Mexico?
Betty: We traveled all over Mexico, from the north down to the very southern part. Worked directly with their artisans, became fairly good friends of many of the craftsmen that we worked with, and have just really loved the country and the people. And we had a successful business and it’s still going strong.
I see my daughter in law is arriving, so maybe you want to turn this off for a minute. Can you do that?
Elizabeth: Oh, OK. Yes. Let me turn this off.
Elizabeth: So continuing on, can you tell me more about your store?
Betty Hays: Well, the shop started out to be exclusively things from Mexico. But as the years progressed, it’s added many other things. Now we have a very serious line of clothing that’s very successful and jewelry from all over the world. My daughter‑in‑law and my granddaughter do the buying of clothing. My son does the buying of jewelry. And it’s a very happy family affair. And as I said, the years progressed; we added things other than Mexico. But still the folk art is all Mexico. As styles changed, folk clothing ‑ what’s the word I want? Folk art, clothing, was no longer popular. So we’ve changed gradually to American clothing. And that was very, very successful.
We’ve had a lot of fun with our business. We went to Mexico twice a year and vacationed as well as bought.
Elizabeth: When the store first started back in ‑ what year did the store start?
Betty: I’m sorry. I can’t get it. It was about ’60.
Elizabeth: Can you tell me what Georgetown was like at the point?
Betty: There were a lot more clothing stores. I’m trying to think of the name of the ‑ we’d replaced a clothing store that had gone out of business. Wilhelmina Adams was across the street, and that was very popular. There were several others down the street. So it has changed. But basically Georgetown is still Georgetown. I think a very important and interesting part of Washington. But then I’m very prejudiced.
Elizabeth: I’m sorry?
Betty: I’ve been there so long. Actually I think we’re the oldest retail business still going in Georgetown.
Elizabeth: Still going in Georgetown. Going back to the ’60s and the ’70s, it’s still Georgetown, but things must have changed somehow. Can you remember…?
Betty: I don’t think it’s changed a great deal. I really don’t. It still has its own special character. A few old‑timers are gone. There was a well‑known ‑ this is a real problem, remembering things.
Elizabeth: That’s OK. A well‑known lamp and light fixture store for years at the corner of Peach Street, and that’s gone. There was an interesting shop run by a German couple on Peach Street and that’s long gone. Of course Little Caledonia was a fixture. It carried all kind of ‑ a passel of things. And that’s gone. So we’re really the oldest retail store left.
Elizabeth: Why do think that is?
Betty: Times change; things change. Georgetown still has the same character, but it’s different. We have more restaurants then we had then. The general character of Georgetown, I think, has remained. I’m trying to think of what shops were there. We have more restaurants now, some very good ones.
Elizabeth: Why do you think your store has survived?
Betty: Probably because it was unique. We now have generations of shoppers. We have people who come in and say, “My mother brought me here when I was little, and I bought my wedding dress here.” It’s sort of been a tradition, happily for us. [laughs] And we’ve had just wonderful employees over the years. In fact, the night before last, three of them ‑ two who formerly worked for us and one who still does ‑ came and brought dinner. And we had a wonderful party with their husbands here.
Elizabeth: How nice.
Betty: So we had really a wonderful relationship with our employees. Many of them have become very good friends. And we’ve just thoroughly enjoyed our business. We were lucky that my son and his wife, who were living in Maine at the time, decided to give up what they were doing and come down. We were ready to retire and sell the business. So they took over.
Elizabeth: When did you retire?
Elizabeth: When did you retire?
Betty: I retired a long time ago. My husband died in the ’60s, and they took over then. Do you have any other questions for me?
Elizabeth: I do. Can you tell me more specifically about the building?
Betty: About what?
Elizabeth: The building that your business is in?
Betty: The building was owned by a couple. And they decided to leave Washington. And we bought the building. And then we bought the building next door. So we own both of those buildings now. And we extended our dress department into the second building.
Elizabeth: Did they have a business in that building?
Betty: Yes. It was…I can’t remember what was there. But now in the front of the building is a jeweler. Not that we owned, he rents from us. And we use the other second story of the building for the clothing. But other than that it hasn’t expanded.
Elizabeth: The previous owners of those buildings, did they have businesses there or did they live there?
Betty: The one in the main building, our main building, they live there. And I can’t remember what they did with the first floor. But they lived in the second floor. And the other building that we bought was also occupied by the same family that owned it. And there was no business attached to it.
But our block has stayed pretty much the same. The restaurant’s been there a long time.
Elizabeth: What used to be at the Marvelous Market across the street?
Betty: Used to be what?
Elizabeth: The Marvelous Market? Across the street?
Betty: The Marvelous Market has been there as long as I can remember.
Elizabeth: That’s been there a long time?
Betty: Yeah. And Willamina Adams was across the street where the ice cream store is.
Elizabeth: Oh, OK. OK.
Betty: And that was a dress shop.
Elizabeth: And what kind of…who were your customers?
Elizabeth: Who were your customers?
Betty: Who were our customers?
Betty: Well they’re Georgetowners. But there are also rather sophisticated people from around the area. We have a lot of out‑of‑towners because Georgetown is very popular for visitors.
Betty: So we have a lot of out‑of‑towners. And just being in Georgetown, I think has been a great advantage. But we are very prejudiced. We think Georgetown is great.
Elizabeth: Yes. [laughs] That’s great.
Betty: Georgetown and Palisades, which is this area, are our favorite parts of Washington, understandably.
Elizabeth: Were you ever involved with the business community?
Betty: My husband was.
Elizabeth: Your husband was.
Betty: With the business association.
Elizabeth: The business association.
Betty: And my son is now. I never was personally.
Elizabeth: The relationship between the business association and the residents, how has that been?
Betty: Very good.
Elizabeth: Very good?
Betty: And my son worked with the business association for quite a long time. Was on one of the committees. He’s still not quite as involved as he was.
Elizabeth: Can you remember any specific historical events?
Elizabeth: Historical events that happened in Georgetown? Like when Kennedy was assassinated. Do you recall where you were?
Betty: I don’t remember anything specifically tied to Georgetown. It was a shock to everybody whether they lived in Georgetown or not. But I don’t remember any specific things. Trouble is you caught me when I was 9. I can’t remember anything. [laughs]
Elizabeth: Well, we were lucky to have caught you. So it doesn’t, whatever you can remember, you are doing great. So when you would take these trips to Mexico, would you go with your children?
Betty: For a very long time we went with the children. Took our station wagon. And so we vacationed and we bought.
Elizabeth: And you would drive?
Betty: And after they grew up, we would go to Mexico for a month. And for two weeks we would work very hard. Do all of our buying. Then we would go to our favorite beach. And have a great time for two weeks.
Elizabeth: Where’s you favorite beach?
Betty: It was on the west coast.
Elizabeth: On the west coast. West coast. OK.
Betty: The name’s gone again. I hardly remember my own name these day. But Mexico gave us a great deal of pleasure as well as a successful business. And we still have very close friends there.
Elizabeth: You do. Nice.
Betty: In fact, my whole family is going to the beach next week and two good Mexican friends are joining us.
Elizabeth: Oh, wow, that’s wonderful. And so you would drive all the way from Washington D.C to Mexico?
Betty: We drove for years and then after awhile we flew. But for a long time we drove. When the children went with us, we vacationed at the same time. So we would work half the time and vacation the rest of the time. So we did all the sight seeing and the beach.
Elizabeth: Wow. And do you have customers who have been coming to your store for many years?
Betty: We have customers who came as children who got their wedding dresses from us, and are still customers.
Betty: It’s really quite amazing.
Elizabeth: Yeah. It is. It is.
Betty: Yeah. They’re very loyal. And we’ve had wonderful employees. Just great. A lot of them have been Georgetown students. And other young people. And others who are older. But they’ve all become friends.
Elizabeth: Well, it’s amazing to have a store that’s lasted for so many years.
Betty: I know. That’s it. We never dreamt it.
Betty: And we were complete novices. We didn’t know anything about importing. All we did was buy everything that we liked.
Elizabeth: That you liked, wow.
Betty: And fortunately our customers liked it too. We’ve had a lot of fun with it. But then when my husband died, I was not interested in running the business. And my oldest son and his wife were running a home for boys and girls just out of reform school up in Maine. They’d been doing that for a number of years, and were kind of burned out. It was a 24‑hour a day job. So they were ready to come down. And they did. And they have made a big success of it as well. That’s my daughter‑in‑law.
My other son and his wife live in Virginia, and he has a beautiful jewelry store in… In where? It’s a famous town.
Elizabeth: Vienna? Fairfax? Or McClain?
Betty: No, further south.
Elizabeth: Further south. Charlottesville?
Betty: I don’t know. I can’t think.
Betty: No, not that far.
Betty: I swear.
Elizabeth: So he had an interest also in jewelry?
Betty: Yeah. He is a jeweler himself. So I’m very lucky. This son lives just a mile down the road, and the granddaughter lives across the street from there. So I’m very lucky to have a lot of the family nearby. And I have a wonderful block of neighbors, all of whom swim in my pool.
Betty: Sometimes there are 10 children in the pool and lots of squeals and excitement.
Elizabeth: That’s nice.
Betty: It’s great fun. I enjoy it thoroughly.
Elizabeth: Well, it is a beautiful, peaceful place here, I have to say. Absolutely beautiful.
Betty: Yes, we were very lucky to find it.
Elizabeth: Yeah. Have you maintained relationships with other business owners in Georgetown?
Betty: Not particularly. It there were several on our block that we knew quite well who retired, and gone out of business. And my husband was friendly with a number of them in the business association. But I can’t say I know any of them very well.
Elizabeth: Washington is such a political place, obviously. How do you…?
Betty: And am I political? Very.
Elizabeth: Are you political…?
Betty: Am I an Obama fan? Violently. From the very beginning.
Elizabeth: From the very beginning. Me too.
Betty: Yes, my whole family is very, very pleased to have Obama. And his wife. I think she’s just great.
Elizabeth: We need to get her to shop in your store.
Betty: Yes, I’d love to.
Elizabeth: I think she’d enjoy it.
Betty: I think she would.
Elizabeth: She has very good taste.
Betty: She doesn’t strike me as a big shopper.
Elizabeth: Well, she’s stylish, but I can’t see her…
Betty: Yes, very. But that was a very happy day, that election. I never thought in my lifetime we would have a black president. I’m just thrilled.
Elizabeth: To have seen it, yeah.
Betty: And to have an intelligent man in the White House. It’s a joy.
Elizabeth: Well, my question was going to be, did you notice any differences with administration changes, how that would affect your business?
Betty: Not really.
Elizabeth: Not really?
Betty: No, it really didn’t. I think the same kind of people shopped in the shop always.
Betty: But it sure made me happy.
Elizabeth: Yes, I know. OK, well, is there anything else you want to share with me?
Betty: Nothing that I can think of. Somebody just drove in. I don’t know who. Somebody’s blocking you.
Elizabeth: It looks like it’s, your daughter‑in‑law is back.
Betty: Is Sharon back again?
Elizabeth: Yes, I think she is. So I guess we will conclude.
Betty: I can’t see who it is.
Elizabeth: It is Sharon.
Betty: Oh, she brought… Yes, she had Daphne sit in the back.
Elizabeth: Do you have any photographs you could share with me?
Betty: I think Sharon, you arrived at the right moment. She just asked whether I had any photographs. You have photographs, don’t you?
Sharon: Of what? The store?
Elizabeth: The store in the past.
Sharon: Yep. It’s at the store.
Elizabeth: They’re at the store? OK.
Sharon: Yeah, on our 50th anniversary, we put together a very amateurish, but still a notebook, of things from 50 years previously.
Elizabeth: OK. So maybe I could come in and get copies for the citizens’ association?
Sharon: That would be terrific. I don’t remember now if I have things at home too, but I can happily look and check. But I definitely have stuff at the store. And I just came in to see if you have a card or something, so we will be able to, or you can give me information on where this will be?
Elizabeth: Absolutely. I’m going to stop the recording actually right now.
Betty: And she has a memory, not like me.
Elizabeth: No, you’ve done very well.
Sharon: It’s just that my other daughter, one of my daughters is an archivist in Shaker Heights, Ohio, in a library there.
Elizabeth: I don’t have a copy of this. I could drop one off to you at the store. Would that work?
Sharon: That’s fine. Do you know where we are?
Elizabeth: I do, yeah. I live around the corner. This is from your store, actually. I love your store.
Sharon: Thanks. All right, so, that’s fine. That would be super. Thank you so much. Nice to meet you. Betty, keep remembering.
Betty: As well as I could.
Elizabeth: Thank you.
Betty: OK, see you later. I’m very lucky to have two terrific daughters‑in‑law.
Elizabeth: That’s fantastic. I have two sons myself. I have two little boys. I have a one year old and a three year old.
Betty: Oh, really?
Betty: Well, they grow up to be six feet. What are they, 6’2″ and 6’4″. And they get nicer and nicer. Are they boys?
Elizabeth: They’re both boys. They’re exactly two years apart.
Betty: Mine are too.
Elizabeth: OK. And I hope one day that I have nice daughter‑in‑laws too. Because I think that’s nice.
Betty: No, now, my son, his son’s grandchildren come, they live across the street from him. They come swim in the pool. A three year old and a one year old.
Elizabeth: Oh, OK.
Betty: So we’re starting a new generation.
Elizabeth: That’s great. OK, well, I don’t think I have anything else.
Betty: Wonderful. Well, if you think of anything.