The mixture of internationals, celebrities, and local residents give a unique feel to the Georgetown community. Carey Rivers’ interview with her neighbor, Keith Lipert, a well-known merchandizer of fashion jewelry and accessories, explores the personal joys and pleasures of living and working in Georgetown. How lucky Georgetown is that he and his young family moved here and opened a shop on M Street in 1987. Keith has been a key part of the commercial life of Georgetown as it has undergone various iterations over the years as he and fellow shop owners have worked to maintain Georgetown’s status as a prime, shopping destination. He describes the local business cycles of the low times in the 80’s, the high times of the 90’s. He examines the changes of the past 20 years and explores the new Main Street Project, which is a city-public-private partnership to help independent stores maintain their viability. Keith feels strongly that the viability of commercial businesses is what sustains a neighborhood. The interview underscores the optimism Keith feels for the future of our community.
Carey Rivers: Today is December the 10, 2017. This is Carey Rivers interviewing Keith Lipert, who lives at 1637 35th Street Northwest. 2007 is the zip code.
Keith, thank you so much for doing this. Let’s start at the beginning. Can you tell me a little bit about your childhood and where you grew up?
Keith Lipert: Yes. Carey, I’m from England. I was born in 1957. I grew up in London in the Marble Arch area and lived there pretty much through to 23. I’ve been going to university in England, high school in England.
In 1979, I first came to America and my first stop was actually in Georgetown. My cousin lived on Olive Street, on 26th Street, and I stayed with him. That was actually my first exposure to United States and to Washington.
Carey: That’s pretty cool as a young man.
Keith: As a young man. What was remarkable was that where my cousin lived has been so close to where really my life has been lived.
Carey: That’s true.
Keith: I lived in England until 1981. I became very passionate about coming to United States. In 1981, at the age of 23, I moved to New York where I was able to get a job working for, as it turned out, friends of my parents.
I worked for this company for about two years upon which I got a green card. 1983 is when I started my business.
Carey: You went independent really young?
Keith: Working for this very nice family, I got a tremendous insight into America. They were involved in the premium incentive world. The office was at 41 Madison Avenue, which is where I worked for the first two years.
While working for this company, I was exposed to the distribution of product through non‑traditional methods. They didn’t supply retail. They supplied giftware to what was called the direct selling market, which is people like Avon, Mary Kay, home interiors at the time. They supplied gifts to people in the direct mail industry. In those days ‑‑ people that remember ‑‑ when you used to get your credit card bill from an oil company or whatever, there was always an offer on the back.
Our company did some of those types of offers. They might have been vitamin monthlies or hosiery monthly or something. We did that. It was direct selling, direct mail, direct marketing. It gave me an incredible introduction to The United States. I worked in a little division which did the gifts that banks and savings and loans used to give when you deposited money.
Carey: What great training for where you actually ended up.
Keith: It gave me an insight into America that was pretty remarkable because I traveled across the states for them. I also got to understand, I guess, the sophistication of the distribution of merchandise, through supermarkets, banks.
Carey: Did you deal in Georgetown at all when…?
Keith: Not at all. It was really more the bigger centers. I was living in New York. I was 23. It was a very exciting time in my life. I do remember that when I first came over, I stayed in the company apartment, which was on 61st and Madison.
Carey: Oh, my God.
Keith: I very clearly remember thinking that it was going to be downhill from there. I had a two‑bedroom apartment in Helmsley House, which was pretty fantastic. I knew that it was never going to get that good.
Carey: You did end up in Georgetown, though, which is pretty neat.
Keith: I did. Pretty soon, I had an apartment in Murray Hill, a studio apartment on 35th and 3rd, between 2nd and 3rd. I was really loving America and my life here. I was married in 1986.
In 1987, my son, Adam, was born. When he was around two, my wife and I decided that we either wanted to go back to England where we have family or…She had family in Washington.
Carey: Those were the two choices. Do you have siblings?
Keith: I have two sisters in England. I didn’t want to go back to England, so we decided that we would come down to Washington where her family was and then we’d have more support. That turned out to be a wonderful decision. We lived at the Westbridge which is on 26th in Pennsylvania. We had a lovely apartment.
Carey: Almost Georgetown.
Keith: We overlooked Georgetown.
Keith: We had a lovely apartment on the eight floor. That’s how we decided to come down to Georgetown. As I said earlier, my first impression of Georgetown had been with my cousin back in ’79. I just loved it, loved America, loved Washington, also loved New York.
Carey: When you came back to Georgetown, or at least to Washington, what was your impression of Georgetown at that point?
Keith: Well, I’d come from Central London. I’d lived in Manhattan. I would say my first impression of Georgetown was I was happy from a family point of view. I had family and a greater sense of community. I probably thought that Georgetown was more southern. I’d come from London, in Central London.
I’d lived a very urban life there. I’d lived in Manhattan and lived a very exciting life in the city there. Washington is kind of quiet in some aspect. I will never forget going to Harold’s which was the…What do you call it? I guess you’d call it a store, today. A place where you could get your coffee and your bagel or croissant or whatever in the morning.
Carey: Where was it?
Keith: It was on 31st on M. Harold’s [laughs] was a lovely general store but so slow. My first office in Georgetown was in Fred Maroon’s building, which was also on 31st on M. I had a top floor office there. At that point, I was in the wholesale side of my business.
The business I had started in ’83 was to bring British and European giftware to American department stores, jewelry stores, and table top stores around the country. I had had and continue to have a showroom in New York.
Carey: Do you still?
Keith: No. That’s what I was doing then. This is sort of ’89. It wasn’t until 1994…I think in ’91 I moved my showroom from Fred Maroon’s space. We outgrew it. We moved to Richard Bernstein’s Canal Square. We had an office overlooking M Street at Canal Square. We’re now just above their entrance, so just above where K baby is today.
I was up there for a few years. In ’94, I guess I’d had my wholesale business for over 10 years. I felt that things were changing. Like many peddler who’d come before me, I decided to settle down and open my own shop in a community I knew and loved, and decided to occupy the space at 2922, and 2924 M Street.
That was the shop that I had for 24 years on M. The space was owned by the Gaunoux family who owned, and still do own, a number of properties on M Street between 30th and 31streets.
Carey: What was that block like at that time?
Keith: It was a lovely block. It already had the antique stores. Janis Aldridge was there, a name from the past. She had the corner.
Carey: Oh, my goodness, yeah.
Keith: There was the American Hand that I think was a very important store in its day in terms of bringing American craft to the community. What I sought to bring was a more European modern design that evolved through silver, ceramics, and glass.
Ultimately, you also expressed yourself in fashion jewelry and accessories, which I love doing. That went very well for many, many years. It’s a great joy for me.
Carey: I think the next topic would be to talk about buying a house here.
Keith: Right. You asked me about my impressions, as well, of Washington and Georgetown. You’ve asked me also, “How did things change?” I think we’ll come back to that a little bit later.
Carey: Yeah, toward the end.
Keith: I loved Georgetown. I loved, for me, the sense that it was both an American city, community, and yet it had this great mix of international.
Carey: Oh, for sure.
Keith: For me, what was such a joy as I felt a sense of place. Georgetown, for me, resonated…It wasn’t Chelsea, but it had elements of European culture that was here. I loved the fact that our community was comprised of so many different elements. Any day, one would be talking to diplomats or politicians, administration people.
There was a sense that people understood where I was from, and I understood where they were from. There was this great joy in coming together in this place called Georgetown. That was very special.
Carey: In the ’80s, it was very international.
Keith: It was still international, but it was a little bit sleepy.
Carey: Were the shops…
Keith: I think that the shops…
Carey: …a fairly sophisticated group of shops?
Keith: It was a mix. When you think of both the M Street corridor and the Wisconsin corridor, it had a great mix. I think that we were on the cutting‑edge of the modern world. In Georgetown already, we had some lovely antique stores from Michael Getz, to Frank Milwee, Justine Mehlman
Carey: I feel like I saw those all names.
Keith: There was that element to it, but there was less sort of modern, that modern sophisticated. That’s what I sought to share.
Carey: That was the niche?
Keith: That was what I sought to share with my community. That’s what we found out. At that time, ’94, there really were very few doing that area, especially when it came to fashion jewelry and accessories. You had Garfinckles. You had Woody’s, but they weren’t delivering that cutting‑edge European design at that time primarily because it was a little bit more risky.
Whereas, I had one store. Most of these others had many stores. Therefore, if I made a mistake, I made it once. If they made a mistake, they made it multiple times, which made them more cautious.
Carey: They had diversity of markets too, I would think, in terms of different locations to cater to.
Keith: There was all that.
Carey: Yeah, so it was much more complicated.
Keith: When I moved in ’89, actually, I did move into the Westbridge, on 26th in Pennsylvania. In 2000, I bought my home, which is where I live now, on 1635 31st Street…
Carey: When did you buy it? ’89?
Keith: …which I bought in 2000. I bought it from Richard McCooey, who was a character himself.
Keith: The inside of that house looked just like F. Scott’s. It was very exciting, [laughs] lots of fun. We changed it a little. It’s been the most wonderful home, very modern.
Carey: It’s a fab house. I was curious because it’s unusual to have a house like that in Georgetown. There are not many of them.
Keith: At the time, it was absolutely the case. I think today, more homes have been converted. A lot of people teased me and said that I had a very ’80s house. There was a lot of black and a lot of mirrors.
Carey: This is ’80s too. Look at the difference.
Keith: At the time, when he put his house up for sale, there were no other takers. I guess I was fortunate.
Carey: I actually would have bought it if I hadn’t bought this one because I love that combination of modern and traditional.
Keith: He had opened it up. It really served me well through the various stages in my life. I’m very grateful to Richard whom I liked very much. He was such a character.
Carey: Absolutely. Yeah, he totally was.
Keith: Richard McCooey, his mum…I don’t know if his mother and father, but certainly had opened 1789, The Tombs, and F. Scott’s.
Carey: Were they any part of Clyde’s?
Keith: What happened was that Clyde’s, the Laythams, bought 1789. He was very friendly with the Laythams ‑‑ Ginger and John Laytham and John Davidson, [Stuart Davidson] I think ‑‑ and continued to do interior designs with them, selecting all those wonderful pictures, the things that he did, the posters which she did.
Carey: Houses, yeah.
Keith: We changed up the house a little bit, not so much.
Carey: Were you looking for a modern house?
Keith: I think that it was natural progression in as much as we wanted a home. My son was about 12, 13 at the time. My family had outgrown the apartment. We were ready for something else. That just happened to be the right place at the right time for the right amount. It was the right thing for us. It was a wonderful move. He was lovely. I think he was very happy that we would…It was absolutely Richard’s…It was the house that he always wanted. He did put so much into it.
Carey: Do you know when he renovated it? When I moved…
Keith: In 1980, I think. It was the early ’80s. I think he was a bachelor at the time. He then fell in love, got married. I think, for his wife, it was a little bit too modern. She encouraged him to leave.
Carey: I think they wanted more space.
Keith: It was his dream house, basically.
Carey: Yeah. Well, it was fabulous.
Keith: He was happy, I think, looking back, that he found somebody who shared his love for the house. We slightly changed it, but not much.
Carey: Well, it’s a great house. It really is.
Keith: “How did my career go?” you were asking me, and “How did the business develop in Georgetown?” You’re asking me here about what is was like to be in business in Georgetown in the ’90s.
Carey: Yeah, because Georgetown has gone through waves of different styles of shops, and all the old faces are gone, mostly. There’s been a lot of change, I guess, and you’ve been a part of that all along.
Keith: I feel that when I came to Georgetown in ’89, and when I was first on the right side of the street at Fred Maroon’s place, probably it was a low period in some respects. I will remember there was a shop that opened up called Condom rRations, or something like that, that sold condoms. I just thought, “Oh, my gosh! What has happened?”
Carey: What has happened to my neighborhood? [laughs]
Keith: It was a difficult time, I think. Obviously, the economy was struggling. As I look over the period of time and what’s happened, a lot that’s been very interesting. In the ’90s, I just had the most wonderful time in my shop, and a lot was changing. A lot was happening, I think, both on the macro level and the micro level.
Georgetown was still sort of the only game in town in terms of where people would go for restaurants or maybe shopping. The Four Seasons was probably at its height in terms of the clients that it was attracting.
Carey: It gave that whole section a big huge boost of clients, I think.
Keith: On our two blocks there was a wonderful mix of clients coming in. I think that it was a time when, between the American Hand, ourselves, the antique stores and Justine Mehlman, we were able to present to an audience really a best in class that stood up to anything that you could find anywhere else in the world, and we had the clientele that would appreciate it .
Carey: You also had the knowledge and skills to gather the merchandise…
Carey: …and display it in a really special way.
Keith: Well, as a result of my wholesale business and supply, in the wholesale side of my business, I was supplying the Neiman Marcus’s, the Saks Fifth Avenue, [inaudible 21:15] right across the country. Shreve, Crump & Low in Boston, Shreve’s in San Francisco. Lynn’s Jeweler’s and Neiman’s in Dallas, Mayors in Florida, Mayor and Berkley in Atlanta. I was really seeing…
Carey: They were the top of the…
Keith: I’ve seen all the best stores in America, right across the country. I was supplying, so I really understood what was in there. I was buying in Europe. I was going to Paris, Milan, and London to source these things.
Carey: Lucky you.
Keith: Thank you. I think I had a pretty good idea of what was going on. I was able to bring what I thought was the best of the best and more because I had one smaller store and I could afford to take risks that these larger stores probably weren’t ready to do.
Carey: Was there collaboration among the high‑end merchants?
Carey: Not at all?
Keith: No. I think we all did our own thing and we all tried to keep in our own lane. The American Hand, which I always admired, was very much American craft. They had fabulous, mainly, ceramics.
Carey: Not the…?
Keith: They weren’t doing the modern silver I was doing. They weren’t doing the modern glass. They did lovely things, wonderful things, but it was American. I was going to Italy for these things ‑‑ France, England, Germany. It was different.
To a certain extent, I was slightly channeling what I had learned about modern design from earlier in the century. I’ll come back to that in a minute.
Keith: You asked me about the characters that came into the store. I think some of the joy…Retail can be the most wonderful of experience ‑‑ certainly, in a community such as Georgetown ‑‑ because half of the equation is the finding of the stuff and the other half is the sharing of the stuff.
I was having this great adventure in finding stuff with these wonderful artists, mainly in Europe, a little in South America, a little bit in Asia, but primarily in Europe.
Carey: You then brought those merchants to Georgetown?
Keith: Yeah. Modern Italian silver. In 1999, we did a retrospective of about a hundred different articles, but there were about 50 different artists that represented the very best of Italian silver at the turn of the century. I was motivated by the turn of the century in the 19th century.
How could I find, at the end of the 20th century, beginning of the 21st century, those objects that might have been considered the aesthetic movement, early art nouveau of my time?
Carey: How did you personally develop your eye? What was…?
Keith: I’ll come back to that because you’ve got that as a question later, and I’ll come back to that. I want to talk about the clientele. You were going to ask me about those people and then about how things changed.
I thought about this. Do I name names? I think that what’s clear is that we were just meeting the most wonderful people. Our neighbors in many ways, but our neighbors reflected people who were in the administration, who were diplomats, who were artists, business, journalists, lawyers.
Carey: People that had money.
Keith: It was just fantastic. Are there some favorite stories? I think, for posterity, there are a couple things I want to share with you…
Carey: Oh, good.
Keith: …that I think reflect Georgetown and what made it so special. It makes it so special, even to this day. I’m sure these people wouldn’t feel that I was betraying their confidence in any way.
I think one of the most joyful experiences was when my son was around 10. He had been given a project at his school to each…He was at Washington International School. We were living right here. In [inaudible 26:21] this time…
Carey: Yeah, I moved here in ’98.
Keith: I think it was around that time.
Carey: Yes, because he was about 10, I think.
Keith: In his history class, each kid had been asked for their project over the weekend to think about the different players in the Balkan War.
Carey: Oh, my goodness.
Keith: Adam had drawn Russia. What was Russia’s position vis‑‡‑vis Serbia, Montenegro, and this sort of stuff. That was the weekend project. On Saturday morning, Madeleine Albright who at that time was Secretary of State…
Carey: And living here in Georgetown.
Keith: …lived on 34th Street…popped in the store. She loved my broaches and the jewelry. We just had this lovely friendship with her so I knew her quite well. She came with her security and I was showing her stuff. She picked out a few things.
When she was about to check out I said, “Madeleine, I hope you don’t think I’m intruding, but Adam’s homework this weekend is this, that, and the other. Do you have any advice?” She says, “Oh, of course.” She gave me her take. I went home that evening and I was able to say to my son, “How are you doing with your homework?”
Of course, he said, “Well, I haven’t done anything.” I said, “Well, have you thought about it?” “Not much,”he said.
“Well, I had a word with the Secretary of State this afternoon about your homework and this is what she suggests you take down.” In that moment, I think just the complete joy of living in Georgetown was apparent. Here I am. I’m a shopkeeper and a parent. What an extraordinary moment to have that you could share with your son!
Carey: And that your son probably raised his opinion of you enormously.
Keith: Maybe, When he went to do his presentation, he was able to say, “Well, Madeleine Albright said this.”
Carey: [laughs] This is her advice.
Keith: I think he probably did. He got a good grade.
Carey: That’s a great story.
Keith: This, for me, is what was so marvelous about living in Georgetown. We’re so small a village and yet the stage is so large. That is a remarkable part of what we experience in Georgetown. We have a very large community like many other communities repeated across the United States.
Carey: Because of the people that live here …
Keith: Because of the people and because of the interactions you have, it’s just slightly different. I wanted to share that story because I think it is…I’m sure many other retailers have different variations of that. That makes it so special.
Another relationship that was a political thing that also was so wonderful for me, Senator John Warner loved to come in…
Keith: …at Christmastime. He is such an elegant, wonderful, charming man. At that time, he wasn’t married. The two of us would just have a ball picking out these different things in a way in which we would put them all together and gift‑wrap them up, at that time. It was a remarkable time, a great joy.
How does it feel about owning a small business in Georgetown? Fabulous because there were all these experiences, all these different stories ‑‑ some that I can share, some I can’t share ‑‑ about these different people, what they needed, where the guests were going.
Over the years, we did gifts for kings, queens, princes. We did gifts for madams.
Carey: That’s awesome.
Keith: We did gifts for even arms dealers, [laughs] and for ambassadors. It was just an extraordinary mix of life. It gave me an insight into all sorts of different worlds. It was pretty fantastic.
Carey: Sounds like it.
Keith: I think that’s a little bit about the people, the day‑to‑day experience. I loved the conversations that we had. I had the idea with the shop that I wanted a salon. I wanted it to be a living room. I wanted it to be a place where you could come in and talk, and discuss ideas, and…
Carey: Certainly, aesthetically. It was not a museum, but it was certainly…
Keith: No, it’s about design.
Carey: Yeah, but it was a place to learn.
Keith: I think it was a place that you could see beautiful things, for people who enjoyed beautiful things. At the same time, I had this idea that design doesn’t have to be expensive. It depends on the material that you used. That is what determined the price. Then with the fashion jewelry, we were showing things ‑‑ when we started ‑‑ that weren’t seen anywhere else in America, mainly Italian design and French.
I know that you would want to ask me about this side of things, the merchandise and aesthetic. I think you’d also ask or would be curious about what went into thinking about those things. My view from the very beginning was, “How do I find the best of the best? How, to a certain extent, could I learn from history? How could I take what I knew of the past and interpret it and explore it for today?”
I had a very clear sense of the history of design and modern design, whether it was from the English in the 1880s, with Christopher Dresser moving into the aesthetic movement, moving into art nouveau, moving into art deco in the ’50s, the ’60s. Trying to understand all those different periods, which I could do through reading, I could do through going to museums.
Probably the best way to go was to the various antique dealers. If you go to London and Paris, or in New York, or even in DC, you could pick up the stuff, touch it, and talk to the person. You’d really get close to it in a way that at museums you don’t. It was interesting to me that what the English antique dealers valued wasn’t necessarily what the French antique dealers valued.
If you went to Antiquarius or Grays, which were antique markets in London, or the Antiquaires des Louvre, you’d get different takes on what was important certainly in glass and silver. I was able to explore that, understand that.
I was always trying to think about what is it that history has taught us was great and how through my eyes and my selections could I try and discern that. Which takes me back to that Italian exhibit we did in 1999, which I think was really important.
Then two years later, we did one with the English silversmiths because, in many ways, silver is a material that has a thousand years of objects. You can really begin to get your head around what’s great.
You can see what they did 1,000 years ago, 500 years ago, 200. You can look at the Regency period. You can look at Lamerie. You can look at Ver Knox. There’s a lot that you can see. I was really trying to understand that.
Carey: This shop that you ended up with in Georgetown, could you have done that any place else? What would have been different?
Keith: Funny enough, if I had it in London or New York, financially, it might have been more successful. It was successful, but I don’t think it would’ve been quite as rich an experience. The interesting thing about Georgetown was that when people came into my store, they seemingly had time to stay and talk. I don’t think that would’ve quite have happened…
Carey: In New York or London?
Keith: Because everyone would’ve been so busy. One of the great moments for me was a woman had come into my store. She loved my broaches. She was European. She came in. Then her husband came in, but he came in with some security.
She’s looking at the stuff. I start to chat with him. I go to chat with him, and I’m saying, “Oh, what brings you to Washington?” He said, “Oh, I’m here to give a speech.” I said, “What are you speaking on?” He said, “Well, I used to be the president of South Africa.” It was de Klerk.
Carey: Oh, my.
Keith: I said, “What are you talking about?” He said, “Well, you know, how at a certain point of my tenure there was resistance to my government and the policies towards ending apartheid.” “Oh,” I said.
Carey: You got to have a conversation with…?
Keith: I had a conversation with him. He started to talk about what was going on, what his policies had been, and how he was finding it. He told me. I said to him, “Have you come straight from Johannesburg?” He said, “No. I came from Jerusalem.” I said, “Oh, what are you doing in Jerusalem?”
“Well, I was there for Peres’ 80th birthday party.” “Oh!” I said, “What were you doing there?” “Well, he asked me to give a speech.” “What did you talk about?” He told me what he talked about. I don’t think I would have had that in London or in New York. That was what makes Georgetown so special. He was happy. His wife was happy.
Carey: Did she buy much?
Keith: She loved the broaches, so she bought some nice things. In some ways, that is a priceless experience in as much as I might have met him at an event or something, but there is no way he would spend 45 minutes with me just chatting while his wife is shopping.
Carey: Yes. He couldn’t go anywhere because his wife was there.
Keith: That’s exactly right. Why in Georgetown? We had a very unique place. It was very special. I would have to say that I fully benefited from that whole thing. I mean, Queen Noor who would come in, after working out, with her sweatsuit and cap on and things like that.
Carey: The thing is, it’s happening to everybody. In my business, it was the same thing. We dealt with all kinds of VIPs. I think that is something that is maybe unique to Georgetown.
Keith: I think that it’s this mash‑up of so many different people. If you are in Nashville, you get the country music people.
Carey: Or Wall Street in New York.
Keith: Here, I always felt we were a very small community, and therefore, we couldn’t but help bump into each other. People were open to it. We weren’t siloed in quite the same way larger cities were.
Carey: Anyway, what do you see in the future? I know your business model has changed.
Keith: I had my shop on 30th and M for about 24 years. At the beginning of 2017, I decided that I needed to evolve it ‑‑ the store ‑‑ because so much had changed in retail. I think the city had changed a tremendous amount. Demographics had changed.
I felt that the gift store model was kind of broke. When I started, if you needed to get a gift for your wife, or your girlfriend, or your husband, or your boyfriend, you had to get off your ass and get it. Whereas today, you don’t. With online, with Amazon Prime, it’s very easy to stay at home and just get it done.
That was a huge change. I also think that things slightly changed with the Four Seasons. They used to have the lovely ‑‑ for those of you that remember ‑‑ the lounge, which was a wonderful place to have tea or a drink, very relaxed. They went to the bourbon steak, which was much more profitable for the restaurant, but it meant that those who would relax and have a relaxed tea and then walk up the street, that all went.
There were a lot of things that changed in Georgetown. Not to mention, other parts of the city became to be developed, whether it be City Center, the Southwest Waterfront.
Carey: Now, the Wharf.
Keith: The Wharf. All of these things changed. The traffic, the quality, the types of people, the demographic that were walking up and down the street, walking into stores changed.
Carey: Do you think different clientele?
Carey: Your merchandise appeals to a different clientele because you have maintained your…
Keith: I think it was a number of things. It was not just that those people weren’t shopping as much. We went from a culture of valuing stuff, whether it was something beautiful, collectible or whatever, to a culture of wanting experiences.
Keith: There was a lot of different things going on that changed the way people shopped and what they were interested in. It’s not to say whether it’s better or worse. It just changed. Whereas before, we might sell lots of fabulous modern silver tea sets, by the end, there just wasn’t any interest in that even though it represented all this culture and centuries of development.
Carey: Now, the kids aren’t even interested in it.
Keith: No. To a certain extent, all the demographic is, “Been there done that.” Now it’s, “Where is your exotic vacation, and what is the picture you are going to put on Facebook?” It was less about the beauty of things. I think also things became very disposable. When we think about furniture and Wayfair and what’s going on today, people are buying expensive furniture online, which basically means they like the look of it. It’s what they can afford.
It can be expensive, but it’s not about the touch, and the feel, and looking underneath it and seeing how this is done and that’s done. Those days are kind of over for now.
Again, not to say whether it’s right or wrong. It’s just what it is. I felt that what I was looking to do…When I started with the fashion jewelry, we were the only game pretty much in town. By the end of it, down the street at the local sandwich store, you could buy this jewelry too. Everywhere, you could buy jewelry.
Carey: [laughs] Yeah.
Keith: Therefore, even though people always said to me, “Yes, but it’s not what you had.” It wasn’t, but by the time the customer had maybe got to my store, they’d already bought something somewhere else. It had changed. I decided that I would focus my business…I’m still in Georgetown. I’m now at 1054 31st Street. We’re in Canal Square, which in a funny old way is where I was 25 years…
Carey: You’ve gone full circle.
Keith: I’m back with Richard Bernstein in Canal Square, focusing on the business and the diplomatic gifts and thinking about how the gift can be a wonderful tool for diplomats, for business people, for politicians to facilitate thoughtfulness, empathy.
I’m interested in how we create safe space for diplomats. When there’s a gift exchange, there’s an opportunity for thoughtfulness, a conversation. It might be about culture. It might be about history. It might be about mission, lots of different things. We help people in that area. It’s a very Georgetown thing. It’s very Washington area.
Carey: Who else has this many diplomats?
Keith: That’s right.
Carey: All right. Anything else you want to add?
Keith: You asked me about, “What you see for the future of independent shops in Georgetown.”
Keith: It’s a complicated question. Wisconsin Avenue has just signed up for a Main Street program, which is a city‑public‑private partnership program, which is to try and help the independent stores. It’s very difficult to be an independent store.
Carey: Does Main Street work on quality as well? Is there any kind of value?
Keith: I think that they want to…This is all very noble. This is about trying to preserve community. In a way, our restaurants, our stores are the glue that binds a community. When I came to America, I was very struck by how the history of this country is very much tied up with its retail stores in a way that Europe was not. If you want to know the history of Chicago, a study of Marshall Field’s will tell you a lot about that.
Carey: Neiman Marcus for Dallas.
Keith: That’s right. In a way that the study of Harrod’s does not tell you about London. You study Marshall Field and you understand how it grew as a center. You understand how it’s evolving middle class came of age. You learn a lot about the move west.
Marshall Field’s also bought Frederick & Nelson in Seattle. Marshall Field’s was famous for its chocolates. They’re called Frangos, but actually that was Frederick & Nelson chocolates.
Keith: I was very interested in that story. A study of ZCMI in Salt Lake City told you a lot about Utah. I began to understand that in America, as retailers succeeded, communities grew. When retail died, so did communities.
In the ’60s, after the riots and downtown was devastated ‑‑ we’re talking about shops ‑‑ it also led to the devastation of communities downtown. It took 60 years for us to come back. Again, its resurgence is linked to the retail.
Carey: Going back in.
Keith: It’s Whole Foods going in or city center shops going in. It’s shops which help communities thrive or the lack of shops that lead to the community’s suffering. Where are we? In Georgetown, that great theme?
It’s kind of complicated. The good news is we have this very educated, affluent community. The slightly difficult part of it is that if you talk to retailers on M Street and Wisconsin, they will say to you that one of the struggles is trying to get locals to come into the store. Why is it…?
Carey: Meaning, Georgetown locals?
Keith: Georgetown locals do not…When you think of Georgetown, whether it’s from 28th to 37th.
Carey: Right. Meaning locals, not meaning just DC residents.
Keith: I just told you that those shops couldn’t survive just on the business they get from locals. They absolutely need the support of people coming from other parts of the country. The problem is that because of the nature of the city and all the different opportunities, Georgetown doesn’t get all that other stuff. There’s a real problem for local independent stores because they don’t get enough support from Georgetown.
Carey: From the local.
Keith: That’s because sometimes they prefer to shop in New York, or they prefer to shop in Tysons or the outside. It has always been an issue.
Carey: You’re saying that it’s worse now?
Keith: What I’m saying is that the problem is I don’t think that’s changed so much, but the support from shoppers coming to DC are no longer just coming to Georgetown. Whereas, before, Georgetown was the place to go.
Carey: You went to shop.
Keith: Now, you can go to city center. Now, you can go to 14th Street. There are a lot of other opportunities. The pie has been cut even more thinly. When I used to supply stores in Nashville or other parts of the country, the communities were much more invested in their local stores and the stores were much more, somehow, connected to their communities.
Carey: Why do you think Georgetown is less, though?
Keith: I think partly we were more international. We were more transient plus a variety of other things. When we look up and down Wisconsin and M, you see, first of all the developers encourage more national chains to come in, so you saw fewer and fewer independents.
You saw the landlords observing that the values of their properties were more and more, and then finding that they deserved more rent. This in a sense put pressure on the smaller independents, which led to more national. Now we have a slight swing back because the nationals also are under stress.
Keith: They can’t quite afford either the large fee. We’re in a bit of a mishmash right now of things. I think the main street projects illustrate that communities are trying to find the right balance.
Carey: Is it federal funding for this or is it state? Is it federal funding?
Keith: It’s city funds. I think in the case of the Wisconsin main street, they get 175,000, which pays for full‑time employee, and separate amount of money goes to project and then the communities want to match in to the small things.
Carey: Bet your helping out is going to be a big factor?
Keith: I think it’s an example of a community trying to figure its way through some very complicated issues. My own view is that anything that you need is increasingly going to happen online.
If you need it, if you’re a young family ‑‑ diapers, this that and the other, food increasingly, socks ‑‑ it’s so easy to go online. It comes so quickly and it’s the cheapest option.
Carey: Yes. You don’t have to go out and get it.
Keith: Right. I think need is increasingly going to go online. Want is a slightly different thing. I’m not quite sure how much of the want stuff can survive as an independent store as opposed to a chain. I do think there’s an issue of the relationship between how much a store does in its sales in relationship to the rent it can bear.
Traditionally, your rent shouldn’t exceed 10% of sales. That is a little bit out of whack at the moment. I’m not quite sure how retailers and others do that.
Carey: Then the third factor would be what you talked about earlier about getting the customers. You have the merchandise, but it’s getting the…
Keith: Getting people in the shops, the traffic into the stores. They say that online is about 10 to 15 percent of all sales. There’s a lot going on in the stores, still. For Georgetown, which is slightly a particular community, I’m not sure quite what the answer is. There are a lot of empty stores, shop fronts.
Carey: Every month.
Keith: A number are the ones that have been filled up with pop‑ups rather than permanent stores. I’m not quite sure how that’s all going to turn out. I think the other side of the equation is that Georgetown, as a place to live, has never been better.
Carey: Right, if you can buy in.
Keith: The waterfront, the parks, the community is wonderful.
Carey: Even the schools.
Keith: And the schools. I think that there is so much that’s special about our community. For retailers and the commercial, there are certain stores there are going to do very well on M Street and Wisconsin.
I know that we’re very lucky to have Potomac Wines. I think Steve and his two sons do an incredible job. I think David Berkebile at Georgetown Tobacco has really done a wonderful job.
Carey: Oh, right.
Keith: There you’re talking about things that are slightly addictive. They have an audience that is driven in.
Carey: [laughs] A built‑in clientele.
Keith: As independent stores, they do well.
Carey: Yeah, they are doing well. And some of the service stores like the hairdressers as well.
Keith: Yeah, and some of the restaurants. We’ve got some nice new additions. We seem to have some clothing stores that seem to be doing OK. I think SEPHORA does well.
Carey: I wonder about the restaurants. They don’t have to be good. The clientele is here.
Keith: There’s a lot of choice in restaurants at the moment. It’s very hard to do well with a restaurant. The combination of overhead to sales is still an issue. I think restaurants are still under pressure and there’s so many options in the city today, which makes it quite difficult.
I think Georgetown has made a good effort at trying to attract the best. We did away with all our restrictions, and liquor licenses, which probably served as a good move.
Carey: This has been very thoughtful and fascinating. You really put a lot of thought into it. I’m very grateful that you agreed to do this. Thank you. Do you have anything else you want to add?
Keith: Yes. I’ve loved living in Georgetown. It has enriched my life. I’ve been here nearly 30 years. As I mentioned, I grew up in Central London and had a very wonderful life there. Then had this lovely, probably nine years in New York, as a 20 something, which was very exciting.
My time in Georgetown has been very special. I feel very privileged to have had this experience, living in a lovely neighborhood. I felt that it was a little bit Norman Rockwell.
Certainly, since I moved here to 35th street. We have our little fire station, our corner store, our Volta Park with little kids playing little league.
Carey: We got Duke Ellington’s renovation which is certainly different?
Keith: I think Duke Ellington School of the Arts has obviously transformed in the last year into something very special. There were certain years when it was maybe a blessing and maybe not.
I remember the corner store. The guy’s name…He was always getting robbed. It was not a good thing. I think that, obviously, it was an important place for the kids…
Carey: The program is amazing. It attracts kids from all over the city who are strong academically as well as artistically. It is very competitive to get into and the students go on to big careers in the creative and performing arts. The new facility also has a very large auditorium for stuidents as well as for professional performances.
Keith: The program is amazing. But from experience of somebody who was living her, if you taled to the corner store guy, he wasn’t so happy. To me, this has been a very special part of America. You get to live it in a lovely way with a wonderful community.
I’ve loved knowing the restaurateurs. Who of us doesn’t know Billy Martins or Cafe Milano and other restaurants over the years? It’s places that we can go or the sandwich stores, the characters. You got a sense of…I was very happy that my son got to grow up in a real community where he could walk down the street.
Carey: Well, that’s the thing. The fact that it’s a walking neighborhood, I think, is a big factor in the joy of it.
Keith: We’ve all been very blessed. We live amongst all these very interesting people and characters. You get to interact if you want and if you don’t, not. It’s all here. For me, I’ve loved that. As a retailer, I got to probably experience it in probably a greater way.
People will walk in through my door and say, “Hello.” In the same way, as the restaurateurs love there, got a hug on their customers, I got a hug on my customers. They tended to be from all different walks of life. I got to engage with them, and I continue to. It’s been great.
Carey: You’ve got many more years to do it.
Keith: Well, that’s it. I’m very happy about my move to Canal Square and the opportunity to have learned from the past, and to apply that knowledge to different situations today ‑‑ knowing our community, knowing the diplomatic world, the political world, the business world, and making it relevant. I’m so happy to be here on the street.
Keith: Thank you.
Carey: That’s terrific. All right, we’re done. I’m sorry about my voice. I am so hoarse.