GMS Vignettes: ‘Georgetown Is the Fabric of My Life’ 

2 of Georgetown’s Oldest Businesses, The Phoenix and Georgetown Tobacco, Keep the Home Fires Burning

By Hailey Wharram

Amid Georgetown’s ever-shifting commercial mosaic, The Phoenix—located on 1514 Wisconsin Ave. NW—and Georgetown Tobacco—located on 3144 M St. NW—are two small businesses which have withstood the test of time. Thanks to their adaptability and dependability, The Phoenix and Georgetown Tobacco have cemented themselves as cornerstones of the Georgetown community for 69 and 60 years, respectively.

Samantha Hays Gushner of The Phoenix. Photo by Hailey Wharram.

The Phoenix

Bill and Betty Hays founded The Phoenix, a fashion, home goods and jewelry store focused on spotlighting sustainable, “small-batch” artisans in 1955. Originally, the storefront specialized in Mexican art, clothing and decor, with the Hays’s curating a vibrant collection of merchandise during their annual travels. However, when their son John Hays and his wife Sharon took over The Phoenix in 1980, the couple broadened the scope of the store’s merchandise to include products from a variety of international and domestic designers. Having worked in the store since she was 13 years old, John and Sharon Hays’s daughter, Samantha Hays Gushner, elected to carry on the torch after her parents’ retirement during the pandemic, ushering The Phoenix into its third generation of familial store owners.

“Growing up, I spent my childhood traveling around Mexico, and I always remember being immersed in the culture, food, and art that Mexico is so rich in,” Gushner said. “That was a very vivid memory for me, and that was kind of the foundation of my love of travel and wanderlust which translates into what I’m doing with the business now where we’ve expanded beyond Mexico. We still have our heart in Mexico and I still work with many different artists and designers there, but we’ve really expanded our reach to more global sourcing. I work with jewelry designers in Germany and Italy, textile designers in South Africa and clothing designers in France and Italy as well as a number of American designers.”

Like its mythical namesake, The Phoenix has impressively reinvented itself over the years to keep up with the evolving interests of its customer base—a quality which Gushner attributes to the store’s sustained success.

“I’m always looking for something new to attract new customers and keep their attention,” Gushner said. “We have an incredibly loyal and devoted fan base. We’re very, very lucky, and I’m honored that that’s the case. Since we’ve been here so long, we do have that stability in the community and I never take that for granted—it’s always something that is constantly needing to be earned and tweaked and managed.”

Georgetown Tobacco

David Berkebile’s Georgetown Tobacco has similarly embraced evolution and cultivated strong customer relationships over the past 60 years. However, unlike The Phoenix, Berkebile has been the shop’s sole owner since its opening in 1964. After a few years in the Navy, Berkebile opened Georgetown Tobacco out of a former pawn shop when he was only 24 years old. Berkebile and his wife—his high school sweetheart—live in Arlington now, but they moved to Georgetown in 1995 and lived here together for 20 years. During his time living in the neighborhood, Berkebile was a founding member of the Georgetown Business Improvement District in 1999.

“I was born down the street from here at Columbia Hospital which is now a condo six blocks down,” Berkebile said. “One of my daughters was born there, too. The other two were up at Georgetown. I went to Western High School, which is now Duke Ellington. I went to American University. But I didn’t graduate, because I didn’t like it—I wanted to get in business. Georgetown is the fabric of my life.”

At one time, Berkebile owned six Georgetown Tobacco storefronts, including locations in Williamsburg, Montgomery Mall, Tyson’s Corner, Iverson Mall and Alexandria. Nowadays, the original Georgetown location is the last storefront standing. However, the company also specializes in online orders—a facet of their modern business model which proved vital during the pandemic.

Contrary to what the name might imply, Georgetown Tobacco has sold a diverse array of merchandise beyond cigars over the years, including a myriad of international knick knacks such as hats, stuffed animals, cufflinks, bronzes, figurines, canes, ceramics and sculptures. Perhaps most strikingly, upon first entering the store, customers are welcomed by display cases brimming with rows and rows of intricate Venetian masks.

“I saw the masks at a New York gift show years ago and I thought, ‘Oh, this might work,’ so I tried them. At the time, the company was selling masks to Cirque du Soleil, and after a couple of years, their biggest customers were Cirque du Soleil and me,” Berkebile said.

Though, according to Berkebile, Georgetown has changed considerably over the years (“It was a sleepy little town when I opened up, and now, as you’ll see, it’s mostly chains,” Berkebile said.), his heartfelt appreciation for his unique customer base has remained steadfast.

“Overall, cigar smokers and pipe smokers, they’re a different kind of people, an interesting kind of people,” Berkebile said. “A cigar will kind of bring everybody together. You can sit down and have nothing in common with ten people but then you’re smoking cigars and you have a common ground. That’s been my attraction to the business all these years. The people are just great people.”

You can shop at The Phoenix and Georgetown Tobacco (if you are 21 years of age or older) here.

Sponsored by Georgetown Main Street



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