The rest is history

A walking tour of DC, a big box store that started in a bar—frankly, I just like this stuff. Also, 7 other things worth your time.

There’s a pizza place at 1335 Wisconsin Avenue NW in Washington D.C. that used to be a French restaurant.

A plaque on the wall will tell you that in 1985, height of the Cold War, a KGB spy who had defected to the West was eating dinner there with his handlers.

He left to use the bathroom, snuck out a window, and ran off to return to the Soviets—leaving the CIA wondering if he’d ever really been a true defector to begin with.

There’s a Chinese restaurant at 604 H Street NW called (not kidding), the Wok ’n Roll.

It’s the same 3-story building that was home to the Mary Surratt Boarding House in the 1860s, which is where the assassins who killed Abraham Lincoln met to conspire.

This is one of the things I used to love about living in DC: almost every address has history.

Walk across the Key Bridge in Rosslyn, it’s not far, and you’ll find the site of a former parking garage where Bob Woodward used to meet with Deep Throat.

Or head to 1401 Pennsylvania Ave N.W., site of the Willard Hotel, which is where, 150 years ago, President Grant would drink brandy and smoke cigars most nights. The people waiting in the lobby to speak with him each night became known as “lobbyists.”

And then, there’s 2461 18th St NW, in the Adams Morgan neighborhood, near where I used to live.

For the past 25 years or so, the address has been home to a pretty well-known bar called “Madam’s Organ.” (It’s closed for the moment, due to Covid-19.)

I was always surprised that more people hadn’t stumbled across its unusual history—something that had an effect on the childhoods of almost everyone reading this newsletter (and if not you, your kids).

Long before the bar, there was a store in that building called Children’s Bargain Town. It was opened in 1948 by a man named Charles Lazarus (then 25, and just out of his wartime service in military intelligence), and it was born of a savvy insight.

As he explained: “Everybody I met in the service said they were going to go home and get married and have children.”

Families having babies meant demand for baby furniture, Lazarus realized, and then he had another revelation: Parents who had more than one child might buy a single crib or high chair, but each kid wanted his or her own toys.

So, Lazarus expanded, refocused the stores, and renamed them: Toys R Us. It grew to become one of the first big-box chain retailers, and a category killer.

“Over the years, I have taught children to say, ‘I need it!’ rather than, ‘I want it!’” Lazarus said proudly in a family history video. He stayed at the helm through all kinds of iterations, ultimately being acquired by a bigger, public company, and eventually becoming the CEO of that company as well.

In the 2000s and especially the last decade, the company declined. Lazarus died in 2018, just before Toys R Us faced its near-final demise.

And, the rest is history. Technically Toys R Us still exists, but post-bankruptcy and even pre-Covid, it had only a couple of stores. Its website is now basically just an Amazon affiliate site.

Anyway, I guess this must be my week to share stories of World War II veterans who went on to start iconic toy brands of the 20th century. As you can tell, I kind of love this stuff.

So I’m curious. Is there a nondescript address with a storied history near where you live? A story worth sharing? A secret of history you can hardly believe everyone doesn’t already know? Tell us about it in the comments—or else, reply to this email and with your permission I’ll share them.

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7 other things worth your time

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