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The Jungle

Kennedy Bugged Piccolo

On a Washington, D.C. memorabilia shop.


Sometimes when I have time to kill, I wander up Fourteenth Street, past the wine bars and osterias, and stop into a decaying brownstone where I am nearly always greeted by Douglas Robinson, Washington, D.C.’s last novelty salesman. Douglas has lived here since 1956 when his father, Jack, bought the building and christened it “Monarch.” Before that, Jack ran the place out of a townhouse behind Howard University. He sold trinkets, carnival prizes, and political paraphernalia. He raised Douglas, as well as his ten siblings, to do the same. Most are now dead. Douglas remains, holding onto the shop even as it rots into the ground.

I knew Douglas would help me out when I had it in mind recently that I needed a Barry Goldwater button. It is well known in collector circles that the Goldwater campaign, typical of the conservative political movement that it launched, spent massive amounts of money on promotional materials for only a meager return at the ballot box, leaving full warehouses of junk hoarded by his devotees, never to be sold—except by Douglas, who holds no reverence for Mr. Conservative or any other politician, save one local giant.

“Let’s put it this way,” Douglas told me as we picked through a miscellany of campaign buttons. “He wasn’t famous when he come in, but Marion Barry used to drop in here all the time before he became a big shot.”

He bowed his head, chuckling at the memory of D.C.’s self-proclaimed Mayor for Life.

“He’d pick up these five hundred-item toy boxes. For kids, he said. This was back when he worked at the Recreation Department,” Douglas explained. “Well anyway, the hotel where he was busted for drugs is right down there.”

He gestured toward the Westin in Thomas Circle, where Metro police arrested the city’s most beloved public figure in 1990 for hitting a crack pipe.

“Can’t remember the room number.” 

I reached into a box and pulled out a black and gold button adorned with the clunky slogan “Go Go Goldwater In ’64” and a cartoon elephant. Douglas dug out several lenticular buttons that when tilted to the left revealed a smiling Goldwater and when to the right, his luckless running mate, William Miller. I opted for the elephant and prepared to leave.

“Oh, but what about George W. Bush buttons?” I asked. “Do you have any of those?”

Douglas laughed.

“That stuff is too new for me,” he said. “Go somewhere else for that up-to-date stuff. I could get you a Kennedy poster: five dollars. Or this,” he said, grabbing a dinner plate-sized likeness of Lyndon Baines Johnson out from under a collection of false teeth. “Johnson is three dollars.”

“Or back here,” he added. “That picture of the former pope is five dollars.”

He snatched up a water-stained poster celebrating Pope John Paul II’s visit to the city in 1979. 

“I saw that pope come by here, and followed him all the way down Rhode Island Avenue to Saint Matthew’s,” he said. “That’s where I used to go to church. And to school. One of the schools I went to was three doors away from Saint Matthew’s. Of course, it’s not there anymore. It’s a bilingual center now. I actually started school at Saint Martin’s on Sixteenth Street in Northeast. It’s still there. Ah, when you go up to Northeast, you think the whole city is Catholic.”

He smirked and handed the John Paul II poster over to me.

“They’re building that big basilica up there, and they’ll be building it when I’m dead and gone.”

Douglas says things like this when certain items trigger his memory. Political buttons dredge up recollections of his father’s friends. A certain twelve-inch ruler brings to mind a barber shop in Chicago. And the many images of President Kennedy hanging on the walls recall the faith of his youth. It mostly consisted of attempts to outwit nuns and ploys for attention in a large Catholic family, but Douglas had something that, to a boy in 1961, felt special: both he and Kennedy were Saint Matthew’s parishioners. 

At the time, Kennedy-love was in the air everywhere in the city. Jack Robinson had a business friend, Jimmy Piccolo, an Italian Catholic who owned a chain of souvenir stores on Pennsylvania Avenue. Piccolo’s wife was, Douglas recalled, “a total Kennedy nut.” She had her husband fill the store with all sorts of Kennedy gear. She watched the president process down the street outside her husband’s store after his inauguration. Just obsessed with the guy. Kennedy bugged Piccolo.

Piccolo never could have known it, but he bugged Kennedy too. As the newly inaugurated president rolled down Pennsylvania Avenue in 1961, Kennedy remarked when passing Piccolo’s block that the line of souvenir shops, bars, and burlesque theaters were an embarrassment to good taste. Kennedy soon after appointed a panel of experts to revitalize the street for the American (and international) public. The group, led by the then-unknown Daniel Patrick Moynihan, thought long and hard about how to improve the street, but instead produced a proposal for the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s headquarters.

A giant government building on Pennsylvania Avenue meant that all the businesses had to go. Piccolo, frustrated, gave up his livelihood and moved west. But before ditching the city, he sold his remaining stock to Jack, who put it all away in storage. Douglas, over the years, has slowly brought it all out into the shop, making Monarch probably the only store in the entire country that sells political paraphernalia limited exclusively to souvenirs of the 1960-1968 elections.

Piccolo’s departure marked for Douglas the end of his Kennedy-inflected naïveté. And the riots following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968 embittered him to his city. Nearly all of Washington, D.C., suffered, but Fourteenth Street was hardest hit. The neighborhood arguably never recovered. In the aftermath, the Robinson family briefly became famous for a Washington Post photo of Jack and three of his sons standing inside of Monarch, each grimacing and holding a gun. One of the brothers, Bo, cradled a shotgun and with his bloodied arm bandaged by Douglas’s bedsheet. The moment left a deep mark on Douglas.

“If my brother didn’t have that shotgun, we wouldn’t be here,” he told me. “Rioters were burning all up and down Fourteenth Street. They put a lot of people out of business. Ruined some old people in their late seventies and so on, they couldn’t no way get another job.”       

He shook his head.

“As I was saying, I’m sixty-nine years old and this is the last of its kind,” he said, “the last novelty shop in D.C.” 

It’s a position Douglas relishes. When Fourteenth Street was a slum, he and his family locked up out front but kept doing business. Now that the neighborhood has been infused with cash—city government incentives to build a gustatory playpen for young professionals—Douglas still maintains his old pre-gentrification rituals. Customers must ring a bell to get in. No photos allowed. Cash only. Douglas jokes that he prefers pennies to any other form of currency.

Although Douglas clings to his memories of the old neighborhood, it wasn’t always that way. In 2004, just as the first round of developers were moving into Monarch’s stretch of Fourteenth Street, he, along with Bo and Tommy Robinson, declared war on a company seeking to build a behemoth luxury apartment building right behind Thomas Circle. At the time, Bo and Tommy lived upstairs, and occasionally helped Douglas out in the store. More often though, they were staked out on a parking space-sized piece of land in the middle of a construction site.

Tommy bought the spot for sixty-three dollars in 1983. He never really used it for anything, but kept watch over it nonetheless. When a construction company approached him, along with the rest of the landowners on the block, for a buyout, he alone refused, forcing architects to design the building around his parking spot.

For the next year and a half, Tommy and Bo took turns guarding their property as the building went up around them. They sat on a bucket, taking pictures of the workers, who, in turn, photographed them and hurled obscenities their way. The brothers became notorious in the neighborhood and known as the “Robinson Gang” among their enemies. 

Tommy eventually sued in 2005, claiming that the crane swinging over his spot, which at that point had become a grassy peninsula jutting out into a deeply excavated work zone, amounted to unlawful land use on the part of the developers. The developers settled with the brothers out of court and convinced them to sell the parking space for about two-hundred thousand dollars. The victory is the largest mark the Robinson family made on the city: from the sky, the finished apartment building looks like a demented, backward letter C.

Douglas could net an even better profit than Tommy if he ever chose to sell Monarch. The building is estimated to be worth nearly two million dollars and is in one of the most desirable locations in the city. But he’ll never part with it. Douglas grew up there. He might as well die there.  

Death is often on his mind. As we toured Monarch, he pointed out old newspaper clippings of his friends, all dead. The store reeks of mold. Its front awning, which hasn’t been unrolled for decades, is rotted shut. When the phone rings—and it rarely does—Douglas does not pick it up.

I wondered, while he bagged up my Goldwater button, what keeps Douglas always running over the same ground in his mind. Every time I visit him, he tells me the same stories, the same grievances about Kennedy, and the same warnings not to give money to homeless people in Metro stations. I imagine he used to have more on his mind, before decades of isolation condensed his thoughts into a catalogue of injustices.

“Do you still go to Saint Matthew’s?” I asked.


“The Cathedral. For Mass.” 

“No,” he scowled. “I’m not a practicing Catholic anymore.”

With that, he led me to the door and threw the padlock when I left.

Nic Rowan is a staff writer for the Washington Examiner

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