A new apartment building on Eighth Street NW is named for Jim Shay, a D.C. original

John Kelly
Columnist March 29

My daddy, who passed away seven years ago, was named James Shay. Back in the day, he had a liquor store (called Jim Shay Liquors) and other businesses at Ninth and U streets NW. There is a new condo development being built called “The Shay” at Eighth and Florida in NW. Did the builder pick that name because of my dad?

— Joy Shay, Deale, Md.

John Kelly writes "John Kelly's Washington," a daily look at Washington's less-famous side. Born in Washington, John started at The Post in 1989 as deputy editor in the Weekend section. View Archive

James Martin Shay — Jim Shay to his many friends and customers — was known as “the Mayor of Ninth Street.” His various endeavors made him a fixture in the neigh­-borhood. There was the epony­-mous Jim Shay Liquors, of course, but there was also a grocery store and a barbershop — and the rental residences above them. He owned a dry cleaners, too, and was a partner in a nightclub called the Hollywood.

Not bad for a man who dropped out of school in the fifth grade.

But is an apartment community — two buildings straddling Eighth Street NW — named for him? Yes, said Matt Blocher, senior vice president of marketing and communications at the JBG Cos., the project’s developer.

“Often, when looking to give a building a name, we try to have some direct or indirect meaning to the neighborhood,” he told Answer Man. “In this particular project, Shay is the name of the gentleman who used to own part of the real estate years ago.”

Jim Shay embodied the entrepreneurial spirit. A native Washingtonian, he joined the Marine Corps — one of the earliest African Americans to do so, said his daughter, Joy.

He could be found holding court at his liquor store and at the clubs and restaurants he frequented: Faces, Chez Maurice, Chuck and Billy’s Bar and Carryout, Les Nieces, Eugertha’s. He organized bus trips to RFK Stadium to see the Redskins play. If you were hard up for a ticket, Jim Shay always seemed to have extras.

Where Jim Shay showed up most frequently in the pages of The Washington Post was in stories about “the numbers,” the unofficial — and illegal — lotteries run out of barbershops, liquor stores and corner markets. Somehow, Shay found time to be a numbers runner, too.

“That’s the truth,” Joy said. “That’s what he did. I guess a lot of what we call old-school hustlers did. Those people never really hurt anybody, not like the hustlers in this day and age.”

Jim Shay did not consider U Street a safe place for Joy back in the 1970s. “He really wanted to keep me super separate from that life,” she said.

Shay was proud of the mini-empire he had built, but he didn’t want Joy to dally on U Street. He wanted her to go to school. She listened to him. Today, she works in the executive office of Verizon Center.

When the Shay apartments open in early 2015, the 245 units will feature open layouts, stainless steel appliances, a swimming pool, bike storage and a dog-washing station.

Jim Shay knew the neighborhood would gentrify.

“He told me it would,” said Joy, 46. “I said he was crazy. . . . He was right.”

Shay’s wife of 46 years, Evelyn, died in 1992. Jim died on St. Patrick’s Day in 2007. Besides Joy, he left behind a son, Sabu Waters, and two granddaughters.

“My father was always there for the underdog, always loved the underdog, always loved the small guy,” said Sabu, 61, of the District. “He always said that area was going to change and it was going to be prominent.”

Joy and Sabu think their father would be delighted to know a building bears his name.

“I know if there’s a heaven, he’s up there tripping out,” Joy said.

Other ‘numbers runners’

Answer Man heard from several graduates of Benjamin Franklin University after last week’s column about the school. Chip Ford was one of them. He went there in the early 1970s.

“While my friends attended toga parties on most weekends, I was at home studying cost accounting, partnership and corporate taxation and doing tax returns,” Chip wrote.

He was also getting a great education from some smart teachers. His favorite was the prescient economist Antoine “Tony” Berle, who in 1973 assigned the entire class a group project on electronic funds transfer. Wrote Chip: “He noted that the day would come when you would not have to go into the bank to make a deposit or withdrawal and that you would carry around a personal plastic ‘debit’ card, with a secret password, to buy groceries, gasoline, etc. ‘Yeah, right,’ I said aloud.”

Chip must have paid attention at BFU. He’s the chief financial officer for ESPN980 sports talk radio.

For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly. Send your questions about the D.C. area to answerman@washpost.com.

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