MS. REBECCA SHEIR
Welcome back to "Metro Connection." I'm Rebecca Sheir. And on today's show, we've been exploring mysteries, puzzles and enigmas of the D.C. region, from secret tunnels to metro tunnels to Sasquatch and insect zombies. But what's a show about mysteries and puzzles...
MS. KATHLEEN DONAHUE
Okay. So this room is more old-timey mechanical puzzles, all wooden.
These are iron tavern puzzles, traditionally done by blacksmithing apprentices.
...actual physical puzzles.
And we have some really neat adult jigsaw puzzles, kids jigsaw puzzles and we have 3-D jigsaw puzzles of the capital and the White House and all the monuments.
We're at Labyrinth Games and Puzzles, a new shop on Capitol Hill owned by this woman, Kathleen Donahue.
My father owned a wine store and so I worked with my dad through high school and college in the liquor store. And whenever I would go back to what I wanted to do, it was always some type of retail.
But life took Donahue in a decidedly un-retail like direction. She found herself working in law.
I was the director of marketing for an international law firm.
For operational efficiency in HR and technology.
And until one day a brainstorm changed everything. She'd been driving around Northern Virginian trying to find a Mancala board for her son's friend's birthday. Mancala, by the way, is a strategy game from Africa.
And then, I got stuck on the 14th Street Bridge and I called my husband and I was like, I can't believe I'm sitting in two hours of traffic because I can't find a present for a seven year-old. And my husband's like, that's it. You should open a toy on Capitol Hill. And I said, but I don't like toys, I like games. And he's like, well, duh.
And wa-la. On Black Friday, 2010, Labyrinth Games and Puzzles was born.
I mean, Washington D.C. is one of the highest educated populations in the country and so I thought going back to kind of old-timey brainiac activities might work.
Which, in a way, might seem like a bold move given Donahue's anything but old-timey competition.
That is something I wanted to ask you, of course. In this day and age where your games are now a glowing rectangle of some sort, some sort of screen, how do you feel like you can compete?
I mean, I love video games, don't get me wrong. I have nothing against electronic games at all. But I also think focusing in real life interaction is so important and helps teach kids social skills and things through games.
That's why she holds special game nights and game weekends at Labyrinth. She even has tables and chairs in the back of the store for real people in real time to come together and connect.
MR. ROBERT POHL
And let's see, nope, that's not it.
Of course, not all of Labyrinth's wares are about person-to-person interaction.
Now I'm getting somewhere.
Some of them are more of a solitary venture.
Like those wooden mechanical puzzles, in this case, the Log Jam, a favorite of regular customer, Robert Pohl.
I think, since I solved it once, I actually remember the trick here. I'm not going to describe it.
We're lucky this is radio.
Can't give away your secret.
Pohl has solved many of Labyrinth's 50 or so wooden puzzles. He says he finds them comforting because he knows there's a solution.
I'm a writer. I write about history. When I have a problem there and I'm looking for a piece of data, I don't know if that piece of data is out there so it can get very frustrating. Here, I know that there is a limited space in which you're operating and you know the solution is somewhere in there. I think that's what makes it so uplifting.
And he's not alone. He says puzzles actually have the same effect on his six-year-old son.
When he's flustered and at loose ends, I'm like, go do a puzzle. And then he'll go do a puzzle and then he's a lot calmer afterwards.
Of course, it can go the opposite way, too. Rather than soothe you, a puzzle can downright stump you. For instance, you know those iron tavern puzzles Kathleen Donahue sells. Years ago, then President George H. Bush received one of them, Dirty Dog, as a gift. And for the life of him, he could not figure out how to solve it. So what did he do, he wrote to the puzzle company.
And they actually sent me a copy of the letter. It says, okay. I admit defeat on the Dirty Dog so there. Please hasten the answer. Enough damage to pride and morale has already been done. Sincerely, expectantly, H. W. Bush.
But that drive to find the answer, the solution, Donahue says, is a natural one.
The actual solving a puzzle attacks the places in your head that bring pleasure. So once you solve it, you kind of get an endorphin rush of, I was able to achieve something.
Which can be fairly addictive.
Not like I'm dealing puzzle drugs or anything, but we have a lot of people that come in and say, what's your hardest puzzle? Can you get me harder puzzles?
And Donahue is, of course, more than happy to oblige. In fact, she's always look to expand her merchandise, especially when it comes to stuff made by local designers.
I've heard that there's some in the area, but I haven't been able to connect with a lot of them.
Right now, Labyrinth sells logic puzzles by Think Fun, a company based in Alexandria, and that just adds to the overall neighborhood feel of the place, something Kathleen Donahue has been striving to achieve from the very beginning.
I started thinking and doing research and in everything that I had read that talked about brick and mortar, small mom and pop stores that could still survive, they always talk about how you need to make it a destination.
In other words, a place where people want to spend time, hang out and it appears to be working.
I just had a 14 year-old spend six hours in here last weekend, playing with all the wooden puzzles. He's, like, really? I can just sit here and play? And I'm, like, yes, that's the idea. Come in and play with the puzzles. It's okay.
In fact, it might be more than okay. It might be downright therapeutic. We have more information about Labyrinth Games and Puzzles on our website, metroconnection.org, including photos of those old-timey mechanical puzzles like the Log Jam, the Splitting Headache, the Devil's Chessboard and the iron puzzle that defeated President George H. W. Bush, the Dirty Dog.
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