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Amble On
Charlottesville's Downtown Mall Is a Stroller's Paradise


Caroline Kettlewell Special to The Washington Post June 29, 2001; Page T32

"It's a great place for the little kids to rip and run," says city police officer Hiawatha Green Jr. as he pauses to give directions to a couple of Australian tourists.

"Sometimes I don't have to use the car for days," says local resident and tribal textiles purveyor Stephanie Tanner.

"It's like a small-scale Barcelona, like the pedestrian promenade La Rambla," muses architect Frederick Oesch.

"It takes me half an hour to get to the post office five blocks away because I see so many people I know," says bookstore owner Scott Fennessey.

Thriving and vibrant, the place they're all talking about is the Downtown Mall in Charlottesville, a roughly seven-block stretch of what was once the Virginia city's downtown Main Street. Flanked by more than a century's parade of architectural history, the Mall is closed to cars and open to the manifold pleasures of ambling and dining, meandering and concertgoing, strolling and browsing, shopping and sauntering, with sunshine overhead and a gentle breeze playing past and the dappled shade of trees to welcome you simply to sit and take in the passing scene.

The Mall was born a quarter-century ago in a controversial bid to save Charlottesville's downtown; the street was bricked over, trees and flower pots planted, fountains set splashing and the Downtown Mall arrived to much fanfare.

For a while after that, things were pretty . . . quiet. These days, however, the Mall is decidedly happening. An array of shops, cafes and restaurants fill the first floors and spill onto the Mall, while the upper floors are home to tech companies, massage therapists, design firms, residential apartments and the like.

The local crowd that you'll see lining up at places like the Mark's Hot Dogs outdoor cart (the bestseller: traditional hot dog with mustard, chili and onions), Mudhouse coffee (213 W. Main, 434/984-6833) and zesty Mono Loco (200 W. Water St., 434/979-0688), with its Cuban/Mexican cuisine, runs the gamut.

There are sober-suited bankers and lawyers, antiquing ladies of leisure, wizened elderly gentlemen taking the sun, tattooed Web gurus, cell-phone-chatting businesspeople and the girl dressed mostly in feathers who floated past me on the breeze and into the door of the arts-focused Renaissance School.

Modestly extended over the years, the Mall is now "capped" at the eastern end with an open-air amphitheater hosting the free Fridays after Five summer concert series and at the western end by the indoor Charlottesville Ice Park skating rink and an Omni hotel. The surrounding blocks to either side are also enjoying a lively renaissance (as is the Main Street corridor leading west to the University of Virginia campus about one mile away); according to the handy downtown map available free at the Charlottesville Visitor Center (108 Second St. SE, 877-386-1102), in an area roughly six blocks by seven you can find, among other things, eight bookstores, 10 antiques dealers, 12 art galleries and some 40 places to eat.

You can buy a rare book, a temporary tattoo, a tuxedo or a custom saddle without ever leaving the neighborhood. You can get real milkshakes at the soda fountain at century-old Timberlake pharmacy (322 E. Main St., 434/295-9155) and local bison loin with potato spinach tart at chic Metropolitan (214 W. Water St., 434/977-1043), and check out the jazz at Miller's restaurant (109 W. Main St., 434/971-8511), where Dave Matthews got his start.

On my recent visit to downtown, I got my own start in one of the area's real treasures -- its bookstores. C-ville (as it's known locally) is an unabashedly bookish town, one city where you won't feel self-conscious dining out with a book as your companion. New Dominion Book Shop at 404 E. Main St. (434/294-2552) would be a great place to start looking for your date. New Dominion is the only new-book store on the Mall, and it's a book lovers' treat of offerings well beyond the standard chain-store fare, with particularly fine selections in art and architectural history, decorative arts and gardening, as well as a table stacked with local authors' works.

The Mall is also home to a number of used-book stores, including the Book Cellar in the basement of the old Hardware Store at 316 E. Main (434/979-7787); light and airy Blue Whale Books at 115 W. Main (434/296-4646), where there's plenty of elbow room for books and browsers alike; and Daedalus Bookshop at 123 Fourth St. NE (434/293-7595), which has the intriguingly labyrinthine quality of a Borges story. A warren of rooms on three floors, Daedalus is packed to the gills and then some with thousands of books. It's a place where you can dip briefly or dawdle for hours, drifting from room to room in dreamy reverie.

But I had important business to attend to. Lunch.

The Mall is a feast, and you may find yourself regretting, as I did, that you have but one stomach to give to the cause. I heard raves about restaurants like C&O (515 E. Water St., 434/971-7044)), Oxo (215 Water St., 434/977-8111), Bizou (110 W. Main St., 434/977-7044) and the pizza at Sylvia's (310 E. Main St., 434/977-0162), and I can personally attest to the great diner fare at the Nook (415 E. Main St., 434/295-6665), the roasted veggie and romesco sauce sandwich at tiny takeout Bashir's (414 E. Main St., 434/923-0927) and the pizza at Christian's (118 W. Main St., 434/977-9688): "Their crust-making is close to a religion," I was told by one enthusiastic fan.

For lunch, however, I headed to Higher Grounds (112 W. Main St., 434/971-8743), a small coffee shop/cafe, and took my mixed greens salad and thick slices of grill-toasted bread outdoors to sit in the sunshine and read my copy of C-ville, the free local weekly (www.c-ville.com) packed with the hometown lowdown.

The day was hotting up, so next stop was the blessedly cool, and virtually deserted, Ice Park (230 W. Main St., 434/817-1423). According to the friendly young guy working the rental and concession counter, spring and summer are usually quiet seasons. Happily, this reduces the chances of painful run-ins with out-of-control 8-year-old boys hurtling toward you across the ice like the asteroid that did in the dinosaurs. The ticket was a steal at this hour and the ice smooth and glossy.

Once more on the Mall, I stopped by Innisfree World Artisans (108 E. Main St., 434/979-0600), where shelves beckoned with a colorful array of objects, from richly subtle pottery to brightly colored woven fabrics. The store is part of the North American "alternative trade" retail chain Ten Thousand Villages, selling "fairly traded handicrafts from around the world" and gets its name and a number of its products from Innisfree Village, a unique Albemarle County residential community for adults with mental disabilities.

Next I wandered up to the McGuffey Art Center (201 Second St. NW, 434/295-7973). Once McGuffey Elementary School, the building has the tall-windowed, boxy brick shape of a classic American mid-century school building. Now, however, it is leased by the city to a nonprofit cooperative of visual and performing artists who rent studios within the building -- and welcome visitors to stop in and see art in the making.

"If your door is open, anyone is welcome to come in and talk with you," stained glass artist Vee Osvalds, whose door was open, explained to me. For visitors, that means "you can see the process rather than just the finished product."

Osvalds, who does original commissioned and restoration work as well as decorative stained glass in a studio shimmering with translucent colors, has been located in the building for 20 years. Still, he actually seemed to enjoy answering all my no-doubt familiar questions (Do they really make glass out of sand? Answer: yes.)

After a long day of ambling and eating and browsing, one's thoughts turn to warm baths and soft pillows, and in downtown there is a nice range of lodging choices. If you're in search of the familiar, local chain hotels include the Omni (on the Mall at 235 W. Main Street, 804/971-5500), or a nearly new Hampton Inn and Suites (900 W. Main, 804/923-8600; the two-room suites with fully equipped kitchens are a great bargain for families) or Courtyard by Marriott (1201 W. Main, 804/977-1700), both located less than a mile away, near the university campus.

However, within walking (what else?) distance of the Downtown Mall are two personable bed & breakfast inns: the Inn at Court Square and 200 South Street Inn.

200 South Street, whose name is also its address (800/964-7008; its Web site at www.southstreetinn.com is also a good source of information on area restaurants and activities), offers 20 rooms in two neighboring buildings and a sumptuous continental breakfast in the morning. Sunny and appealingly furnished with European antiques, including some truly massive armoires, South Street also features modern amenities like cable TV and data ports in every room. Comfortably low-key, the inn, says owner Brendan Clancy, "is not a grandmotherly, quilty sort of place," but it does harbor a colorful history. Built as a private residence in the early 1850s, over the years it has been a girls' school, a brothel and a boarding house, as well as an inn.

If you're staying over on a Friday night in the summertime, you can step across the street on Saturday morning to the city's Farmers' Market to pick up fresh organic vegetables, blooming plants, baked goods and a taste of the C-ville scene (the Market, everyone assured me, is a summer season social hub).

At 410 E. Jefferson St. is the Inn at Court Square (866/466-2877), where purely in the selfless interest of journalistic inquiry I enjoyed a night of sybaritic luxury. The Inn at Court Square is located in the oldest house downtown (circa 1785), and yet not much more than a year ago the place was a drab law office with acoustic-tile ceilings and all the glamour of a liverwurst sandwich. Its astounding transformation into an elegantly intimate inn was in large part the inspired work of antiques dealer, interior designer and inn owner Candace DeLoach.

DeLoach is warm, utterly unpretentious and quite obviously a hands-on owner who is equally at home welcoming her guests or tackling a leaking faucet. Her inn is also the operating showroom for DeLoach Antiques, and many of the antique and reproduction pieces ("an eclectic mix of neoclassical, French, English, American and painted") in the rooms are available for sale. DeLoach doesn't seem to mind that her guests are forever carting off the furniture, insisting that she enjoys the challenge of constantly re-imagining the decor of each room.

My room was perfectly appointed and invitingly luxurious, with its crowning glory The Bed. A splendorous, four-postered island of pale linens rearing up magnificently from the smooth wood floor, it was the kind of bed you need steps to climb into, and who could resist that? I surrendered like a romance-novel heroine, and it was perfectly clear to me why Candace DeLoach's guests wake up in the morning and promptly buy their beds.

In addition to a heady continental breakfast spread for guests, the Inn at Court Square is open to the public for lunch weekdays, and had I but world enough and time I'd tell you of the magic that chef Karl Bock works in a tiny commercial kitchen about the size of my pantry closet. Alas, we must move on.

From Court Square it was a quick dash around the corner to the Market Street Wineshop; if someone back home is watching the plants/the pets/the kids, here's the place to pick up that special something that says "thank you." The cool grottolike shop, with its whitewashed stone walls, sits just below street level at 311 E. Market St. (434/979-9463), and its five rooms offer wine, wine and more wine ("we have a lot of wine," admitted Kathy Stolzenbach working the counter) as well as specialty beers, pa^te{acute}, cheeses, sausages, teas, coffees, fresh, locally made baked goods and packaged gourmet goodies from cookies to vinegar. A recent transplant to C-ville, Stolzenbach commented, "People here are awfully nice. Strangers keep complimenting me on my parking abilities."

I ambled back to the Mall and was seduced within moments by the Sun Bow Trading company. From outside you are drawn in the door by the deep, rich, earthy colors visible through the large picture windows: rust, burnt umber, persimmon, reds so profound that they seem to speak directly to your soul.

Sun Bow (401 E. Main, 434/293-8821) is a downtown veteran, in the neighborhood since 1978, selling "fine tribal and nomadic textile art," extraordinarily beautiful pieces from the Middle East and Central Asia: kilims and prayer carpets and tent bands and runners, each unique.

On duty the day I dropped in were three of the store's staff (owner Saul Barodofsky was in Turkey on a buying expedition), a delightful trio of women whom I almost immediately began to think of as the Three Graces, after the goddesses of Greek mythology said to be the personifications of charm and beauty, inspiration for poetry and the arts. Lisa Williford, Olivia Johnston and Stephanie Tanner beguiled and entertained me with tea and conversation, and I could easily imagine them all in another time and place weaving and drinking tea and chatting happily while a bitter wind swept the steppes outside their cozy yurt.

"This was the most beautiful place in Charlottesville, so I came here," said Williford, looking around Sun Bow with pleasure.

One morning, the Graces told me, they found kiss prints dotting the front window glass.

At last I pried myself reluctantly away and continued my explorations, checking out in the course of the day the Toy Place (112 W. Main St., 434/984-3198), the ice cream floats at Chap's (223 E. Main), paint-your-own pottery at Glaze N Blaze (108 Third St. NE but moving soon onto the Mall proper, I was told; 434/984-5885), and catching a round-trip ride on the free trolley that plies the University-to-Downtown corridor (schedule and stops are printed on the downtown map available at the Visitor Center). My final ambition for the day, however, was the Fridays After Five concert that evening.

"Still free after all these years," goes this year's Fridays ad campaign; now in its 14th season, the weekly summer concert series draws crowds upwards of five to six thousand people to the Downtown Mall on Friday evenings with music that covers the spectrum (see the concert schedule at www.cvilledowntown.org).

Zoot-suited swing band Big Ray and the Kool Kats was on tap for the evening, and as the opening act crooned jazz standards, the amphitheater's grassy bowl filled with families and couples, empty-nesters and college kids, picnic blankets and baskets and folding chairs.

The concert, however, was only one act in the show. Down the Mall were performers, craft vendors and one guy making elaborate balloon dogs, hats, cats, rats, swords, and moose, gratis, for an impatient swarm of kids encroaching upon him in their eagerness like fast-rising floodwaters.

"I do this for relaxation," the balloon guy told one parent without a trace of irony.

A group of African-style drummers -- a regular attraction, I was told -- set up mid-Mall and drew a sizable crowd of its own with hypnotic, irresistible rhythms. A teenage boy strode briskly past bearing bagpipes and dressed in full piper's regalia of kilt and sash and heavy wool tasseled knee socks. He was trailed by a handful of friends who seemed to be serving duty as his pit crew, extra piping parts in hand. A folk music duo played beneath the shade of a tall tree.

The crowd continued to grow, but the long length of the Mall comfortably accommodated everyone without inducing claustrophobia. I sauntered eastward again -- past grandmothers and toddlers, and dads clutching sippy cups, and 20-somethings in sundresses with their polo-shirted boyfriends, and slouchy boys in baggy shorts, and teenage girls chattering by in giddy clusters -- happy simply to drift on the tide.

CHARLOTTESVILLE -- A pleasant two- or three-hour drive from the District via scenic, four-lane Route 29 (take I-66 west to pick up 29 south). Directions are available online at both www.cvilledowntown.org and www.charlottesvilletourism.org (which also offers a general map of the downtown area). The toll-free number for the Charlottesville/Albemarle County convention and visitor's bureau is 877/386-1102.

  
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  Sun Bow Trading Company
110 W South Street
Charlottesville, Va 22902

Right off the Mall
Between
The South Street Bed & Breakfast
And
The South Street Brewery
And
Directly behind
The Farmers' Market
(434)293-8821