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Feb 23 2012

Downtown Fredricksburg – Revisited for the Third Time

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Name of location:                    Downtown Fredericksburg, VA
Time and date:                         11:00 a.m., Friday, February 17, 2012
Weather conditions:                Partly Sunny, Cool and Damp

A cold, drizzly morning cleared up nicely and by the time I arrived in downtown Fredericksburg at 10:00 a.m. on Friday February 17th, the weather was sunny and cool. I made most of my observations in the 700, 800 and 900 blocks of Caroline Street.

Most of the merchants had not opened their doors for business yet, so the people on the street were a combination of merchants and employees readying for their shops for the day and residents and visitors enjoying the quiet of the morning. I saw dog walkers and moms with little ones, old people and students.

Clearly, the dog walkers arrived on foot from their homes. Many of the patrons arrived by vehicle. Parking was quite ample, both along the curbs and in several public lots nearby. A number of young people arrived via the “Fred” bus. 

Most of the retail spaces that I observed were single-wide or double-wide store fronts that occupied the ground level of two or three story buildings. The upper stories of the buildings appeared to be occupied by residential dwellings or in some cases administrative spaces.

       The employers appeared to be arriving by personal vehicle as well. Several of the stores appeared to have some reserved employee parking either nearby or behind the stores. The few merchants who were receiving goods during my visit were unloading it from small cargo trucks.

I observed were unique, specialty boutique kinds of places. There were not really any general merchandise stores, or even chain drug stores, like CVS or Rite-Aid. (It was actually quite a refreshing change.) Even just observing the names and the general exterior appearance, it was clear that these stores cater to a specific demographic and clientele. I saw several small bookstores, salons, various music shops, a few collectors’ stores and a lot of specialty boutiques. There were quite a few art-related shops, like galleries and framing places. There were many unique restaurants and at least three Irish Pubs. I found that an unusually high concentration for such a small area.

The first store I went into was Ulman’s Jewelry. This was a great first experience. Ulman’s is a bit of a downtown treasure. Founded 84 years ago by brothers, Simon and Jerome Ulman, this family-owned business has been in the same location continuously. Jerome’s son, Jerry and his wife, Donna now own and operate the store. I would only loosely describe this as a jewelry store. When I envision a jewelry store, I picture the pristine, shining images of Zales in the mall, with all of its brand new, shiny diamonds and emeralds in an orderly display. This store was more of a vintage jewelry store. It appeared that many of the items in the jewelry cases were second-hand items or estate sale things. The display cases behind the counter displays were filled with china and collectibles. There were nutcrackers, Artoria Limoges boxes, Herend figurines, various ornaments and porcelain knick-knacks. As you moved into the second room, there were various gift items such as silver, china and ceramic. In the third room, there were more personal items (but still gifty) like scarves, wallets, purses, and Tervis Tumblers. Many of the items in this store were pricey, but it was a very interesting store. All of the employees I encountered in Ulman’s were middle-aged or older (mostly older) white people. They were all very nice and extremely helpful.

The second boutique store I went into catered to a very specific clientele. I would call it the “Crazy Old Cat Lady Store”, but the owner has chosen to call it “The Cat Closet.” It’s probably a wiser strategy for gaining customers. This store has all sorts of kitsch for cat lovers. There are decorations from your home (indoors and out,) apparel, books and post cards There are also actual items for cats. It’s a relatively small store, but everything is grouped together in a logical fashion by purpose. I was curious about their ability to sustain enough business with such a small clientele demographic, so I asked about their advertising practices. The lady that was working was not the owner, but she told me that the store does advertise, mostly in local print media and also on the internet. They also sponsor events and they sponsored a calendar that was distributed through local pet and pet supply stores and a special cat poster that was also disseminated throughout the Fredericksburg area.

The next store I went into was Goolrick’s Drugstore. I was drawn to it because I recognize it as a Fredericksburg icon, mostly because of my exposure to the work of some local artists. It was very sparsely stocked and kind of smelly. I could not identify the smell, but I think it was the fried food smell from the lunch counter area. Some of the students I saw exiting the Fred bus earlier were in there enjoying the snack bar. The three Asian girls really seemed to be enjoying their food and drinks as they chatted animatedly. The only shoppers I saw in there were older people, one white lady and one black man. My hunch is that Goolrick’s sustains its business from income from the actual pharmacy.

I saw a lot of art by local artists including a painting by my favorite local artist, Elizabeth Seaver. Just beyond a row of five large artworks, I came across a store that attracted my attention. It was Wally’s Ice Cream parlor. They seem to be closed for the winter season. There weren’t a lot of products visible in the freezer cases and it just gave off an abandoned air. I thought it was interesting that they did not have hours of business posted. The thing that attracted my attention and amused me most was the crudely handwritten posters in the window that said, “Hell Has Finally Frozen Over. Now Taking ‘Plastic’!”

There were a couple of spaces than had been converted from their original incarnation as large spaces. They were subdivided into clusters of smaller spaces. Once inside, it is obvious that “The Galleria” was a movie theater during its heyday. I was saddened to see the black and white checkered tile floor and the plaster walls lining artificial hallways off of which the various shops opened. This old theater now houses a tea shop, an odd little tropical boutique and a salon, as well as an interior entrance to the 909 Saloon and a large abandoned store front at the very end. It was not readily obvious, but it appears that it may have been a jewelry shop or an antique shop in the recent past. I found it awkward that the stores in this relatively confined space were not thematically linked in any way.

The other space that was originally a larger, single-purpose space that was subdivided into smaller spaces was called The Shops at 810. I was intrigued by this space and I tried to research its original history, but my brief efforts did not yield any results. This space was much more open than the converted movie theater had been. For the most part, the space contained thematically linked stores. Most of the stores are related to products for children, such as Jabberwocky, a children’s book store and The Mock Turtle, a children’s clothing store, among several other stores. This is one of the few spaces I saw that utilized the second floor for commercial purposes. It housed the Avery Ballet Studio.

Because of the time I visited downtown, I did not have the opportunity to witness many shoppers. The shoppers in Goolrick’s all seemed to be there for a specific purpose. The students were snacking, another young lady was waiting for food at the counter and the two older shoppers appeared to be waiting for prescriptions to be filled. We were the only shoppers in The Cat Closet. (We did buy a pair of socks for my crazy old cat lady cousin!) We were in Ulman’s for quite a while, so I saw a few people who came through. Most of the people moved slowly from the front of the store to the back, often stopping to look at something that caught their attention. I did not ever see anyone buy anything. There were patrons in some of the salons, as well. Most of the other shoppers I saw were window shopping during leisurely strolls on the sidewalks. They didn’t even go into the stores.

I have never really visited downtown before, though I drive through it nearly every day. I’m glad I got the opportunity to visit. I don’t think that this is a place I would visit for general shopping purposes. I may go there if I were looking for a very specific type of gift, but realistically, I would likely turn to the internet first. I would, however go there for window shopping entertainment. I would also (and certainly will) visit some of the unique dining establishments I saw. I’m particularly looking forward to lunching at “Soup & Taco” and dining at the “Capital Ale House.”

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