In Del Ray, its women who power the Avenue


Del Ray has been called Alexandrias front porch, a place where Main Street still lives. The shops are cozy and welcoming. Somesuch as the Dairy Godmother and St. Elmos Coffee Pub, Mancinis Cafe and Bakery and the Cabooseare spaces for members of the community to meet and talk as if they were at home.

Many of the businesses that started in the early days of the Del Ray renewal were headed by women, among them Barbara Mancini of Mancinis Caf and Bakery, Royce Cohen of Royce Flowers, now off East Custis behind Kiskadee, and Joan Lloyd Juxtapose.

Most women-owned businesses on Mount Vernon Avenue said that they were unaware of the number of women-owned businesses; they came for the cohesiveness of the community, the availability of free parking or because they live nearby. They also agreed that their greatest challenge is getting people from outside of the neighborhood into the area.

Renee Altman has run the Clay Queen Pottery, one of seven women-owned businesses on the 2300 block of the Avenue, since 2000. She moved to Del Ray two years ago. While she had not realized the predominance of women who own businesses in the area, she is not surprised because the small stores are manageable for small business and the friendly neighborhood makes women comfortable.

Altman said that she was drawn in by the communitys involvement in negotiations with Potomac Yard, which she thought meant there would be a certain friendly closeness.

Maria Wasowski, part owner of A Show of Hands and president of the Del Ray Business Association agreed. Its about being part of the community, Wasowski said. She and her husband had not been especially involved until they became involved in Potomac Yard development and wanted to be more involved in the community. Wasowski lives about five blocks north of the shop; partner Pat Miller lives about five blocks south.

One of the earliest pioneers on the Avenue was Old Town resident Cindy Gompert, who brought her business, Eight Hands Round, to the Avenue in 1993, when Susan Slattery, one of the founders of Del Ray Artisans, urged her to leave her second-floor shop in Old Town in favor of the homier atmosphere of Del Ray. It was still a gritty neighborhood, but Gompert saw the potential. There was a hometown feel, she recalled, and she was won over by the business group because everyone cared about each other.

Wasowski echoed a concern voiced by several other shop-owners: one of the challenges of being a business owner in Del Ray is getting people there. Customers tend to be drawn to more established areas. While Del Ray has enjoyed considerable attention from national media, it is not easy to find. It generally does not show up on maps or signage. Its difficult to put ourselves on the mapeven in Del Ray, she said. For some longtime city residents from other Alexandria communities, Del Rays rough reputation of thirty years ago persists.
Gompert agrees that one of the biggest problems is trying to get people here. Were not easy to find. But, she says, new Del Ray Business Association president Maria Wasowski and her board are making a more unified action toward marketing.

For Wasowski, who has lived in Del Ray for twenty years, the path to becoming a business owner began when she became interested in working with beads, which led to making jewelry. Like many local artists, she had relied on crafts shows to sell her work.

Laurie Clark, who owned Bonnie Greer, mentioned that local artists often approached her about selling their work in her shop next to the Clay Queen Pottery.

Wouldnt it be great to have Art on the Avenue year round? said Miller, who had been part-owner in Avenue Attic an eclectic shop in the old Scott Shop building.

Pat knew retail and I knew all the local artists, said Wasowski, explaining how they founded A Show of Hands, Virginias 2007 Retail Business of the year, which features the work of local artists and artisans.  The other women who owned business on the Avenue were very supportive, she said. Theres a real friendliness among the owners.

Another of the true pioneer businesses in Del Ray is Tops of Old Town, a shop brimming with fashionable hats, dresses and accessories at the corner or Oxford and Mount Vernon avenues.

After three years in Old Town, Willie Mae Mitchell decided to move her shop closer to home. Since 1990, she has been able to walk the four blocks from her home to the shop. Although it has been in Del Ray far longer than she was in Old Town, Mitchell said she kept the name because I paid so much for it.

Being in Del Ray has been a blessing, she said. Old Town, was getting congested and people [were] getting [parking] tickets when they came in.

There are so many women-owned shops in Del Ray because women are aggressive, said Mitchell. Theyll work when men are resting. We just go-go-go.

Mitchells customers come from New York City and the Carolinas. They buy hats for the Kentucky Derby and teas, weddings and receptions.

[Although] the Avenue is getting like Georgetown; its getting to be busy, busy busy, Mitchell said, the neighborhood is quiet.

The influx of women making up a core of the Del Ray business community continues, as more women join the Avenues trailblazers. When Cornelia Hall and Darby Rush, newcomers to Mount Vernon Ave., discovered the old house recently vacated by Royce Flowers, they knew that they had found a home. Like many other businesses on the Avenue, Kiskadees building began its existence as a private home. The huge picture window provides ample space to showcase some of their unique and fun merchandise, from gourmet cookies, clothes and accessories to baby gifts and fine stationery. The shop, which opened in November, is quaint and cozy with playful twists including whimsical designs on the floor.

With the exterior the brilliant yellow of the chest and underside of its namesake bird, the shop attracts passersby who have been detoured along Mount Vernon Ave. during construction of the Monroe Ave. Bridge. Customers have been so supportive, said Rush. They always buy something, even if its just cookies, and usually they come back.

Their partnership seemed a natural evolution. With children in school, they liked being able to set their own hours, and the Del Ray location is convenient to the schools.

The owners are pleased with their location: It is on the flight path to so much, said Hall. There is not so much local traffic in Old Town. Much of their business has come from Capital Hill. As word of their shop has spread, they said, people are seeking them out when they come to Alexandria to go to the Target store in Potomac Yard.

Echoing the comments of the other women business owners, they added that neighboring entrepreneurs have been very supportive, many dropping by to ask if they can do anything to help the newcomers.

Womens strong presence in Del Rays businesses creates a unique environment, one of cooperation and community. With so many new shops joining those that have been here for more than a dozen years, there are plenty of reasons to visit the women and menwho do so much to make Del Ray the close-knit community it is.