Take a Walk on the Distaff Sideof Del Ray

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Del Ray has been called Alexandrias front porch, a place where Main Street still lives.   Almost without exception, the shops are cozy and welcoming. Somesuch as the Dairy Godmother and St. Elmos Coffee Pub, Mancinis Cafe and Bakery and the Cabooseare made for members of the community to meet and talk as if they were at home. With the great majority of businesses owned by women, Del Ray combines the traditional role of women as homemakers and the contemporary role of women as business leaders.

Many of the businesses that started in the early days of the Del Ray renewal were women, among them, Barbara Mancini (Mancinis Caf and Bakery), Royce Cohen (Royce Flowers, now off East Custis behind Kiskadee) and Joan Lloyd (Juxtapose) who provided clothes to women who had just been released from jail. 

But most of the women who own 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. Most agreed that their greatest challenge is getting people from outside of the neighborhood into the area.

Renee Altman, who has owned the Clay Queen Pottery (one of seven women owned businesses on the 2300 block of the Avenue) since 2000, moved to Del Ray two years ago. She said that she was unaware of the predominance of women who own businesses, but she is not surprised because of the architecture: small stores are manageable for small business and the friendly neighborhood makes women comfortable.

Altman said that she was drawn by the communitys unified front in response to the development of Potomac Yard, which borders the community. I knew of the communitys involvement in negotiations with Potomac Yard, she said, and thought that it 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 agrees. Its about being part of the community, Maria said. She and her husband had not been especially involved until discussions about Potomac Yard drew them into neighborhood concerns. We 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. 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. At first sight, Cindy knew that her friend was right. It was still a gritty neighborhood, but she saw the potential and it reminded her of the small town where she had grown up. There was a home town feel, she recalled, and she was lured by the business group because everyone cared about each other. 

Wasowski raised another concern voiced by several other shop-owners: one of the challenges of being a business owner in Del Ray is getting people there. It is difficult to attract customers who tend to be drawn to more established areas. While Del Ray has enjoyed considerable attention from national media, it isnt easy to find. As a neighborhood, it generally doesnt show up on maps or signage. Its difficult to put ourselves on the mapeven in Del Ray.   For some longtime city residents from other Alexandria communities, the reputation of the rough Del Ray of thirty years ago persists.

Cindy Gompert at Eight Hands Round 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.

Wasowski, who has lived in Del Ray for twenty years, became a business owner somewhat obliquely. When her son was taking a sculpture class, 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. Pat Miller, who had been part-owner in Avenue Attic an eclectic shop in the space now occupied by Linda Hubbards UPS store in the old Scott Shop building, said Wouldnt it be great to have Art on the Avenue year round?

Explaining how they became partners in A Show of Hands, Virginias 2007 Retail Business of the year, which features the work of    local artists and artisans, Wasowski said Pat knew retail and I knew all the local artists.    The other women who owned business on the Avenue were very supportive. Theres a real friendliness among the owners, making it easy to direct customers to one of the other shops.

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

After having a shop in Old Town for three years, 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 says 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, says Ms Mitchell. Theyll work when men are resting. We just go-go-go. 

Everyone is close and friendly and helpful. We send people to other businesses. When someone asks for a restaurant, I can tell them just where to 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 says that she like that The neighborhood is quiet.

Among the newcomers to Mount Vernon Avenue, Cornelia (Neil) Hall and Darby Rush wanted to open a shop in Del Ray, but for the bright and playful shop they had mind, a typical boxeven one of the commercial spaces on Mount Vernon Avenuewouldnt work.

When they discovered the old house recently vacated by Royce Flowers, they knew that they had found a home. Like many other businesses on the Avenue, the Kiskadee 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 to clothes, accessories, baby gifts and fine stationery. They describe the Kiskadee building as quaint and different; cozy and bright, and it is all of these with a playful twist including whimsical designs on the floor. 

With the exterior a silent testimony to the brilliant yellow chest and underside of its namesake bird, the shop attracts passersby who have been detoured along Mount Vernon Avenue during construction at Potomac Yard and the Monroe Avenue 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. Hall had been selling stationery and fine paper products; Rush was selling home goods at trunk shows. One lives just outside of Del Ray, the other near the Episcopal Seminary. 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.

Since they opened in November 2007, much of their business has come from Capital Hill. As word of their shop has spread, people are se
eking them out when they come to Alexandria for the Target store in Potomac Yard about eight blocks east northeast. 

Neighboring businesses have been very supportive they note, many dropping by to check out the new shop and to ask if they can do anything to help the newcomers.

The Del Ray Business Association is making an effort to standardize evening hours in the community, so that customers can depend on the shops being open until 9 every Thursday and Friday. 

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.

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