Our View: A toast to Nora Partlow, the neighborhood coffee pub queen

Our View: A toast to Nora Partlow, the neighborhood coffee pub queen

(Photo/Chris Teale)

Today, many residents take Alexandria’s retail corridors like Mount Vernon Avenue in Del Ray and King Street in Old Town for granted. But they weren’t always hubs of bustling business and activity.

Two decades ago, Del Ray was not the beloved strip of restaurants and shops it is today, where residents may see a local professional athlete or the occasional president. It took the vision and leadership of a few business owners to spark investment in the corridor now known affectionately as The Avenue.

Nora Partlow was one such business pioneer. In 1996, the local real estate agent opened St. Elmo’s Coffee Pub at 2300 Mount Vernon Ave. with business partner Scott Mitchell and the cafe quickly fostered a local following and sparked more and more restaurants and boutiques to open in the neighborhood.

Partlow not only provided a quality product for Del Ray denizens — she provided a space for residents to interact and congregate. For a long time, it was one of the only places along The Avenue to host community meetings, talks and lectures and even small concerts.

And though some small business owners may be wary of the advent of competition in the form of other cafes and restaurants, Partlow saw the value of investment and competition from other entrepreneurs in creating a destination for both locals and visitors to spend their time and money.

She fostered growth and development in Del Ray, and she was integral in the growth of groups like the Del Ray Business Association, First Night Alexandria and others. She helped organize local business owners in the neighborhood the same way she encouraged residents to coalesce into a true community.

Partlow confirmed this month that, at the age of 66, she is selling her business, which remains a landmark in the neighborhood, to fellow Del Ray entrepreneurs Larry and Christine Ponzi. We are confident that the unassuming coffee house that has become the heart of Del Ray will be in good hands with its new ownership. Larry Ponzi, who also owns Market 2 Market Del Ray and Pizzaiolo, has vowed to add to St. Elmo’s offerings — in his special use permit application he announced plans to apply for a license to sell beer and wine — while keeping the spirit and focus of the cafe in place.

Like Partlow, Ponzi recognizes the promise and the allure of The Avenue and Del Ray writ large. We are confident that the well-established business owner will build upon Partlow’s already strong legacy.

But it is important to remember that little of what residents love about the neighborhood would be possible without her vision, leadership and influence. Del Ray and Alexandria as a whole are a better place because of her efforts.