Little shop of history

Little shop of history
Market Square Shop

By Kerry Anderson

In an ever-changing world, the Market Square Shop in Old Town represents an oasis of continuity, history and commitment to craftsmanship. Located at 202 King St., the shop celebrated its 70th anniversary last fall. It has stood fast as the City of Alexandria in general and Old Town in particular have dramatically evolved around it.

The shop, which offers classic pieces for home decorating, has survived and even thrived for seven decades because of what current owner Bruce Schafer calls a needed service: sound advice and supplies for properly upholstering furniture and accessories. In particular, customers who want something unusual – something that reflects their individual tastes rather than the limited options offered by major chain stores – have few other places to turn for assistance.

Schafer sees his work as helping customers “translate their lives into three-dimensions” by helping them find décor that suits their needs and tastes.

Toward that end, the small shop is filled with a variety of objects, including holiday decorations, lamps, home gifts, tassels, silver polish and fabric.

Schafer is passionate about retaining the shop’s historic character and classic flavor. He often assists clients in choosing fabrics for upholstery, among other design advice. Schafer said that he has always been a visual person, and utilizes his experience and eye for what works in satisfying shoppers and clients.

“I love it,” Schafer said. “It hardly feels like work.”

Every piece of furniture in Market Square Shop has a story, and several items belonged to the shop’s original owners. Marjorie Land and Joan Miller established the shop in 1952 on Cameron Street, bringing their experience and relationships with clients from their previous work at Little Caledonia in Georgetown.

In 1956, Land and her husband bought the current property on King Street, moving the shop there as they raised their family above it. The building itself represents Alexandria’s history, built by French merchant Bernard Chequire in the late 18th century.

Schafer met the original owners through family relationships. Over time, he bought their stakes in the shop, becoming the full owner in 1995. While incorporating his own flair and taste into the shop, he has endeavored to maintain Market Square Shop much as it was under Land’s and Miller’s management. Many items have remained in exactly the same spot for decades, providing long-time customers with a feeling of continuity and comfort.

The shop has survived many changes in society and the local community, partly by adapting and partly by staying true to its historical roots. Schafer noted that the major changes in lifestyles that have occurred during the last 70 years have prompted the shop’s owners to adjust with the times. Women have shifted from largely being full-time homemakers 70 years ago to being about as likely as their husbands to have professional careers outside the home in 2023.

In addition to sociological changes, the overall style of today is much more relaxed than it was in the 1950s. People now tend to prefer more casual home furnishings with open floor plans; for example, dining rooms have become far less popular and, in homes that still have a separate dining room, less formal than in years gone by. Bridal registries once listed many more formal items than they do today. In perhaps the biggest challenge, online retail has become an existential threat to brick-and-mortar stores like Market Square Shop.

The COVID-19 pandemic posed yet another threat that Schafer’s business had to endure. The store was closed for a few months in the spring of 2020 as part of broader business closures at the time.

While the pandemic presented some business issues, Schafer noted that it also demonstrated the downside to open-plan spaces, which he said could revive some interest in more traditional décor and home design. Supply chain problems for stores selling furniture also highlighted the value of refurbishing old furniture rather than waiting months for something new.

Additionally, Old Town has changed around Market Square Shop. When the shop was first established, “downtown” Alexandria was not viewed as an upscale place to live or own a business. In the 1950s, trains still ran through the Wilkes Street Tunnel, and there were abandoned buildings, a power station and warehouses along the waterfront.

Over time, Old Town evolved into a nicer place to live, becoming “a very lovely historic village,” as Schafer put it. Filled with families and individuals, the core of Old Town was “charming, affordable and quiet,” Schafer said. For many residents of Old Town, today there remains a sense of a neighborhood where people know each other.

Accelerating development in Old Town in recent years has brought more change. Development of the waterfront and increases in housing units potentially bring more business and tax revenue to the area but also stress existing infrastructure – especially for areas that were initially designed for mid18th century life.

Schafer added that rising property prices are a huge challenge for many Old Town businesses, especially those that are unable to quickly and consistently turn a profit. He is concerned that the area will lose more of its small, independent stores.

Schafer noted that many retail stores today offer very little in terms of service but that “many businesses here in Old Town still provide individual service.” He hopes that Old Town will not lose its unique character.

“Part of retail or customer service is being knowledgeable about what you’re selling,” Schafer said. “It takes interest and commitment.”