Carytown: Richmond’s ever-changing shopping district

Carytown store owners give their thoughts on the changes the area has been through and what makes the shopping district such a special part of Richmond.

Down by the Museum District, just west of the Boulevard, is a stand-alone shopping area devoted to original stores and their owners’ self-expression: Carytown. The area hosts Cary Court, which was built in the 1930s as Richmond’s first strip mall; the Byrd Theater, which was built in the 1920s; and nine blocks of unique and interesting stores. It has become both a historic landmark and tourist standby that makes most area residents proud.

Carytown has continually grown, changed, and developed since its very early days. In fact, the reason that this area has become so notable is exactly because it has changed over and over to meet the needs of customers.

“Carytown was very traditional when it first came to Richmond,” said Raul Cantu, owner of Nacho Mama’s and president of the Carytown Merchants’ Association. He said that customers now have different expectations because of the country’s changing economy. “People are looking for a better deal. Times are different…we all feel it, we all know it.”

Cantu said that “Carytown always goes through a transition every four or five years.” For this reason, Carytown has changed gently over the last few years to become a place that can survive the more difficult economic climate. “It’s a tourist spot,” he said. “[Carytown] used to be a retail spot. Now it’s an eatery, spa, and lots more.” Carytown serves as a “one stop shop,” according to Cantu.

Usage of “Carytown” as the official name began in 1974 when a vote was held among residents. Until then stores were simply part of W. Cary Street, according to JoAnne Draucker. JoAnne has owned Ellman’s Dancewear for the past 34 years and Premiere Costumes for 38 years. She also grew up in the area and helped put on the first Watermelon Festival 29 years ago.

In the 1960s, the area was mainly apartments and corner stores. “You had the store downstairs and the apartment upstairs.” It was in about 1955 that the street was changed to one-way, heading into town. “Cary Street sort of became a pass-through.” Slowly houses turned into shops because of the through traffic. It wasn’t until later that people began to notice how useful the street had become: “You could get your vacuum cleaner fixed, your lamp fixed, you could buy appliances, and you could buy anything you wanted without having to go to a mall.” To Draucker, 1974 was “sort of like the beginning of Carytown.”

“Even at that point, Carytown was going through a revolution, so to speak.” There were restaurants coming and going, and smaller retailers beginning to feel the effects of the competing stores at Willow Lawn. This led to another change in Carytown. Specifically, many of the appliance shops closed and by 1980, Carytown was no longer considered a “safe shopping area.”

Ultimately, Drauker and the owner of Rostov’s Coffee attempted to have the city increase the police presence, but at the time the city didn’t have the budget. So Drauker enlisted the help of an off-duty police officer, even going door-to-door to collect money for his services. For a while, the officer would spend his off-duty hours patrolling the neighborhood. Later on in the late 1980s, the city provided official bicycle police.

This strong feeling of responsibility for the area by owners and residents is another one of Carytown’s unique aspects. Owners and residents have a history of taking a strong interest in the area, not simply their own stores. One example of this, according to Drauker, was when an adult store opened in Carytown on the corner of Belmont and Cary, within 500 feet of a church school. The store opened after its owner told the landlord they intended to sell candles.

When its true purpose was discovered, community members sprang into action. “They were picketed,” said Drauker. “The nuns from Saint Gertrude’s came over. Everyone came over.” They had their electricity pulled, but then the store ran a power line to the apartment above them. The community had the apartment’s power shut down. “Finally, one night they just disappeared.” Drauker admits that they will fight tooth and nail to keep the tone of Carytown. She did clarify, however, that it isn’t necessarily the store’s contents that dictate whether they’ll take action, but the quality of the store itself. “You just don’t want your customers to have to walk by someplace really sleazy.” She also comments that that has only happened once. Stores that open in the area expect to take part in and benefit from the unique qualities of Carytown.

Over time, as Carytown moved away from residences it became nearly pure retail: the “Mile of Style.” It became a place for people to develop new businesses. But as old businesses bow out and new stores try to gain a foothold, stress can be caused by the vacancies. “Right now we’re going through those growing pains,” said Drauker. She attributes this in part to the economy, saying that owners that bought property in better years are still charging store owners leasing rates that don’t reflect the harsher times. “It’s slower seeing those buildings occupied.”

Another aspect of the transition seen in the last few years has been the growing number of clothing stores, restaurants, and specialty stores instead of classic retail. One of which was Eurotrash, opened in 2007 by Anne Hughes, which imports European clothing lines. When asked why she chose to open in Carytown, Hughes said “I knew it was the perfect place to reach the type of client that would respond to the unique and fashion forward styles I would be bringing to Richmond through Eurotrash.” Kerensa Davenport, manager of Eurotrash, said that she thinks customers come to Carytown to find something unique that they couldn’t find in a mall.

Bob Broomfield opened the Carytown Play N Trade in 2008, at a time when the country’s economic difficulties were just beginning. “It struggled initially…We opened up about a month before the stock market crash.” He added that it took a few years to really get rolling. A big part of the change had been the return customer base built up over time, but the location had a strong effect as well.

When choosing where to set up shop, Broomfield looked at places like Midlothian, but ultimately came to Carytown. “Carytown had, to us, everything you were looking for,” said Broomfield. Being its own area, “like a little village,” gave him freedoms that you can’t find elsewhere. Typically, “you have to conform to whatever little rules and regulation the owners of that particular shopping center want to conform to,” he said. These include mandatory hours, where signs are placed, and even decorating the front of the store to meet a certain style. “They might not have any idea how to run a store or even create an identity.” By comparison, the freedom of Carytown is staggering.

“Around here it is so laissez faire,” said Broomfield. “People have closing hours at six in the evening. Some Businesses don’t open on Sunday. Some don’t open on Monday.”

Soon more change will come to the area. This summer, construction begins on Carytown Place, a new shopping center located near Carytown that will include a Fresh Market grocery store. Also Richmond Bizsense recently reported that Carytown Place will host a Petco and a Panera–direct competitors to Dogma Grooming & Pet Needs and several familiar Carytown coffee shops. Despite this, time has shown that though the area may change, it certainly won’t disappear.

The Carytown shopping center is an evolving and vibrant community that has survived to this day by adapting. As old businesses close and new ones open, the area reshapes itself to fit the times. While the recent economic problems certainly have affected the area, Carytown is still a place where visitors and residents alike can find great food and shopping.


Photo provided by the Valentine Richmond History Center

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Stephen Nielsen

Stephen Nielsen is a contributing journalist for RVANews and makes a mean pulled pork sandwich.

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