The Washington Post – Wednesday, December 24, 2008; Page C02

“In Charlottesville, No Ordinary Strip Mall”

By Ellen Ryan
Outside, even in the chill, there are flowers and children’s laughter. Inside, there’s my own. At a toy store named Alakazam!, I wind up a five-inch die-cast school bus; it zips down a counter, crashing into a box of sheriff badges and Cowboy Bandages. The nose-ringed, color-dreadlocked, spangly-nail-polished clerk doesn’t even blink.

Image: Charlottesville’s shopping district gives a pleasureable new meaning to the term “mall-walking.” (Charlottesville Albemarle Convention & Visitors Bureau)

I’m on Charlottesville’s Downtown Mall, an eight-block pedestrian magnet. Visitors often bypass it for the better-known University of Virginia and Thomas Jefferson‘s other architectural creation, Monticello. Jefferson is said to have watched the building of his university from his hilltop home. I like to think he’d pan over to the mall now, too.

Decades ago, the mall held a hardware store. By the time I arrived at Virginia in the 1980s, it was the Hardware Store, a dim, brick-walled restaurant where students could splurge on a grown-up meal without going broke. There were a few bars, the Vinegar Hill movie theater and too many empty storefronts. These days, a free trolley circles both the mall and the main campus (a.k.a. the Grounds) three or four times an hour. Much better for adults who want to leave their car in a parking deck.

In warmer months, the pedestrian mall blooms with outdoor concerts, a Saturday farmers market and lines at the free carousel. In the first half of 2009, the mall is scheduled for a $7.5 million renovation to include re-bricking, replacing lights and benches, and adding to fountains and art. But even as the sprucing up begins, the mall will be a fine place to visit. Many attractions are indoors, lodging rates are low, the First Fridays Gallery Art Walk is year-round and you won’t have to fight crowds.

Businesses here are diverse, interesting and largely chain-free. Sam Hurka, owner of the Cat House, offering such feline-centric items as catnip, clothing, pet pillows and puzzles, bristles at a visitor’s question as to whether it’s part of a chain of stores: “It’s not a chain; it’s .” The mall is also home to the only retail outlet in this country owned by Caspari, maker of fancy hostess napkins and other paper products, and an outlet store for Yves Delorme French bed linens.

Want fun? Try Alakazam! for a Detective Science Fingerprint Kit or a huge stuffed tiger. There are coloring books three times the size of those most of us had as kids — plus those wind-up school buses.

Want fun food? The mall has two shops for fresh-made ice cream plus Splendora’s gelato cafe. Bashir’s Taverna serves up Mediterranean cooking and Saturday-night belly dancing.

Want sophistication? Feast! is an artisanal cheese shop, charcuterie and gourmet market. Siips Wine/Champagne Bar offers 75 wines by the glass with light meals, dessert and Sunday brunch. Some restaurants, such as the C&O, are worth an overnight stay.

Want creativity? The mall has at least three art cooperatives: BozArt Gallery, Art Upstairs Gallery and C’ville Arts. You’ll recognize C’ville by what’s outside: Virginia Gardner’s “Seat of Harmony,” a 2007 sunburst love seat made of polystyrene and concrete and mosaic tiles. The mall also offers original work galore at Sage Moon Gallery, voted the best in town by the readers of Charlottesville’s newspaper, the Daily Progress.

I am wowed by the opulently restored Paramount, a moviegoing fixture from 1931 to 1974. Reopened four years ago, the now-nonprofit performing arts center brings an array of shows to town: Early in 2009 these will include two Puccini operas, NPR‘s Ira Glass, the Dublin Philharmonic and “Seussical.” The variety of theaters, clubs and other arts venues on the mall and nearby shouldn’t surprise; after all, this is the college town that launched the Dave Matthews BandTina Fey, a few Arena Stage and Shakespeare Theatre regulars and any number of local and national performers.

Just down Main Street at J. Fenton Gifts/Quilts Unlimited, I pore over three-dimensional wooden animal puzzles (made in southwestern Virginia) with such details as a mouse in a snake’s belly and a dog with a Frisbee inside; they range from $13 to more than $200. Joan Fenton started with antique quilts in 1981 and added the rest: silly gifts up front plus colorful costume jewelry, leather goods, women’s jackets, quilted bags, hats, kaleidoscopes and more.

Waiting at one of many non-Starbucks coffeehouses, I first wish there’d been this much activity along the mall back when I was a student. Then I’m glad there wasn’t: too much distraction. Besides, now I can dine at better restaurants than the late Hardware Store — the C&O was unthinkable then — and still not break the bank. And not have to study, either.

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