Destination Design: Old Town Alexandria’s King Street

Since 1749, King Street has been the focus of commerce in Alexandria, a place to pick up a nice candle, a fine bar of soap or some Chinese export porcelain.

This historic part of Alexandria, known simply as “Old Town,” is a walkable place where home decor, antiques and a farmers market still make a it a go-to shopping destination for those who savor village charm. It’s about a mile from the King Street Metro Station down to the Potomac River, a fun journey through a string of stores, restaurants and bars.

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Shopping along King Street, Alexandria.
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Shopping along King Street, Alexandria.

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If you’re an urbanite in a townhouse or condo, you’ll relish the smaller-scaled sofas and end tables at Random Harvest (810 King St.) and Creative Classics (906 King St.) Those shopping for kids will be intrigued by environmentally friendly and stylish cribs and blankets at Pink & Brown (1212 King St.). Whether retro martini glasses (check The Hour at 1015 King St.) or vintage mirrors (Imperfections Antiques & Great Stuff at 1210 King St.), there is block after block of new and old treasures. If you are a MacKenzie-Childs devotee, you will be in a pastel coma at J. Brown & Co. (1119 King St.), filled with hundreds of pieces of the bucolic brand. There are also stylish chains such as Anthropologie (610 King St.) and Paper Source (118 King St.) to round out the experience.

“I head over to King Street when I need great accessories, decorative objects to bring to a home so it doesn’t have that cookie-cutter look,” says Barbara Franceski, an interior designer who lives nearby. A favorite: Verdigris Antiques & Interiors (1215 King St.). “This packed little shop has anything and everything,” Franceski says. “I’ve picked up a fencing mask, a brass hand to hold jewelry, mid-century floor lamps, even scored an Oly metal side table with a mirror top.”

Every Saturday, the Old Town Farmers Market (301 King St.) gathers growers of veggies and flowers, plus artists and other artisans. It’s a long-standing tradition: George Washington used to send his produce from Mount Vernon. Bring a tote bag to fill with rosemary, eco-friendly lotions, wooden salad bowls and armloads of hydrangea, and consider commissioning an artist to draw a portrait of your house.

There is something romantic about strolling a street where some of the brick in the sidewalks dates back centuries. “Many of the buildings on King Street are 150 to 200 years old,” says Al Cox, historic preservation manager at Alexandria’s Department of Planning and Zoning.

Whatever your taste, it’s here, somewhere. “If you get out of the Metro and walk down to the river on King Street, you will find just about every design style imaginable from French to modern to classic American,” says Bruce Schafer, who owns the Market Square Shop (202 King St.). Where does he stop? He loves the African baskets at Ten Thousand Villages (915 King St.).

Foursquare: The Best of King Street

RETAIL HIGHLIGHTS

Chinoiserie (1325 King St.) The personal vision of Peter Zia, an architect-turned-merchant, imbues his store, where you’ll find red enamel Japanese coffee pots, Finnish glass and French crewelwork scarves. “I sell things that I like and that are beautifully made and reasonably priced,” he says. So there is Bellocq artisan tea ($35) in adorable metal canisters; sharkskin wasabi graters ($30) and a collection of Lostine wood cutting boards with leather hanging straps made in Philadelphia. Flip through a rack of clothing and you’ll find the perfect black dress by Yeohlee. “My customers have a little bit of an eccentric taste,” Zia says.

Decorium Gift and Home (116 King St.) When you see the wall of silk flowers cascading down the front of the shop, you know why regulars say the store is an escape from the world. Inside, you’ll be awed by dozens of glittering chandeliers lighting alcoves filled with furniture and accessories. The shop explodes with pattern and color, with bowls and vases in aqua, pink, chartreuse, orange and emerald. Owners Jeff Albert and David Chenault keep things fresh by changing the displays of pieces both functional and fun, including jeweled pasta servers ($19) and decoupage bird boxes ($78). The store, which opened in 2001 as Rugs to Riches, offers interior design services. Don’t miss the Paris Flea Market in back, with markdowns of up to 80 percent.

Market Square Shop (202 King St.) You gotta love a tiny store packed with traditional decorating classics that are getting harder to find, plus lots of personal service. It still has a tassel department, plate-stand nook, waste bin area and silver polish section. It offers modern upholstery, fabric by the yard and a library of current fabric and wallpaper samples. The shop was opened in 1952 by two savvy female entrepreneurs, and it’s been the epicenter of Old Town decorating ever since. If you’ve been craving a decent Foo dog ($78 for a pair) or the perfect chintz print ($35 a yard) it’s all here as well as proper lamps and sink-down club chairs narrow enough to fit through an 18th-century door. Bruce Schafer, a designer who became a business partner in 1986 and now owns the store, helps customers pick out cocktail napkins or custom area rugs, and he’s a delight to chat with.

Red Barn Mercantile (1117 King St.) Both for decorating and finding a perfect present, this shop is a favorite destination of King Street regulars. Owner Amy Rutherford has an eye for style, whether your preference in home furnishings is beachy, cottage or vintage. “I like to mix old and new, high and low,” Rutherford says. There are old-fashioned enamel measuring spoons ($17.95) and vintage Mason jars ($10 to $14), Dash & Albert rugs and the exotic John Robshaw bed linens you’ll spot in shelter magazines.

BEST NOSTALGIA

Customers discovering the Hour for the first time are overwhelmed by shelves brimming with vintage barware, swizzle sticks, coasters and hostess aprons. It makes you want to rush to your attic and see whether you can unearth your grandmother’s Stork Club ashtray.

BEST HOSTESS GIFT

Red Barn Mercantile’s Takeout Menus organizer ($25) keeps menus in one place, helpful when you’re desperate for a quick meal.

BEST SPLURGE

Christian Lacroix’s Designers Guild patchwork pillow is encrusted with beadwork, sequins and embroidery. The folk art themes recall something Frida Kahlo might have displayed in her salon. Available at Decorium Gift and Home ($184).

GRAB A BITE

Nickell’s & Scheffler (1028 King St.) is quick and tasty, whether a bowl of cauliflower and gorgonzola soup for lunch or a brisket braised in gluten-free beer to take home for dinner. When you get to the river, stop by Virtue Feed & Grain (106 S. Union St.), a cozy tavern carved out of an old warehouse, for a beer, some wings and house-roasted Virginia peanuts.

TIPS

Check out www.visitalexandriava.com for information on shopping and dining. A group of more than 30 shops makes up the Old Town Boutique District, founder of the annual Sidewalk Sale (Aug. 10 this year) as well as the Black Friday Sale (Nov. 29), when retailers open at 6 a.m. with special discounts.

GETTING THERE

Metro is ideal if you are up for the one-mile walk to the waterfront. Or take the free King Street Trolley that runs every 15 minutes from 11:30 a.m. to 10:15 p.m. between the Metro station and the Potomac River. Both free and paid street parking are plentiful. Or try the centrally located and affordable Market Square Garage. You can also take a water taxi from National Harbor.

HOURS

Store hours vary and can change with the seasons. Check before going.

 
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