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Amble On

Charlottesville's Downtown Mall Is a Stroller's Paradise

By Caroline Kettlewell
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, June 29, 2001; Page WE32

"It's a great place for the little kids to rip and run," says city police officer Hiawatha Green Jr. as he pauses to give directions to a couple of Australian tourists.

"Sometimes I don't have to use the car for days," says local resident and tribal textiles purveyor Stephanie Tanner.

The Downtown Mall in Charlottesville. (Richard Robinson - for The Washington Post)

"It's like a small-scale Barcelona, like the pedestrian promenade La Rambla," muses architect Frederick Oesch.

"It takes me half an hour to get to the post office five blocks away because I see so many people I know," says bookstore owner Scott Fennessey.

Thriving and vibrant, the place they're all talking about is the Downtown Mall in Charlottesville, a roughly seven-block stretch of what was once the Virginia city's downtown Main Street. Flanked by more than a century's parade of architectural history, the Mall is closed to cars and open to the manifold pleasures of ambling and dining, meandering and concertgoing, strolling and browsing, shopping and sauntering, with sunshine overhead and a gentle breeze playing past and the dappled shade of trees to welcome you simply to sit and take in the passing scene.

The Mall was born a quarter-century ago in a controversial bid to save Charlottesville's downtown; the street was bricked over, trees and flower pots planted, fountains set splashing and the Downtown Mall arrived to much fanfare.

For a while after that, things were pretty . . . quiet. These days, however, the Mall is decidedly happening. An array of shops, cafes and restaurants fill the first floors and spill onto the Mall, while the upper floors are home to tech companies, massage therapists, design firms, residential apartments and the like.

The local crowd that you'll see lining up at places like the Mark's Hot Dogs outdoor cart (the bestseller: traditional hot dog with mustard, chili and onions), Mudhouse coffee (213 W. Main, 434/984-6833) and zesty Mono Loco (200 W. Water St., 434/979-0688), with its Cuban/Mexican cuisine, runs the gamut.

There are sober-suited bankers and lawyers, antiquing ladies of leisure, wizened elderly gentlemen taking the sun, tattooed Web gurus, cell-phone-chatting businesspeople and the girl dressed mostly in feathers who floated past me on the breeze and into the door of the arts-focused Renaissance School.

Modestly extended over the years, the Mall is now "capped" at the eastern end with an open-air amphitheater hosting the free Fridays after Five summer concert series and at the western end by the indoor Charlottesville Ice Park skating rink and an Omni hotel. The surrounding blocks to either side are also enjoying a lively renaissance (as is the Main Street corridor leading west to the University of Virginia campus about one mile away); according to the handy downtown map available free at the Charlottesville Visitor Center (108 Second St. SE, 877-386-1102), in an area roughly six blocks by seven you can find, among other things, eight bookstores, 10 antiques dealers, 12 art galleries and some 40 places to eat.

You can buy a rare book, a temporary tattoo, a tuxedo or a custom saddle without ever leaving the neighborhood. You can get real milkshakes at the soda fountain at century-old Timberlake pharmacy (322 E. Main St., 434/295-9155) and local bison loin with potato spinach tart at chic Metropolitan (214 W. Water St., 434/977-1043), and check out the jazz at Miller's restaurant (109 W. Main St., 434/971-8511), where Dave Matthews got his start.

On my recent visit to downtown, I got my own start in one of the area's real treasures -- its bookstores. C-ville (as it's known locally) is an unabashedly bookish town, one city where you won't feel self-conscious dining out with a book as your companion. New Dominion Book Shop at 404 E. Main St. (434/294-2552) would be a great place to start looking for your date. New Dominion is the only new-book store on the Mall, and it's a book lovers' treat of offerings well beyond the standard chain-store fare, with particularly fine selections in art and architectural history, decorative arts and gardening, as well as a table stacked with local authors' works.

The Mall is also home to a number of used-book stores, including the Book Cellar in the basement of the old Hardware Store at 316 E. Main (434/979-7787); light and airy Blue Whale Books at 115 W. Main (434/296-4646), where there's plenty of elbow room for books and browsers alike; and Daedalus Bookshop at 123 Fourth St. NE (434/293-7595), which has the intriguingly labyrinthine quality of a Borges story. A warren of rooms on three floors, Daedalus is packed to the gills and then some with thousands of books. It's a place where you can dip briefly or dawdle for hours, drifting from room to room in dreamy reverie.

But I had important business to attend to. Lunch.

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