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Behind the Counter, Watching the World Go By

Nancy Coble Allen, with customer Mac Hartley, 7, has operated the Fun Shop in Middleburg with her family since 1956.
Nancy Coble Allen, with customer Mac Hartley, 7, has operated the Fun Shop in Middleburg with her family since 1956. (By Tracy A. Woodward -- The Washington Post)
By Eugene Scheel
Sunday, June 18, 2006

In an age in which businesses seem to come and go with the seasons, it is notable that two sole proprietors in Loudoun County who were behind the counter 50 years ago remain there today: Stanley Caulkins at Caulkins Jewelers in Leesburg and Nancy Coble Allen at the Fun Shop in Middleburg.

I recently asked them how their emporiums and towns had changed in the last half-century.

Geographically, Leesburg's marketplace of yesteryear is the downtown of today: two long King Street blocks meeting by the courthouse green, with one-block feeders emanating along Market and Loudoun streets. Although this description might be obvious to many, Caulkins says he thinks (and I agree) that more than half of the county's 260,000 people have not traversed these sidewalks.

"There are times," he told me, "when there are no people on the street. Why? You can't buy an aspirin and you can't buy your wife a sweater. For the first time I've opened the store at 9:30 rather than 8:30. I don't get any customers before 10 o'clock."

Caulkins was no stranger to customers when he opened his jewelry store Jan. 2, 1956. He grew up in Leesburg during the 1930s, and his father, Charles Whitney Caulkins, was pastor of Leesburg Baptist Church and, during World War II, headed the Loudoun County draft board.

Buoyed by an $8,500 loan from the old Peoples National Bank, Caulkins became his own boss at the Nancy Shop -- selling notions, dolls and "costume jewelry by the ton -- a flourishing gift shop."

"But I was so broke when I started that I had to borrow $35 from a friend so I could turn on the electricity."

Given the store's steady clientele, Caulkins retained the familiar name for a few years.

Leesburg's retail generally grouped into duos in the 1950s: There were two groceries, haberdashers and hardware stores. There were two banks: Loudoun National, where Episcopalians banked, and Peoples, where people of other faiths banked.

There was one movie house, but it had two sections: the orchestra for whites and the balcony for blacks (although whites sometimes invaded the upstairs, as those seats were best for watching and for launching paper airplanes and spitballs).

There were three downtown threesomes: drug stores with lunch counters, restaurants for whites and garages for all. There was one restaurant for blacks.

And in the alley north of a brick bastion known as the Opera House -- where no opera was ever performed -- there were two lavatory buildings and two water fountains, one each for blacks and whites.

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