A Local Life: Joan Leidner Miller

An Old Town Entrepreneur, She Helped Spark the Revival

Joan Leidner Miller, right, and Marjorie Land, shown in 1952, pooled their savings and opened the Market Square Shop, a fabric and decorating store in a run-down warehouse district that would become Old Town Alexandria.
Joan Leidner Miller, right, and Marjorie Land, shown in 1952, pooled their savings and opened the Market Square Shop, a fabric and decorating store in a run-down warehouse district that would become Old Town Alexandria. (Family Photos)
By Matt Schudel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 23, 2007

After working at the unambiguously named War Department during World War II, Joan Leidner Miller needed a job during peacetime. She ended up at Little Caledonia, an interior design and fabric store in Georgetown.

For 75 cents an hour, she worked in the fabric department with Marjorie Land and decorated the store's windows. After six years, she and Land thought they could do just as well on their own and developed an idea for a shop that would become an Alexandria landmark and would lead to the revival of a once-deserted part of town.

Mrs. Miller and Land invited their husbands to a picnic on the unfinished concrete slab that was the foundation for the Millers' future home in the Hollin Hills community near Alexandria. During the picnic, the two women broached the idea of a fabric and decorating store. Much to their surprise, their husbands were full of encouragement.

The women pooled $1,500 in savings and launched Market Square Shop, which opened on Cameron Street in Old Town Alexandria in 1952. Three years later, it moved to the Chequire House at 202 King St., a historic building from 1797 that had been used as a military hospital during the Civil War.

The Market Square Shop was one of the first businesses to open in a run-down warehouse district that would become Alexandria's thriving Old Town. It was also among the first commercial ventures in the Washington area owned solely by women.

"They were really some of the pioneers of Old Town," said Vola Lawson, a former Alexandria city manager who began shopping at the store when it was at its original location on Cameron Street. "Old Town was really shabby. There were a lot of abandoned stores. Down at the foot of King Street, you could still buy horse feed."

Mrs. Miller and Land sold fabrics and interior design advice to a clientele that came to include first ladies, members of Congress, news anchors, ambassadors and royalty. Land, now 93, lived above the shop with her family. Mrs. Miller, who was 85 when she died Dec. 5 at Washington Hospital Center of complications of vascular surgery, lived a few miles away in the modernist architectural enclave of Hollin Hills.

For two years in the mid-1950s, Mrs. Miller lived in Manila with her husband, Paul A. Miller, a Foreign Service officer she met while they were undergraduates at the University of Chicago. Except for that interlude, Mrs. Miller and Land owned and operated the Market Square Shop for more than 30 years. To keep a balance between their professional and family lives, they worked on alternating days.

As women owning a business, they had to overcome many subtle and overt forms of discrimination. They could not get a telephone installed without the approval of one of their husbands. On business trips, the young mothers -- who each had two sons -- had to wear dark, voluminous clothing to conceal their pregnancies.

Nonetheless, they made the store a success, which helped spur the rebirth of Old Town. Mrs. Miller changed the window displays each week and wrote many of the shop's jaunty, memorable advertising slogans. When invited to dinner parties, she was sometimes known to rearrange the furniture when the hosts retreated to the kitchen.

"They both had snappy, witty senses of humor," said Mrs. Miller's son Jeffrey, who worked at the store when he was growing up. "It was like a 1940s movie."

They became so expert at measuring cloth by hand that they didn't need a yardstick. Handmade racks mounted floor to ceiling lined every wall with bolts of colorful fabric for upholstery and drapery.

They maintained the store's accounts in handwritten ledgers and kept cash in an antique money drawer. The shop also sold furniture, lamps, spiral staircases, soaps, candles and decorative objects. Excess stock was stored in a converted ballroom.

The women always addressed their customers as "Mr." or "Mrs." and offered service modern shoppers can only dream about. They visited people's homes to consult on colors and fabrics, sometimes delivered purchases in person and often wrapped and mailed their customers' Christmas gifts.

"You never knew who was going to walk in the door," Jeffrey Miller said. "There would literally be lines of people waiting down the street for the door to open."

In 1986, Mrs. Miller sold her portion of the store and retired to Old Town. Land sold her share in 1995 to Bruce Schafer, who began working at the shop in the 1980s. Today, 55 years after its founding, Schafer keeps the Market Square Shop looking almost the same as it has for so many years.

"We haven't changed a thing," he said. "It still looks exactly the same. And it's all because of the vision of these two women."

© 2007 The Washington Post Company