Shepherdstown, W.Va.: Where Do I Sign?

By Scott Vogel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 30, 2008

"This chapter will help establish whether your attraction to small-town life is a mere passing fancy or the basis for a true commitment."

I come across the above sentence while browsing the stalls at the delightful Four Seasons Books in Shepherdstown, W.Va., an idyllic exurb (pop. 1,158) 77 miles northwest of Washington. At the moment, I am trying to make a true commitment to small-town life and so do not appreciate having my impulsiveness called into question by a well-worn copy of something called "Moving to a Small Town." But the 1996 tome's authors, Wanda Urbanska and Frank Levering, also warn that newcomers who "vent your anger carelessly" are frowned upon by small-towners and occasionally ostracized, and so I am learning to unlearn my defensiveness.

I concede that my desire to pull up stakes and flee the Washington area for Shepherdstown may seem abrupt, an inordinate response to the scones and clotted cream that I've just had at Shaharazade's Exotic Tea Room, a few blocks down German Street. But wait: The salon and everything in it -- e.g., the ersatz Ali Baba throw pillows -- are now on the market for $75,000, a bargain when you consider that the price includes "all equipment inventory, business and good will."

Passing fancy? I think not.

Sure, Wanda and Frank might question my readiness to chuck it all for a tea shop and the uncomplicated life it promises, which hopefully in my case will include one of those Federal-style houses that pack this, the oldest town in West Virginia. But that's because their portrait of small-town life is desperately outmoded. Per their instructions, I've expected to meet "many people who are less cosmopolitan than those you hobnobbed with in the city," and yes, it's true that Shepherdstownfolk wear suspenders to community gatherings. However, the gatherings are not hoedowns but screenings of Ingmar Bergman's "Smiles of a Summer Night," and everyone is expected to have read the relevant Pauline Kael essay in advance.

"Note the sparse, pointed use of music that adds to the comedy," advises resident Bergman expert Elliot Kirschbaum, just before the lights go down and a hundred members of the Shepherdstown Film Society luxuriate in that rarest of artistic achievements, an ungloomy Bergman movie. The 1955 romantic roundelay zips by, and soon we're at the iconic climax, where a peasant rolls in the hay in front of a windmill, shouting, "There is no better life than this!"

As it happens, I will say the very same thing to myself the next morning over hubcap-size pancakes at Betty's, a few doors down from the living museum that is Lloyd's barber shop. The waitress at the counter is Judy Shepherd. Yep, you guessed it.

"I'm related to [Shepherdstown founder] Thomas Shepherd's younger brother Moses," she tells me, launching into a personal and public biography that ends long after the pancakes are gone, a story that winds its way through the restaurant ("Miss Betty ran it for 42 years, then Regina bought it") and finally comes to rest in Judy Shepherd's own 201-year-old home, the former residence of Harriet Lane, who, in addition to being President James Buchanan's niece, was also his "hostess while he was in the White House, because he was a bachelor, you know."

Wanda and Frank have cautioned me not to appear like "uppity malcontents" while nodding through extended monologues, but they needn't have bothered. Yes, Shepherd is excited about the town's Christmas parade and not above rhapsodizing about the mashed potatoes at Betty's, but she's just as jazzed about the Two Rivers Chamber Orchestra, which is about to give its inaugural performance at Shepherd University's Frank Arts Center.

Preconceptions have prepared me for Lloyd's barber shop, but not Rossini's "Barber of Seville," whose overture sings out from the stage that evening. It's a joyous, impudent laugh in the face of all those who equate small-town life with the simple life. I take a post-concert walk on a brisk spring evening under a West Virginia canopy of stars, at which point it occurs to me that to have a passing fancy for Shepherdstown is to have a passing fancy for life itself.

From there, it's just a short leap to dropping everything, just like the proprietors of the Thomas Shepherd Inn, Jim Ford and Jeanne Muir, who in 2002 surrendered city jobs and began running a B&B "before we got too old to carry laundry up and down the stairs." (That's Muir.) She shows me several of the inn's lovingly appointed rooms, pausing along the way to opine that this is "a very cosmopolitan small town." By now it's the tail end of the weekend, and I'm so absorbed in the ways and spaces of Shepherdstown that I receive this sentence without the slightest urge to snicker. Wanda and Frank would be proud:

"As a rule, small-towners are less ironic and cynical about their lives than their big-city cousins, and express greater enthusiasm and earnestness."

Earnestness is not something I've previously aspired to, but Shepherdstown makes it easy. Who wouldn't be earnest about watching "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly" later that evening at the Shepherdstown Opera House (built in 1909), where they melt butter for the popcorn on a hot plate behind the counter? Or about the celebrated Contemporary American Theater Festival, which will bring crowds, not to mention brand-new works by Richard Dresser and Neil LaBute, to Shepherdstown this summer?

And what of O'Hurley's General Store? You think you've seen dozens of places like this before on the highway, stuffed with wooden toys and antique nails, all of them trading on nostalgia for a long-forgotten America. Jay Hurley himself puts it succinctly: "If it's in the 1902 Sears catalogue, I want to stock it."

But then he takes you out back to the workshop. There, in what looks like the decaying garage of an abandoned gas station, amid the clutter of sawdust and scrap metal, sits his pride and joy. Believe it or not, it's a half-finished homemade airplane; the aluminum gleams in the afternoon sunlight. I haven't a doubt in my mind that I'll soon be waving to Hurley from the tea shop as he tools over German Street, high above the rolling hills of a tiny town, well out of reach of the stereotypes.

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