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Marjorie Land, 93; Owner Of Furnishing Emporium

Marjorie Land, left, and Joan Miller founded the Market Square Shop, one of the first businesses to open in Old Town Alexandria.
Marjorie Land, left, and Joan Miller founded the Market Square Shop, one of the first businesses to open in Old Town Alexandria. (1952 Family Photo)

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By Patricia Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 21, 2008

Marjorie Nesbitt Land, 93, co-owner of the Market Square Shop, one of the first businesses to open in Alexandria's Old Town district, died Aug. 14 at the Goodwin House in Alexandria after a stroke.

In 1952, when it was unusual for two women to own and operate a business in the Washington area, Mrs. Land and Joan Leidner Miller founded the emporium of fabrics, furniture and home furnishings among the run-down warehouses and vacant buildings of the historic area.

Originally based on Cameron Street, the shop moved to the historic Chequire House at 202 King St. in 1955, where it has remained.

The women drew customers with personal service, conducting home visits to offer decorating advice, allowing clients to borrow merchandise and addressing customers as "Mrs." or "Mr."

The work suited them. Both could unscroll fabric from bolts and cut it with precision without yardsticks or measuring tape. The shop became a landmark, and customers often waited on the street for the front door to open.

Their success sparked a rebirth of Old Town.

"We had wonderful customers," Mrs. Land told The Washington Post in 2002, seven years after retiring and selling the business to Bruce Schafer, who continues to operate it. "I loved going to New York and buying the fabrics and finding new things. My big passion is for fabrics and color. Oh, I miss it every day."

She was born in Boise, Idaho, and graduated in 1936 from the College of William and Mary. She worked for the next 12 years as a buyer for Thalhimer's department store in Richmond. When her husband was transferred to Washington, she began working at the Little Caledonia shop in Georgetown, where, for 75 cents an hour, she ran the fabric department with Miller.

The pair came up with the idea for their business while on a picnic, looking at land in the Hollin Hills development where the Millers planned to live. Their husbands quickly agreed to raid their savings to start the store.

The husbands' agreement was crucial because in those days, two women on their own could not get a bank loan or have a telephone installed without their husbands' assent. On buying trips, both had to disguise their pregnancies lest others refuse to do business with them.

Mrs. Land and Miller, who both had children, alternated days at the store so they could keep their homes running. They closed it at 5 p.m. because they thought the evenings should be devoted to personal matters, said Schafer, who bought out Miller's share in 1985 and Mrs. Land's in 1995.

"There's a world in Washington that is gone, and she was part of it," Schafer said. "She was very much aware of what one's responsibilities were in the world. She accepted those responsibilities. She made choices, and she saw them to completion."

The Lands lived above both stores. The King Street store has a roomy two-story residence above the shop, with high ceilings, tall windows, a grand staircase of Georgia heart pine and, in the 30-foot-long ballroom, an elaborate plaster ceiling cornice in a rare tobacco leaf pattern. Mrs. Land lived above the store until 1998.

She was also a major, if modest, player in the preservation of Old Town. She led tours of the "Our Town" exhibit at Gadsby's Tavern in 1956, which marked the beginning of the tourism era for the city. As a founding member of the Historic Alexandria Foundation, she remained involved in the rescue and resuscitation of many historic buildings.

She was also a member of St. Paul's Episcopal Church in Alexandria and volunteered for its Meals on Wheels program.

Her husband of 50 years, Henry Carter Land Jr., died in 1998.

Survivors include two sons, Henry Carter Land III of Alexandria and Charles Edwards Land of Norfolk; a sister; a half-brother; and five grandchildren.

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