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Lured by Luray

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By M.J. McAteer
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Visitors to Luray, Va., who stumble across Billy Jennell's store probably have the same reaction I had when I first saw the place: What the heck is this doing here?

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The mountain resort town famous for its caverns and canoeing is just not the sort of venue where one expects to find a deal on a 19th-century Chinese opium bed or a lacquer-fronted, abalone-encrusted, mahogany-lined armoire immense enough to frighten a McMansion. But my friend Frank and I discovered those exotic items in a store in down-home Luray.

I had been on a mission to find a present for my young niece, Melissa, and her longtime boyfriend, who just a week earlier had become first-time homeowners. Even bigger news for the family: On the very night the young couple moved into the new digs, the boyfriend dropped to one knee and popped the question.

A gift certificate had been gently suggested as a welcome housewarming gift, but, no, that was too boring for me, and so impersonal. I wanted a memorable present, and the Luray area had seemed a promising place to find one. If I bought a dud (not impossible, considering my track record), I figured Melissa would have a jump on another rite of passage: her first yard sale.

So a marvelously patient Frank and I had spent the better part of a discouraging day popping in and out of antiques stores and flea markets along Route 11 in the Shenandoah Valley between Woodstock and New Market. Some featured Civil War artifacts. A couple had American furniture: quite fine but way out of my price range. Lots carried "collectibles" ( . . . of dust, as my mother would say).

So Jennell's Luray Antique and Design Center came as a shock. No twig furniture or plaques with precious sayings. If, on the other hand, Melissa would go for a pair of 1940s hand-carved painted wooden statues of the Egyptian jackal god Anubis, I was in luck.

Jennell, a busy interior decorator based in Washington, began coming to Luray for getaway weekends about a decade ago. He bought a house (stay tuned for more on that) and two years ago opened his store.

"I love to shop. It is my favorite thing to do," he told me, and with 10,000 square feet of space, he indulges himself and buys big: chandeliers, statuary and furniture in gargantuan dimensions, along with many items of less glandular proportions.

Jennell mixes new and old. High-end pieces from furniture makers such as Habersham, Baker and Henredon share space with antiques of every era and style, from French country to modern, neoclassical to Williamsburg.

Many of the items are highly decorated (gilded mirrors, coy nymphs, fainting couches, Chinese porcelain), but I particularly admired a plain, solid cherry armoire that Jennell said had been custom-built as a media center at a cost of $6,000; somehow, the piece had become orphaned and had come to him from one of his "pickers" who frequent estate sales and auctions up and down the East Coast. Jennell was asking $800.

I wondered how many casual tourists would be willing and able to drop that amount or, say, $2,500 on that intricately carved opium bed, which was long enough to sleep Yao Ming.

A few, maybe, but Jennell imports most of his customers along with his inventory. Some are referrals from the Inn at Little Washington, about 20 miles away. Others are design clients of his who come from Washington and New York.


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