By Sharon McLoone
Monday, June 14, 2010; 14
Fairlington Shopping Center in Alexandria is not exactly a strip shopping center. It's more a shopping block, with stores that wrap almost all the way around the neighborhood hot spot near the intersection of several of the city's main thoroughfares -- upper King Street, North Quaker Lane and West Braddock Road.
Pull into the Fairlington parking lot and the smell of freshly baking bread wafts out of Great Harvest Bread. The franchise bread bakery is popular with the locals for offering free bread slices all day long, and many stop by to pick up coffee to go with their freebie.
Many of the stores have been here for a number of years. Charles Studholme, the owner and manager of One Good Tern, a shop for birders and nature lovers, said the secret is that many are "passion shops" that gain repeat customers through quality and service.
"There's nothing in my store that anyone has to have," he says with a laugh, looking down at the rows of birding binoculars, socks imprinted with penguins or cardinals and bags of seed that are packaged in the store.
But just then Sharon Winkler who lives about 75 miles away in a small town near Solomons Island, Md., walks in.
She used to be local and frequents the area to visit friends and family -- and always comes into A Good Tern to pick up birdseed and other goods.
"He has a wonderful shop, and the quality of seed here ... is incredible," she says as she heaves two huge bags of shiny black sunflower seeds onto the counter.
She also makes sure to visit the florist, the bakery and Reunions, an antique store, every trip to Fairlington.
"Quality matters," says Studholme. "I've been in retail for 40 years, and the biggest deal is that we try not to have any junk. This is not a mall. It's a neighborhood shopping center."
There are plenty of other passions to be indulged here.
One Good Tern is just a couple of doors down from Spokes Etc., a bike shop that likes a good pun -- its employees are referred to as "spokes" people. It's a go-to place for local bike enthusiasts, but also gets a robust business fixing busted baby stroller tires.
Foxglove Flowers has been at Fairlington for 16 years. Not only does it offer a wide variety of cut flowers, but the cozy store also carries brightly colored planters and eye-catching decorative items such as a wooden goose and gold figure that sail below the ceiling.
The business started in Georgetown 30 years ago this August and then moved to Rosslyn, but co-founder Tom Sutton says he wanted a more regular, neighborhood shop that he didn't see in its earlier, more transient neighborhoods. "We definitely found that neighborhood feel here in Fairlington," he says.
Most of his customers stop by to purchase gifts, but Sutton and co-owner Jerry Spitz also do party work for museums in D.C. such as the National Gallery of Art and the National Air and Space Museum.
Alexandria resident Leslie Hagan recalls visiting the center in 1960 when it housed a now long-gone movie theater. However, back then she frequented the Baskin-Robbins, which sits at one corner of the center.
"It's probably the longest remaining original store up there, and we used to go there after school on Friday and Saturday nights," she says.
Today, Fairlington Pizza keeps things hopping into the evening as a popular local spot.
Lindsey Bashore, the owner of Diversions Cards and Gift Store, is grateful for some of the center's bigger-name anchor stores such as Baskin-Robbins and CVS, which spur a lot of walk-in traffic as people window-shop while eating ice cream or waiting for prescriptions.
Diversions sells more than 4,000 cards. It's also sprinkled with today's hot collectibles for kids such as Silly Bandz. During the Beanie Babies craze in the late 1990s, customers lined up around the block, Bashore says.
He has owned Diversions since it opened in 1985 and says his store, like much of the shopping center, deals with a small base of clientele that is very loyal.
Bashore noted that last winter's snowy weather was brutal or even fatal for some local card shops that suffered as customers were snowbound during peak holidays such as Valentine's Day.
"We may have survived because we don't have the higher rent of many of the larger, enclosed malls, and we have a lot of repeat customers who we know on a first-name basis," says Bashore.
Cele Garrett of Alexandria is one such fan: "It's my go-to place for funny cards, but I always end up finding something else," she says.
In fact, as she buys cards, she picks up a last-minute purchase of stylish reading glasses available next to the cash register.