By Becky Krystal
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 30, 2010; 9:07 AM
It's easy to wax poetic in and around Front Royal, Va. Rolling hills, river views and a white gazebo in the middle of town that could have been lifted straight from a Rodgers and Hammerstein musical - all inspiring, to say the least.
But it wasn't the scenery that conjured airy figures of speech in my mind on a recent visit to the burg of 15,000. The wave of metaphor crashed over me as I stood admiring, of all things, a china cabinet.
This revelatory cabinet occupied a nook in the back display room of Ole Timers Antiques on Front Royal's East Main Street. Painted black and mustard yellow, it certainly would have matched the living room of my new house. To me, though, the humble piece of furniture represented more than tasteful home decor. With a little touch-up and proper positioning, the cabinet was now primed to realize its potential, not unlike the town itself.
Establishments such as Ole Timers were the reason I'd come to Front Royal, which in the 18th century was known as "Helltown" because of its rough-and-tumble reputation. (The moniker is still bandied about by some sardonic locals.) Five antiques stores and two shops in a similar vein reside along the town's main artery. They've joined forces to promote themselves in an effort to pull in visitors who might know the town only as the gateway to Skyline Drive.
Kathy Helm-Soranzo was once one of those Washington area day-trippers who always seem to head straight for the mountains and bypass downtown. Now an area resident, she's working to market the area and its retailers. "I never knew this street was here," she said on a snowy afternoon from behind the counter at Valley Finds, her two-year-old antiques shop. "Had I known, I would have spent the night."
I definitely planned to spend the night, and if I wasn't careful, I'd be liable to spend more than that: i.e., too much money. Helm-Soranzo's inventory included painted dressers with beautiful inlaid patterns, china sets and an old apple press (sold to a woman from Purcellville within four days of my visit).
Further tempting my wallet was the stores' red-tag sale, typically a four-day event beginning on the third Thursday of every month. This go-round, the shops had extended it to nearly a week to attract pre-Christmas shoppers. Price is one reason the vendors think they can draw in day-trippers and bargain hunters.
"It took me a year to figure out that you're not going to get the same price as you would in Northern Virginia," said Ole Timers' Barbara Dumire, who, like all the shopkeepers I met, came to Front Royal from the Washington area.
I peered at cameo jewelry and other sparkling baubles in her glass case as we chatted. They were hard to resist, as was an oddly alluring cast-iron corn bread pan, but mindful of a looming mortgage payment, I held on to my cash.
For those with the stuff and not the dream home to put it in, there's Architectural Old House Parts, a warehouse of salvaged building materials. What could have been chaotic is artfully arranged, whether it be rows upon rows of furniture drawer handles, doors or glass lamp shades. Co-owner Valentina Sacks led me around the store, recounting the stories behind the mantels removed from a pre-Civil War home and the stained-glass windows saved from public housing in England.
It was the kind of touch that makes small towns so appealing, I thought, as I walked along the few blocks of East Main past an eclectic mix of shops that included a bookstore, a paint-your-own-pottery studio and a chocolatier. The morning's snowfall had completed the scene of what I imagine every quaint historic downtown looks like.
My friend Jessica and I enjoyed some more personal Front Royal attention that evening at another East Main spot: wine bar/restaurant/cheese shop Vino e Formaggio. There, sommelier, chef and co-owner Christian Failmezger helped us choose a bottle of wine to go with our dinner, which he prepared only after gauging our appetites. I marveled at the satisfyingly urban experience without the crowds or the expense.
The next morning, Arleen Narron of Arleen Brown Antiques said that the sense of community I'd experienced over a mere afternoon also extends to the consortium of antiques shops, a good number of which have opened in just the past few years. They don't see each other as competition, she said. Instead, the cluster strengthens them as a whole, and visitors benefit from the variety and the large inventory.
"There's always the potential to find something you want to take home," Narron said.
After hours of popping in and out of the stores, I knew she was right. I'd found a lot I wished I could bring home with me. But for now, I was perfectly satisfied departing with just a little piece of the small-town spirit.