You say you're tired of your daily three-hour gridlock commute from some cul-de-sacked cardboard town house to a city where children shoot each other over dope and high-top Reeboks?
You say there's got to be a better life somewhere, and you're looking for some country place with texture, some place with less traffic and not a single stoplight?
Well, have we got a deal for you.
For a short time only, for about the same price as one of those tacky tract mansions in greater Tysons Corner, you can buy the entire town of Columbia, Va., a place with so much texture you can almost hear the grass grow. Well, maybe not the entire town, but the most visible part.
You want location? Columbia's right smack in the middle of Virginia, almost equidistant from Richmond and Charlottesville.
You want peace and quiet? Columbia, with its population of around 100, is not only the biggest town in Fluvanna County, it's the only one. There's not a single traffic light in the entire county.
You want waterfront? Columbia's long on waterfront. It sits right there on the north bank of the James River just downstream from where the Rivanna comes meandering in.
You want history? Columbia was founded in 1788 and came within a few votes of becoming the state capital. A lock of the old Kanawha canal, which carried barges around the James River rapids in the 1800s, lies weed-grown and awaiting restoration at the western edge of town. And there were gold miners here.
You want a voice in your government? In the last town election 18 voters cast ballots for eight town offices.
"Stick around long enough and you'll be mayor," says Kirk Johnson, 38, who, after 13 years, is.
You want atmosphere? What can you say about an oak-shaded place that drowses just five miles east of Dixie?
It's true if you sneeze you could miss Columbia on your way west on Virginia Route 6 toward Scottsville. Its boarded-up frame stores, peeling houses and 400-yard main street don't exactly scream for attention. There's little trace of its role as a thriving central Virginia transportation hub for most of the 1800s. That sign showing where the river crested nine feet up the wall inside one abandoned building in 1969 might discourage the faint of heart. And the railroad station isn't even on the tracks any longer. It's up the hill in the weeds.
But there's more to Columbia than appearances. Ask Claude Amos. He was born there 87 years ago next Oct. 1, ran its main restaurant for half a century when he wasn't turkey hunting, and for clear-eyed vigor and mental resources rivals most people half his age.
"It's hard to believe the way you see her now," he says, "but this was a self-sustaining little community... . People not only lived here but made their living here. Everybody knew each other, cared about one another. There was a lot going on. I'd love to see it come back. This was a good little town."
Just how and why Columbia's up for sale is a little vague. Paul Dickinson, 52, inherited most of it from his father, who died several years ago. Dickinson senior not only ran Columbia's main grocery store for years, he married a widow who had some property in the town, inherited that when she died and gradually bought up other lots cheaply, particularly after the floods of 1969, 1972 and 1985. The river does get up in Columbia from time to time.
Paul Dickinson has been an absentee landlord ever since. He never lived in Columbia himself. He lives an hour away in Louisa County on a 400-acre farm with 32 ponies and describes himself as "self-employed."
Why is he selling it now?
"Well, to tell you the truth," he says, "I sold an apartment house in Pittsburgh and a store in New York a few years ago, but I was married then and that money just went whoopy doo. So I decided to liquidate some of this property in Columbia. My kids don't want it. They're grown and live in another world."
Rather than sell it piecemeal he and his real estate agent-cousin, Brenda Dickinson Harview at Annie Lauler Corp. in McLean, got together with some other property owners in Columbia to promote the sale of the town itself as a package. They even hired a public relations firm to flack it.
The deal includes 18 of the 150 acres in the town limits, including 15 buildings in the abandoned commercial strip along Route 6. Asking price: $2 million. Most of the rest of the town is woods.
"The hope is that someone will come in here and restore the town, sort of like Williamsburg," says Harview. "There will be a covenant on the deed saying the new owners have to preserve and fix up the historic buildings. There's a tremendous amount of history there." So far, she says, she's had about 30 inquiries from Richmond, the majority from developers. "Richmond is moving west so fast it would seem natural to make a magnet of Columbia," she said. "But I'm surprised we haven't had more inquiries from Charlottesville, with all those movie stars and celebrities moving in up there. After all, Kim Basinger bought that town in Georgia... ."
Not everyone views the possible sale of the town with equanimity.
"Anyone crazy enough to buy that land is in for some surprises," said Hazel Arthur, proprietor of the Columbia Corner Market (ABC off), the town's sole surviving store. Standing, arms folded, between a snuff display and a rack of Slim Jims, she pronounced the proffered property "all flood plain. You can't improve it, you can't add sewer, you can't do nothing but get a headache with it. The whole idea's crazy."
Mayor Kirk Johnson, however, says there may be something to it. Johnson, a mechanical engineer who works in Richmond, says he and his wife moved out to Columbia in 1977 "because we wanted a big old house to fix up" and have been working ever since restoring a handsome 18th-century home on the hill by the post office. Nothing much has happened in the town since, he says, in part because "we've had an extremely apathetic bunch of property owners," most of whom live elsewhere.
"Larger towns, like Charlottesville, can just condemn property that gets run down, fix it up and sell it to someone else. About all we can do as a town is have the grass cut and send the owners the bill. Most of them won't even pay that. So we put it on their taxes. And about half of them are a couple of years behind on those."
For several years, he says, the town has been working to get certified as a National Historic District, and he's had the properties on Main Street examined by preservationists both for historic and assessment purposes. "The total value we came up with for all of them was around $150,000," he said. "Theoretically, we could still condemn them and sell them individually or in a package, but plenty of people would just buy them for $150,000 or $200,000 and sit on them a few years until Richmond and Charlottesville expand out this far. If somebody comes in here with a couple of million, they're not going to sit on it, they're going to do something with the property ... something that benefits the town. So you might say we're kind of like hopeful bystanders to this deal."
Johnson says some significant potential hurdles lie in the way of any effort to resuscitate Columbia, but they aren't the obvious ones. The flood plain problem, he says, is more apparent than real. Scottsville's business district, 25 miles to the west, floods more often than Columbia yet sustains its commercial life "because their property owners give a damn." Should the town win certification as a Historic District, which seems likely, "old buildings in the flood plain can be rebuilt and even qualify for federal flood insurance."
A greater concern, he says, is the town's water system, which "is pretty well maxed out" and might be very costly to expand.
But everyone knows the modern world is on its way, however long it takes it to reach Columbia. "There's hardly any open country any more between Richmond and Charlottesville," says Kirk Johnson. "You see houses everywhere."
Two years ago two major farms surrounding Columbia were bought by a developer and subdivided. No roads or houses have gone in yet but it's just a matter of time. Claude Amos, who nearly saw the century's birth in Columbia, ponders that at times and wonders.
"You know," he says, "I shop in Richmond and I enjoy the convenience there, but I'm always glad to get back here because I just love the country life. I always have. Because people in the country care about each other. Of all the changes we've seen in this century, I think the most profound have been those in transportation and communication. You can't imagine how they have changed our lives here in Columbia.
"My mother was born here in 1876. In those days freight moved on the canal boats, freight, mail and passengers. People came to Columbia from all over central Virginia to get it. When I was a boy it was the same with the railroad. We always had a hotel in town. A doctor. A blacksmith, a livery stable ... a dozen stores. We shipped pulp wood out on the freight cars. And a lot of people worked for the railroad.
"People went everywhere on horseback -- over dusty roads in summer and mud wallows in winter. Or they walked. I went to school with children who walked three to five miles each way every day and thought nothing of it. No phone, no electricity, no television, no radio. You spent a lot of time getting from here to there."
Claude Amos isn't one to lose himself in nostalgia for those days. He appreciates the conveniences and comforts of the modern world, queries strangers for news of it ("What's the latest on this Iraqi business?") and keeps his mind sharp pondering its dilemmas.
But there was something about the rigor of the life that was Columbia's, he suggests, that made clearer the difference between truth and illusion, that forced people to see life as it was and not as they wished it were or feared it might be.
"I often wonder," he says, "how people today would deal with it if they had to live like that again. I wonder how they would cope."
His question hangs in the air, like the future of his ghostly little town, while down the hill on Route 6 a tractor-trailer downshifts through Columbia, stirring dusty tree leaves and memories.