Doesn't Jackie Onassis know there are only a few weeks left until Christmas? Doesn't she feel the pressure to get out to the malls and shop? Then what, for pity's sake, was she doing in Millwood, Va., a couple of weeks ago, poking around the antiques stores, dithering over a -- dare I suggest it? -- less-than-world-class floor lamp?
Perhaps, like me (!), she had gulled herself into thinking that she could enjoy a weekend in the country and get a jump on her Christmas shopping at the same time.
My weekend, which wound up in leafy, isolated, antiques-rich Virginia hunt country, began in the small towns, also antiques-rich, that lie beyond the Blue Ridge. My browsing was interrupted by meals that ranged from the chopped pork sandwich at Bad Water Bill's Bar-B-Q Barn, on Route 11 in Strasburg, to the silky saute'ed duck foie gras at Oliver's, on South Royal Avenue in Front Royal (that's FRONT-rawl). And though I wound up in Onassis territory, I started out in the land of Leo M. Bernstein.
I first hear the name in Strasburg -- straight out Interstate 66, 10 minutes beyond Front Royal. When I come upon the antiques wonderland that is the Strasburg Emporium, I learn it is owned by Bernstein, a 75-year-old former Washington banker and real estate entrepreneur. So, I discover, is Wayside Antiques next door. Lured by an old neon sign hanging over King Street (Route 11), I wander around the corner of South Holliday Street to the Hotel Strasburg -- owned, again, by Leo M. Bernstein. Up Route 11 in Middletown is the Wayside Inn, "America's first motor inn," also owned by Leo M. Ditto the Wayside Theatre. And the Wayside Museum, due to open next spring.
But one-man rule doesn't mean a single point of view. This is a quirky part of the world, and there's plenty of personality to go around. Wayside Antiques is smallish and quiet, with mellow Shenandoah Valley pieces -- corner cupboards, chests of drawers, tables. The Strasburg Emporium, on the other hand, sprawls across 60,000 square feet, with crusty old Victorian garden urns and cast-iron fencing (at less-than-stratospheric prices), rustic twig rockers, tin barn-top finials, plus the usual nostalgia-for-Grandma things. The Emporium, with its 50-plus dealers, also offers complete period doorways (including the entryway to the old Clarke County Courthouse) collected over the past 50 years or so by a local doorway enthusiast.
If that isn't personality enough, there's the Hotel Strasburg. Jacuzzied and gamely spiffed up with Victoriana, it retains, to its credit, a funky frontier look, the kind of place where Miss Kitty would have entertained Marshal Dillon (rooms run from $69 a night to $149, for a suite in Taylor House next door). It's as quirky and honest as the rest of the small industrial town, and it's the hotel's current operator, Gary Rutherford, who points me in the direction of one of Strasburg's other characters, Byrd Barrick.
Barrick, who owns Barrick's Shoe and Variety Shop on East King Street, repairs shoes. But back 40 years ago, when his father was running the place, the Barricks were asked by a neighbor to sell some hamsters for $5 apiece. That's how they found out, the soft-spoken Barrick says, "we could sell anything in the front window." So today the shop is filled with sewing notions and yarn, Depression glass and Rit dye in "35 smart colors." And white-oak baskets "made by Mr. Bill Cook down Mount Jackson way." And plasterware -- as in spray-painted busts of Elvis. Barrick's is open most days, except when there's a local auction where he might be able to "buy some family history."
History, specifically Civil War history, is everywhere in the towns along Route 11; at least one little shop in each town sells rifles, bullets and maps. But the horror of that history can be better felt outside the towns, along the rolling fields that line Route 11. I blame it on the PBS television series "The Civil War": As I look at the ordinary cultivated acreage, I keep getting flashes of the thousands of bodies that lay there after the battles of Cedar Creek, Middletown and Kernstown.
That haunted road north takes me past the Signal Knob Flea Market (yet another Bernstein business), Bad Water Bill's, Belle Grove Plantation (designed with help from Thomas Jefferson), the Wayside Inn ($75 to $125 per room per night) and the furniture shops and laundromats (lots of laundromats) of Middletown and Stephens City and on into Winchester. There, I'm prepared for a city in the heart of Virginia apple country, a prosperous market town for the past 200 years, as the brochures say. But I'm not prepared for the grandly, sometimes preposterously, proportioned houses that line Washington and Stewart streets. Or for the exquisite Beaux-Arts Handley Library, which explodes from its tight little street corner with a monumental dome and copper-roofed wings. As I'm madly trying to summon up which historic building it recalls (the Paris Opera? Grand Central Terminal?), the Saturday librarian tartly reports that the 1912 edifice is copied from the New York Public Library. So there.
My destination, though, is across the street, the landmark white-columned mansion at the corner of East Piccadilly and North Braddock streets, one of the most imposing buildings in Winchester. Home for the past 15 months to Kimberly's Antiques & Linens, the building was completed just as the Civil War broke out, and its owners found themselves removed bodily from the place and set down on the road outside town. The house became headquarters for Gen. Philip Sheridan, then for the Elks, who sold it a couple of years ago to the Sowers family, who heat-gunned the elk-head linoleum off the floors and opened Apple Manor Properties downstairs and the linen shop upstairs.
Twenty-year-old Kimberly Sowers Sempeles has stocked the shop with vintage and new linens -- embroidered white bed linens from Paper White, plus pique' bath and damask tea towels by Le Jacquard Francais and bed linens from Palais Royal. As delightful as the merchandise is, the room settings make it more so. The grand scale of the spaces, dotted with pristine iron beds and charming country canopies (plus one room that is a branch of Middletown's Cedar Creek Relic Shop, selling Civil War rifles and spent bullets) would make Winchester worth the candle even if there were no other worthy shops. But there are, there are: Piccadilly Street Antiques for country cupboards and vintage plasterware, Pierre's Antiques around the corner and, for knickknackers, Millwood Crossing. Also, Cameron Street Antiques last month expanded to make room for Personal Touch, which prepares gift baskets of Virginia products.
Heading south again, I stray from Route 11 at Stephens City to head the 17 miles east to Berryville, having heard about Coiner's Department Store. When it opened back at the turn of the century, the dry-goods store must have really dazzled its clients with its "Air-Line" cash carrier pulley system. As I stand by an old wood rolling ladder on the store's main floor, I watch a little girl buy a very modern, shocking-pink Koosh ball. Then I see the clerk reach up and put the girl's money in a little wood jar attached to what is essentially a clothesline. The clerk tugs on a pulley, and the jar sails along the rope up to the cashier's office; gravity will send her change and receipt back down.
Eighty-seven-year-old C.A. Hobert still opens the store at 8 each morning; his son and daughter-in-law, both lawyers, have their offices on the second floor, next to the Little Tikes toy department. Will the younger generation keep the store going? The clerk looks uncomfortable, then points out that retailing takes a lot of time and effort. What about the cash carrier? Will that keep going? That's easier to answer. "Oh, we just replace a rope every once in a while."
Berryville, with Coiner's and the Battletown Inn (another Leo M. Bernstein property; $66 to $86 per room per night), is a worthwhile digression, but it's late afternoon, and time to make my way to Front Royal for dinner at Oliver's, recently opened by Richard and Lynn Mahan, a husband-and-wife chef team who met while cooking at the Inn at Little Washington. Wending my way south on Route 340, however, a small sign tells me that Millwood is only three miles away. I had heard of Millwood only the day before from an antiques dealer who urged a visit, saying, "It's such a quiet little spot. People really appreciate learning about it."
My first quick stop is the Black Penny. It's disappointing in terms of antiques, but clearly the people here can rig anything into a lamp. In fact, just outside a room filled with lampshades, a framed letter from Sen. John Warner thanks the shop for turning his old boots into a lamp and saying he now wants another one for his office. Hmmm.
The next stop is the Red Schoolhouse Antiques, where a dozen dealers have filled half a dozen large rooms with everything from Victorian jewelry to modern folk art. But the heart of Millwood is half a mile south, where Routes 255 and 723 meet in a leafy dip in the road. Here is the Old Mill Antique Shop, with everything from an old painted sign for "Hot Barbecue" for $235 to an 1820 cherry, mahogany and bird's-eye maple Empire sideboard from upper New York state for $7,500. And here is the Sampler, with vintage country furnishings. And here is Jackie O wondering out loud where she'll find a lampshade to go with the lamp she's considering (hasn't Sen. Warner told her about the Black Penny?).
So, did Mrs. Onassis buy the lamp? I have no idea. I left the store because there were two more Millwood shops to explore before 5 o'clock. And only a few weeks until Christmas.
Antiquing beyond the Blue Ridge can best be pursued on weekends, especially in winter, when some shops close during the week. Hours are also quirky, so it's best to call ahead. Though closed for the winter, Belle Grove Plantation (703-869-2028) will reopen to offer candlelight Christmas tours December 15 through 23, 6 to 9 p.m., and the gift shop is open daily.