In the great tradition of small towns and tall tales, the good old boys at Shuman's take the cake. And the doughnuts. As well as the lemon meringue pie.
It's the Sans Souci of Alexandria," said one long-time regular at the traditional early morning political pow-wow that transforms the sedate Shuman's Bakery into a rowdy, smoke-filled, backslapping bull session straight from "The Last Hurrah."
"They used to call it Shuman's Town Council, said 74-year-old city councilman Nick Colasanto, who says he has supped from Shuman's coffee cup every morning for the past 35 years.
"We'd all sit together at one long table in the back - the Bull Table. Politicians, businessmen, real estate people. We would discuss the issues of the day. As a joke, we asked the city to declare Shuman's a historical monument."
"You mean hysterical" said Lee Opie, pulling a well-worn bentwood chair up to the front table. The boys at the bakery arrive at 8 a.m.: Real estate czar Wellington Godding, former house majority leader James M. (Jim) Thompson, ex-city Councilman James W. (Jim) Carroll, local real estate broker Frank Wiman, retired bank president Thomas E. (Tom) Sebrell and special guest John F. (Jack) Herrity who is running against Herbert E. Harris in the 8th Congressional District.
Herrity said he had heard about Shumans, and camein to "press the flesh."
"I'm a plliticain," Herrity said, sipping coffee from a stained ceramic mug, resting one elbow on the torn red checkered oilcloth."A lot of these people have political power."
The regulars find that amusing.
"Nobody ever won an election by coming into Shumans," said Lee Opie. Receding hairlines gathered around the table ("most of us remember whendoughnuts were two for a nickel") nod in approval.
Table No. 1 immediately to the left of the front door is reserved for the heavyweights,; elder statesmen like Colasanto and respected veterans like Thomson in descending order. The overflow fills tables No. 2 and No. 3. On a recent visit, Alexandria Mayor Frank Mann was seated at table No. 2.
Newspapers are folded subway-style. The personalized mugs are filled with streaming coffee while the conversation flows in a steady stream of one-liners based on what one member of the group described as the prevailing political persuasion: "Neanderthal conservatism."
On elected officials: "I'd rather have a crook than a dumb honest guy." On an upcoming campaign for re-election: "Outside of senility, what will the issues be?" On wedded bliss: "If you were married to one of these guys, would you cook them breakfast?"
Bittersweet memories of campaigns, won or lost, are rehashed with enough bombast to fill the Goodyear blimp. Besides politics the gossip runs to sports, sex, real estate, crime and scandals.
The original Shumans opened in 1870 on Fairfax Street. It was owned by Louis Shuman who later passed the business on to his son Aubra. Aubra Shuman was the grandfather of Lonnie Marchant, who now runs the business with his wife Teddy. Along the way the bakery and ice cream parlor was moved to the 400 block of King Street in the heart Old Town across the street from City Hall. It was moved again to 500 King Street where it held out against racial integration. Marchant remembers the time Shuman's was picketed by members of CORE.
After Aubra Shuman died in 1955 his grandson took over. Urban renewal forced the bakery to relocate eight years ago to its present location in a converted gas station at 430 S. Washington Street.
"Nobody knows when the bull sessions started." said Marchant, "but it's been going on as long as I can remember."
The owner said he doesn't mind she-nanigans like the time one of the more athletic members of the group drop-kicked a loaf of bread across the tables. Another time one of the regulars did a flamenco dance on one of the bentwood chairs, which crashed to the floor.
"One day when Lonnie was away," said Opie, "somebody got hit in the face with a lemon maringue pie."
The regulars are the first to admit that no serious decision has ever been made at Shuman's. They also say the tradition will not be carried on by their children. The 38-year-old Marchant said he would't mind selling Shuman's but the regulars would probably veto that, "I seriously doubt" said Jim Carroll, "that you could find a place like Shuman's any-where in the world."