Capper's Nursery, a reassuring oasis surrounded by the vast asphalt and concrete stretches of the urban complex at Tysons Corner, is going out of business.
"I can't believe this area without Capper's," said Lena Lisker of McLean, a longtime customer, as she watched bargain hunters load up their car trunks and truckbeds with half-priced shrubs, plants, potting soil and cupid birdbaths.
For 45 years, long before Bloomingdale's Saturday generation was born, Capper's was a landmark at Tysons Corner. It was a landmark when Tysons was a two-lane crossroads with Gerson brownstein's country store, where farmers bought their hog feed and spring planting seeds.
But last month, nursery owner Merediht Capper and his son, Daniel - after winning a series of favorable zoning rulings - decided to sell the last 11 acres, which are strategically located on Rte. 7 between the Dulles Airport access road and Rte. 123 in Fairfax County.
"You could not profitably run a nursery on this land because taxes are too high," Daniel Capper said recently. "Tysons is just too hot of an area."
And the Cappers had other problems besides taxes, which amounted to about $25,000 this year. "Sales were flat," Daniel Capper said. "People are zooming by. There's too much traffic congestion." And there was increasing competition from supermarkets, drugstores and temporary roadside stands.
Even when Tysons Corner grew from a country crossroads to a selfcontained universe of research and development parks, a massive shopping center hotels office towers, condominiums and fast-food outlets, Capper's had stayed put. It had even stayed when the shiny chrome bumpers of Koons Pontiac began pushing up against the rows of freshly watered shrubs.
In some ways, the changes did not sit well with the nursery's founders. "It looks like New York just after it might have been bulled around by a tornado," said Meredith Capper, who bought the land for $300 an acre in 1928 when it was an apple orchard. But the change in the area helped the Cappers, too. Their last 11 acres is now assessed at $1.3 million, or more than $100,000 an acre.
Neither Capper has stayed behind to watch the liquidation of his nursery. Meredith left the area 12 years ago to raise and train trotting horses on his 800-acre farm in St. Mary's County, Md. His son went to St. Mary's two years ago to run a wholesale nursery outfit, leaving the Tysons Corner operation in the hands of Michael Dunlop, president of the firm.
Even if Capper's had continued to thrive as a nursery, its future would have been doubtful. "I was the cranes and the high-rises across the way and I just knew that the best use of the land was not what it used to be," said Dunlop.
In 1975 county planners began a belated effort to bring some orderliness to the hodgepodge development of Tysons. The Capper family at that time was seeking commercial rezoning, but county planners' recommended zoning for a research and development park. The planners' goal was to contain the often unsightly strip development in the area.
But the board of supervisors gave the Cappers the commercial zoning they wanted. In exchange, the county got 11 acres of flood-plain land behind the nursery for a future park. As a further concession, the Cappers agreed to maintain a nursery on 10 to 12 acres - creating hope that there might always be a nursery on the spot. But in 1978, at the request of the family, the supervisors relaxed that restriction. It will lapse in 1981.
Meredith Capper said he doesn't believe the restriction will present any great problem to prospective buyers. "It will expire about the time anyone would be ready to build," he said.
During the weekend sales rush at the nursery, office manager Jinny Davis overheard someone say that the closing of Capper's was "the end of an era." "Don't say that," she said. "This is like home. It's a kind of unique place to work - like one big family."
With customers surging through the doors Dunlop was forced to bring a cash register out of storage. "A business, they say, has a useful life of 35 years," he said. "We've been here for 45 years." There was no sound of regret in his voice.