Cars whisk down the dual lane, radials plowing a light film of rain. Vans pulling campers, wagons stacked with children, a family of four riding two motorcycles, one black and one blue, the blue one towing a tiny trailer. Sixteen miles to Luray Caverns, eight to Skyline Drive, a white-gray sky leaning against the mountains. NOW ENTERING SPERRYVILLE. Over the next 2 1/2 miles, there are 35 souvenir stands to choose from.
West on Rte. 211, signs landscape asphalt like country neon, hand-painted signs pierced with penny nails: APPLES & PEACHES, SORGHUM & HONEY, CHAIRS & BASKETS & MOCCASINS, N.Y. STYLE PIZZA. Chipmunk Hollow, the Teepee Restaurant, and the Swiss Chalet Gift Shop/Apple Land, and Jackie's Fruit Stand, where a sign asks you to honk if you can't stop. Confederate flag towels and Elvis tapestries beckon in the breeze.
Inside the cars, tourists get hungry or cramped or antsy. Then comes a blinker, then a great crunch of rubber over gravel. A steady stream wheels into the huge stand called Country Manor. LAST GAS BEFORE MOUNTAIN. The Fire Chief and Diesel Chief pumps are just beyond a herd of concrete lawn ornament deer, next to an army of concrete stable boys in blackface. Beyond is the ceder-shingled shop, two stories high, 135 feet long. It is owned by Jim and Phyllis Swindler, and no, their name is not a joke.
The Swindlers sell a bit of everything at Country Manor: grape vine baskets and Beech Spring Farm Cider with no preservatives added, and Blue Ridge Mountain Trolls. There is a honey bee exhibit near the display of the New Spring honey they bottle themselves, and ceder boxes inscribed Dad or Dear Diary or Holy Bible, the last laminated with a portrait of Jesus and stamped Sperryville, Va., Skyline Drive.
Corn-cob critters, and pairs of horns from Texas Longhorns, are mounted and polished and priced at $24.95. Coffee cups with YOUR name and a deer scene for $3. Johnny Reb caps for $1.95 and the Famous Rack Jack, made of Lexan in popular kitchen colors, ready to protect you from oven heat and remind you of Skyline Drive, for $4.95, and Fragrant Boudoir Rosepods, three for $1 for use as a sachet.
"A lot of people call a place like this a tourist trap," Jim Swindler says from his seat in his Cella Deli (Cella from his colloquial pronunciation of cellar). "But we feature reasonable prices, I think, with our overhead. We offer an air-conditioned building, rest rooms, a free picnic area, free water, free parking. In a city you'd have to pay for all that, right?"
Sundays are the big days for the Swindlers. Hundreds of travelers and a couple of bus tours come in the 13-hour day. At the end of some Sundays the Swindlers are too tired even to count out their cash registers. But on this day, a weekday, the tourists are only a trickle, steady but no crowds.
They come in through the souvenir side of the store, and must go all the way past the antiques and curios to get downstairs to the restrooms and the deli. About a dozen customers are in various stages of exploration, and their search is set to the music of C103 Super Country, "The Right Radio in Orange County."
A man in a dirty green baseball cap that says "Almost Heaven, West Virginia" is standing by the personalized coffee mug rack, the fingers of one hand wrapped around the handles of three white cups.
"Well, mother," he says to the woman in the housedress with him, "we got Dennis and Gary's birthday coming up, one on the 5th and one on the 12th." He picks up a Dennis and a Gary mug then moves on toward the confederate flags. "This would be good for Sam's boy."
The woman disagrees. "He'd tear the flag off it and use it for a spear . . . Now what about this hot plate for Cousin Martha?" The hot plate is personalized, too.
Further on, two children dig grab-bags from an antique bathtub with a new coat of yellow paint. The tub is below a rack of sew-on travel patches, near a counter on which turquoise rings and demitasse spoons of the 50 states are displayed. The girl is 10 and wears a gold-filled chain with a leaf charm around her neck. She bought it at Tiki Gardens in Clearwater, Fla. Her brother, 8, got his flip-flops there.
The boy picks up a bag. It has the word Girl written on it. "What about this?" he asks his sister. "It feels neat."
"Yea," she says, "but it's $1.25." She picks up one marked Kiddo. "This is only 75 cents."
Their parents meet them at the bathtub. "Look at this, kids," their mother says. She, too, is wearing a gold-filled leaf charm around her neck, and she is carrying a Blue Ridge Mountain Troll, $30, made from wood, acorns, pine cones and hemp by a local man. She reads from a tag that comes with the doll. "It says here that every time you say you don't believe in trolls, one of them leaves the world and you lose a friend."
The children go wide-eyed, and their father smiles from below a cap that says NASA, purchased at the space center in Florida. "Come on kids, decide what you want," he says. "We got to get back on the road." Next stop, Pennsylvania Dutch Country.
In the antique section, a man regards a gun cabinet and a player piano and some Hummel figurines. A little girl walks up with an apple in her hand. "Daddy, look at this apple. It's hand-carved."
"Hand carved," he says, his voice slightly above a whisper. He puts a hand on her shoulder and tenderly directs her back toward the shelf from which the apple came. "Oh, look at this," she says, forgetting the apple in her hand. "A cocker spaniel set!"
In an office beyond the cowboy hats and belt buckles, under a round surveillance mirror and a surveillance camera, Phyllis Swindler is keeping up with her catalogue trade. She started the catalogue two years ago, after Rte. I-66 opened and combined with hard economic times to slow Country Manor's business. With each order she sends a personal note, a bit of country hospitality.
She came here with her husband in 1970, a Boston Yankee with a Sperryville Swindler whose roots in town go back to 1790. His great-grandfather, A.W. Clark, is the most remembered, the owner of 7,000 acres, three sawmills, a grist mill and a distillery where apple brandy and apple pumice brandy were brewed. Most of the land was bought for national parkland in the 1930s, and it wasn't long after that Jim Swindler's Uncle Roy opened the family's first roadside fruit stand. And though Jim's 20 years in the Air Force took him to Japan and Turkey and Korea, his plan was always to come back and open a store himself.
Phyllis Swindler says she likes running the souvenir store and catalogue business. A couple times a year they go to souvenir and gift shows around the country and look for merchandise. It used to be, Phyllis says, that she ran the store like a farm, borrowing $100,000 every January and stocking up for the year. But now, with the economy like it is, she's stocking as she goes, relying on cash flow. She won't reveal her markup, except to say she used to buy something for 50 cents and sell it for a dollar. Now, she says, "if we can get $1.25 for it we'll sell it for that.
"It's hard to say what they're going to buy," she says. "About 20 percent of the items are continually turning over. You know, things that people collect, like shot glasses, owls, elephants and even pigs--pigs have caught on big the last couple of years. . . We get busloads of Japanese and Chinese tourists and they love the honey. That's about our best-seller, the honey and the preserves. The religious stuff sells real well, too. If I was ordering now I'd get a dozen more of those large Last Supper plaques. That's an A-Number One item. That and the Elvis stuff. Elvis will always be big, like the president's plates.
"You know," she says. "I get a real kick out of seeing people find something they like. Here they are on vacation, and they come in my store all tired and worn out from traveling. And then they buy something, and they leave happy. I can think of worse ways to make a living."