Mark Metzger grew tired of the retail business in downtown Washington, so he took his high-end Highcliffe Clothiers an hour west to Middleburg, the heart of Virginia horse country.
A decade later, Metzger is wrapping up his best year ever. His success is bucking retail's slow strangulation by Amazon.com (Amazon founder and chief executive Jeffrey P. Bezos owns The Washington Post). His story is also one of the bright spots in quaint Middleburg (population 780), whose main-street businesses are grappling with encroaching technology, ever-increasing overhead and limited shopping hours.
Bricks-and-mortar retail is under assault. Thousands of mall stores have shut down in one of the largest waves of retail closures in American history. Abercrombie & Fitch, Sears, Macy's. Who is next? Lord & Taylor's flagship Fifth Avenue store in Manhattan was just bought by tech unicorn WeWork for $850 million.
And now, the contagion has seeped into little Middleburg, a seeming bastion of wealth and aristocracy. When several shops closed, a Fauquier Times headline hinted at a business community in dire straits: " 'Perfect storm' leaves Middleburg grappling with empty storefronts."
Let's be clear. This isn't Flint, Mich. Or Janesville, Wis. Or my hometown of Syracuse, N.Y., all of whose economies have been decimated by factory closures that vaporized thousands of jobs.
I am not making light of the plight of Middleburg businesses, but this is fixable. It's a cycle, not a downward spiral. And remember, Loudoun County is one of the wealthiest areas on the planet.
"The town, over all those years, has had waves of peaks and valleys," said Middleburg Mayor Betsy Davis, whose family has owned the Fun Shop since 1956. "Sometimes several businesses close at the same time. People retire. It's healthy."
The town hired Jamie Gaucher as its new director of economic development to help push a Middleburg renaissance.
"This is an economy built on visitors, whether those visitors are coming from the District of Columbia, from Chantilly, from Shanghai or London, " Gaucher said. "It's about building reliance on the local economy. There's a lot of energy around performing arts, concerts at Salamander Resort, horses, fox hunting, history, lots of Civil War. Why do they come here? Because they want to experience it."
Middleburg has classed up the downtown with new streetlights and brick crosswalks. But the town needs diversification so it can drive more traffic to its businesses. That means connecting resources in the town, whether it's Salamander Resort events or gatherings at Foxcroft, an elite boarding school for girls.
My wife, Polly, and I drove the 60 miles west on a gloomy day last week to see the Middleburg disruption, crisis or whatever you want to call it. We eventually found ourselves ensconced in comfortable velvet chairs in Metzger's store, listening to a primer from the retailer.
"What you have to remember about Middleburg is it's a walking-around town," said Metzger, whose clubby confines includes a couple of fifths of whiskey resting on a shelf, reserved for favorite customers who like a nip between fittings. "None of us, and I say us retailers, are able to escape the Amazons of the world. But there are plenty of people who still like to try on clothing, see things in the mirror."
With more than 30 years in retailing, this is no pastime. Metzger is an unsentimental businessman. During the better part of an hour, he provided a detailed assessment on some of the businesses around town and their chances of success.
Metzger, 57, has five employees, including himself, and I would not be shocked if he sells $1 million worth of clothing and accessories to men and women this year. He won't say exactly, but he did not dispute my estimate.
He grew up outside New York, graduated from Antioch College with a business degree and has been in retail just about ever since. He left Washington when he saw a decline in demand for his custom suits. So he relocated to Middleburg, expanded into women's clothing and started selling casual wear.
Retail is no place for amateurs, even in comfy Middleburg. People still talk about a dollar store that lasted a nanosecond. An olive oil tasting room bailed. The Home Farm Store in a former bank at the traffic-light intersection has been replaced by an oyster bar, run by a seasoned restaurateur.
One local investor I talked to who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the person didn't want to alienate the residents in this small town, said real estate prices have increased because of supply. Middleburg is surrounded by estates with protected green space. There is limited space for development. Landlords have paid high prices for what's left — which is passed on to the retail renters.
"The rents in general are high," said Duane Ellis, who owns Common Grounds coffee shop, which is kind of a town living room where the cognoscenti gather. "But when you think about it, where aren't rents high? Middleburg has always had high rents. It comes with the Zip code."
To stay in business and pay those rents, Metzger says, you have to know your customer. This is not the dollar-store crowd.
"In a small market, a small town, if you are selling less-expensive items, you have to sell more of them to make a living," he said. "The business plan of a dollar store is to have a thousand people walk by every day. Some come in and buy an item. That just doesn't happen on a side street of an 800-person town."
The people walking the quarter-mile along Middleburg's Main Street, perhaps having started the day patronizing one of the many wineries before driving into "downtown" to gawk at the multimillion-dollar home prices on the real estate storefronts, pop into one of the offbeat shops such as Popcorn Monkey, aptly named Upper Crust bakery or the Christmas Sleigh.
Some stop in, look over the goods, perhaps make an impulse buy. "The reality is that it's probably all that way in Middleburg," Metzger said. "It should be a good experience."
It may seem hard to summon a tear for this historic town, the heart of a region known for its fox hunting, private airstrips and smattering of aristocracy with names such as Mellon (banks, and everything else), Birdseye (frozen foods), DuPont (chemicals), Mars (chocolate) and Firestone (tires).
Then there are the boldfaced names such as actor Robert Duvall, television personality Willard Scott, Bill Clinton foil Linda Tripp and former congressman Tom McMillen.
Sheila Johnson, who made her fortune as the co-founder of BET, built the Salamander Resort just a short walk from the town's center. Metzger said he gets significant business from the resort. Even old foes including Bundles Murdock, a former town council member who opposed the project, have been won over by Salamander and its Middleburg Film Festival.
"We went through some tricky years," Murdock said in a phone interview between calls about the upcoming fox hunt. "We redid the streets. Dug up the middle of town and buried the electric wires. We are moving forward."
Metzger said the most interesting thing about Middleburg, from a business perspective, isn't the high-profile millionaires and billionaires.
Some street roamers are weekend warriors from leafy McLean or historical Georgetown. They are the under-the-radar rich folks who own homes in the countryside. They think nothing of dropping $1,000 at Metzger's shop. For that crowd, he stocks his inventory with high-end goods from the United States and from England and Spain.
But they don't pay the bills.
"There are an equal number of off-the-radar well-to-do people," he said. "There are hundreds or thousands of support people who have to look well. One of my better customers happens to be a shelf-stocker at Safeway."