HIS WIFE LEFT HIM, TAKING THE SILVER AND THE POPOVER PANS. AND Everything else, too.
But after two days' hard shopping at Georgetown's Little Caledonia, the dapper gentleman of about 60 had filled 20 shopping bags with enough necessities and niceties to civilize his new bachelor digs. There were lacquered English serving trays, napkin rings shaped like elephants and birds, linen napkins and china place settings for two -- in case of a guest. Then there was the cabbage-shaped soup tureen, the wrought-iron floor lamp, the garden umbrella, two mailboxes, measuring cups, an assortment of coffee-making paraphernalia and oyster plates.
And, of course, popover pans. Four of them.
Everything to make a place look as if the family's lived there for generations. One-stop shopping, except for ancestral portraits, a four-poster bed and dog hair to sprinkle on the furniture to give it that lived-in look.
Park your labrador at the curb -- this is where Old Money shops. In fact, they've been hoofing it over to Wisconsin Avenue for 50 years (or maybe longer, but more about that later).
There's nothing trendy or futuristic at Little Caledonia. Think doilies, place cards, ceramic monkeys, finials (to top off lamps, of course), handmade lamp shades and Belgian linen. And don't let the size of the place, the rabbit warren of 13 claustrophobic rooms fool you.
Little Caledonia must stock enough soup tureens to serve gazpacho to everyone at RFK Stadium at the height of Redskins season. And enough wastebaskets to outfit every office at the Pentagon, although some generals might squawk at the idea of tossing their top-secret memos in a container with a duck or a panda on it.
Walking into Little Caledonia is like entering Charles Dickens' Old Curiosity Shop. The rooms are laden with more than 60,000 affordable knickknacks, stockrooms bulge with picture frames and mirrors, with hard-to-find jam pots and cachepots. Even the bathroom is jammed with silk flowers and cases of the oh-so-popular Lov Last cold-water wash.
There's the pretty, the cute and the kitschy. There's the Right Stuff and a bit of the wrong stuff, too. But come on -- isn't every home a mix of both? OPENED IN THE LATE 1930s when Georgetown was mainly a wild, wild west of saloons, Little Caledonia has stuck it out in good times and in bad, faithfully serving up its Waspy look to generations of Washington's educated consumers. The names on the 1,200 house charge accounts read like the invitation list to a state dinner. Lorraine Cooper, wife of Ambassador John Sherman Cooper, used to come in for tole trays to give as wedding gifts. Tricia and Julie Nixon bought their parents Christmas gifts here. Karen Akers likes to pop in. Lady Bird Johnson still keeps her account. And any decorator worth his tassels knows Little Caledonia is a great place to hit for just the right last-minute accessory or a quick bolt of chintz.
While Wisconsin Avenue has tarnished around it, Little Caledonia emains one of the few shops left in Georgetown that don't sell shoes or designer pizza. The flame is kept lit by two sisters, Eleanor Wells Randolph and Marian Wells Roberts. Self-professed shopping addicts, they keep the doors of Little Caledonia open despite the fact that the business -- gasp! -- is not profitable.
"The store hasn't made any money since 1979," says Randolph with a sigh, a statement that would make Stanley Marcus jump off the roof of his flagship store. "We don't get the crowds we used to get."
"If we could just break even," says Roberts, nodding in agreement.
"But we have to pay so much in real estate taxes and we have so many employees."
Employees? What kind of a store is it that actually has a large staff these days? A very old-fashioned store where the salespeople know the merchandise. And the sisters know that their Little Caledonia is old-fashioned. They simply won't change it. Says Roberts, the secretary of the company, "I'd rather subsidize it the rest of my life. I love the way people enjoy it. And it's worth having it just so people don't have to go to malls."
"I hate malls," says Randolph, who is Little Caledonia's president and who is thought to be more of a businesswoman than her artistic sister. "You get lost in them. They are depressing. I feel like I am in Aida's tomb!"
Says Roberts emphatically, "We would never move to a mall."
You know she means it. And you can't quite see the rooster pitchers, the sealing wax, the suede card-table covers or the melon-shaped molds kicking around at Landmark Center.
Besides, if Little Caledonia went out of business, what would the Pig Man do? He's one of the regulars, a South American diplomat who pulls up from time to time in his limousine and inquires whether the shop has any new pigs to add to his collection.
THERE'S SOMETHING IN- timate, comforting, unpretentious about the two adjoining row houses at 1419 Wisconsin Ave. NW. A funny, narrow entry hall lined with gold mirrors and framed prints spills out into a maze of rooms. There's the Fabric Room, the Patio Room and the Lamp Room. The Center Room always has a table set for dinner with Quimper faience, Portuguese Vista Alegre earthenware or Kentucky's Mary Hadley stoneware.
What's that smell? Oh, they're having a Dippity Dill tasting in the Casserole Room.
The home furnishings, from fabrics to decorative accessories to furniture, all have a sort of Waspy Washington look. Like things passed down by a favorite grandmother or a slightly eccentric aunt. Or things you uncovered at an estate sale in Chevy Chase.
There's the flavor of 19th-century England here. Yet how does the decoupage telephone directory cover fit in? Or the magnetic pot holder? The overall effect is traditional, but there are some zingers.
"We carry the kind of stuff that a young couple starting out in life could buy piece by piece and always keep with them the rest of their lives because of the quality and the classic look," says Erika Emery, who has managed the store for the sisters for 20 years. "On the other hand, our pieces fit in for those who already have antiques in their home and need things to fill in."
How do the sisters describe their 5,000-square-foot shop?
"It's a miniature department store," says Randolph.
"No, not really," sniffs Roberts. "That sounds bad. It's not a department store."
"We just buy things we like," sighs Randolph. "I'm afraid we are buyaholics. Salesmen love us."
"If we like it, then we don't care if it sells or not," says her sister. "We don't mind it hanging around here for a while." DON'T DISMISS LITTLE CALEDONIA AS A place for frumpy matrons to buy silver polish (though they do shop here, and Little Caledonia does carry silver polish).
In the early 1970s, Little Caledonia was one of the first Washington shops to have a separate kitchen department and to offer the revolutionary Cuisinart.
"We realized that people wanted glamorous kitchen things. Before that, kitchens were relegated to the maid," says Roberts.
Prices for everything are reasonable. There are lots of things less than $10. Their bestselling item through the years has been the bobe`che.
Yes, the bobe`che, a $1.10 glass ring that fits around the bottom of a candle to keep the drippings from damaging your Georgian dining table.
What? You don't have a Georgian dining table? Not to worry. Little Caledonia can sell you one -- or a small upholstered chair or a mahogany hall table, all chosen to fit the narrow hallways and doll-house rooms of Georgetown.
Also, Little Caledonia can't keep the $17.50 paper fireplace fans in stock. No, you don't burn them. You hide the dusty black insides of your fireplace behind them during the summer. Blair House, the president's guest house, bought 12 of them from Little Caledonia for the recent redecoration.
The fabric and wallpaper department boasts some of the toniest names in the business, from Brunschwig &Fils to Rose Cumming to Clarence House. You know, the places that lure you with their glossy magazine ads, then tell you you can't buy their stuff except through a decorator.
Well, you can also buy it from Little Caledonia. In fact, many fabrics are sold right off the bolt. There's a whole room of chintzes for English-Country-look fanciers and a wall of upholstery fabrics. One customer just ordered $7,000 worth of fabric for window treatments for her Georgetown parlor. But the ladies (and gentleman) of Little Caledonia will be just as nice to you if you only spend $12 for a yard of cotton for a pillow. They're even nice to the young interior designers in town who can't afford to buy their own fabric and wallpaper sample books. The salesladies just pretend they don't notice when the same young people come in again and again to sign out a book or two overnight.
But most of the customers in the fabric department are decorating for themselves, thank you. "Women do their own fabric selection here," says Emery. "Most are women who naturally have good taste, whose mothers shopped here, who do not need a designer." So there.
Like any establishment, Little Caledonia has its regulars. "Some people come in every day," says Emery. "They buy a glass or a package of napkins or one card. They like to stop in and see us."
A frequent visitor is Georgetown grande dame Kay Halle, a descendant of the Cleveland Halle's department store family and a Georgetown resident for more than 35 years. She comes by to cheer the ladies on and pick up some candles or some other little item.
"There's no place like it that I know of," says Halle, "not even in New York. They're created a fabulous atmosphere there. They have all those little things you need to decorate more properly and the things you can't find anyplace else. Any house guest I have falls in love with the place. When they come back, that's the first place they want to go."
Halle remarks that the taste level of the store is "not showoff."
There you have the essence of Little Caledonia. You won't catch Ivana Trump helicoptering in to pick up any lucite ashtrays here.
"People who come to us like these things. Tastes have not changed over the years," says Randolph. So, she and her sister stick with the style they grew up with. And somehow, it works. LITTLE CALEDONIA MAY HAVE RECENTLY celebrated its 50th anniversary. But please don't mention it. Randolph and Roberts don't like to discuss dates.
Exactly what year did they first open the store?
"I can't really remember. It was when Hitler was carrying on in Germany," says Randolph.
"We're not very time-conscious," says Roberts.
It's also slightly embarrassing to ask the sisters their ages, though they are thought to be on either side of 80.
"I talk about my age," says Randolph. "But my sister doesn't. I'm up there."
"A woman who will tell her age will tell anything," says Roberts, admitting only that her sister is five years older. WHEN FRANCES GIBSON WELLS HEARD that her two daughters were opening a store in Georgetown,she was horrified.
"My mother said, 'They will put you out of the Social Register. How can you do this?' " recalls Roberts.
Frances Gibson Wells never set foot in Little Caledonia.
The Wells sisters grew up in a prominent Washington family, living in a series of houses and apartments in and around Kalorama. Their grandfather, Judge Henry P. Gibson, was a Republican congressman from Tennessee. Their father, Walter A. Wells, was a distinguished ear, nose and throat specialist and a Georgetown University professor. The family owned a lot of real estate.
Randolph attended 13 schools and spent one year at Smith College.
Roberts studied at Holton-Arms and then went to Italy to study languages. Roberts was married three times, widowed twice and divorced from her last husband many years ago. Randolph was married in the 1960s to Philip Randolph, who ran an antiques shop, but he died seven years into their marriage.
Back in the 1930s, the sisters saw a "For Rent" sign in front of a small row house on the west side of Wisconsin Avenue and found it went for $35 a month. They don't remember exactly why, but they decided to try opening an antiques shop.
"We grew up in pretty apartments and houses that were decorated attractively," says Roberts. "We liked antiques."
The area wasn't exactly the height of fashion.
"Georgetown was nothing but second-hand shops and saloons then," says Roberts. "Most people we knew shopped on Connecticut Avenue."
They stocked the place with odds and ends they swiped from the family's apartment. "We'd smuggle a cloisonne' vase or something out of the house and put it out for sale," says Roberts, a wry smile crossing her face.
They named their enterprise after the New Caledonia Market in London.
Opening day was memorable. "My father loved any business enterprise," says Randolph. "He said, 'I'll help you throw a big opening party and I'll make punch and bring your mother's punch bowl.' Everybody came -- all of our friends -- and there were limousines out front. They went all through and had a great time, but nobody bought a single thing. My father said, 'That's your first lesson in business: Don't count on your friends to make it for you.' "
Five days later, they finally made their first sale: a $5 item bought by a woman whom the sisters remember as being "slightly drunk."
Times were tough at first. Finally, a friend came in with a request.
"I need about three or four dozen glasses of every size, Swedish stemware. Do you have them?"
Roberts just told her no. But Randolph quickly stepped in and asked, "How soon do you need them?"
The sisters were on the next bus to New York City, where they booked themselves into a $1-a-day hotel. "We didn't know where we were going to go," says Randolph. "But the man at the front desk said, 'Oh, are you here for the gift show?' We didn't know there was one." There was -- that very week. They visited each booth three times and found the stemware as well as a host of other items.
"The minute we found out about wholesale," says Randolph, "we dropped antiques."
The ladies were finally in business. While They first stocked only gifts and home accessories, they eventually added fabrics, dishes and furniture. They became famous for their wide selection of lamp shades (one customer bought 60 at a pop).
In the early 1940s, the sisters moved the store across the street, to an old 19th-century former bakery. They later bought the adjoining row house and broke through to create a larger selling area with many tiny rooms. From the start, Little Caledonia was at the center of Georgetown's doings, and in 1954, the first edition of the newspaper The Georgetowner was laid out on Little Caledonia's fabric table by Ami Stewart, the newspaper's founder.
The sisters tried to keep up with what was going on in retailing, opening branch stores in Spring Valley and at their summer community in Wakefield, R.I. They tried a catalogue for a while. But they tired of both, closing the branches and discontinuing the catalogue.
But they've never tired of the Georgetown shop, commuting in each day from Spring Valley, where they now live together, in either their yellow Jeep Wagoneer or their battered green van.
As one might hope, the sisters live in a house that could be in a Ralph Lauren ad. Except, of course, that this is the real thing.
The furniture is old. The slipcovers are linen. The silver is inherited. Oil paintings of dogs face oil paintings of ancestors. The antiques are French, English and American. Randolph designed the elegant Palladian-style house for herself about 17 years ago. There's a touch of the eclectic -- a hutch filled with Quimper dishes and some Mexican primitive paintings. Vintage photographs feature some of their father's patients -- Al Jolson, Cornelius Vanderbilt and Robert Peary.
It's unstudied, comfortable, unpretentious. Which is how the sisters themselves come across. RANDOLPH AND ROBERTS EMPLOY 35 people, 20 of them full-time, whose average length of service is about 25 years.
The major-domo on the selling floor is Emery, who with her elegant Austrian accent and efficient manner keeps proper decorum throughout the 11 departments.
Miss MacDonald, a veteran of 28 years who is known as the Toy Lady, will wrap up your Steiff teddy bear. Mrs. Alonso will sell you a casserole dish for your next covered-dish supper. Mrs. Gori will sell you that French damask.
"Most of the new Georgetown stores are nice to look at and have nice merchandise, but you don't have that personal touch anymore," says David Roffman, editor and co-publisher of The Georgetowner and a frequent visitor to Little Caledonia. "Their owners live in San Francisco or Florida, and they have hired a bunch of kids to run the shop. These people are interested in what's in the cash register, not what is happening to the community."
Leon Carpenter, head of the mail-order department, is a 45-year employee. He began by delivering chairs and lamps to customers by balancing them on a bicycle basket. He recalls dropping off fabrics and kitchen accessories to a young senator's wife, Jacqueline Kennedy, when she lived on nearby N Street.
As one might expect, business procedures at Little Caledonia are not exactly state-of-the-art. Dorothy Brown, head of the stock department and a 34-year employee, hand-writes almost all of the tiny white price tags herself. Stock is tracked on cards kept in huge, open metal filing cabinets upstairs. You won't find any computers stashed in a closet.
"We are determined not to be computerized," says Roberts. "We are not in that type of shop, and we don't want to hear those things making those loud noises."
The sisters and their employees do inventory on the thousands of items in January. It takes about a month.
"We have tremendous stock," says Emery. "Department stores keep all they have out on the floor. We back up our stock from behind the scenes."
She's not kidding. The stock is kept in a dizzying variety of storerooms. One space holds enough cocktail napkins to accompany every glass of white wine served in Georgetown until the year 2000.
"We just don't seem to be able to stop buying," Roberts confesses as she leads a tour through the upstairs kingdom. There are rooms filled with Easter bunnies, salt and pepper shakers shaped like bulldogs and asparagus servers. In the basement, teapots shaped like cats, monkeys and roosters stand eerily cheek-to-jowl on yards of shelving.
Yikes. THE LOYAL CUSTOMERS OF LITTLE CALedonia are in mortal fear of the day the store might close.
"If and when they go out of business, I am checking out of here, too," says The Georgetowner's Roffman. "It's an inspiration to me just to know that there is a shop like that left here. I get very depressed walking down Wisconsin Avenue these days."
But Randolph and Roberts' father lived to be 94, their grandfather 101. So the two of them just keep buying merchandise.
"We make decisions together," says Randolph.
"We have to agree," says Roberts. "If we don't, she makes me pay for the items with my own money."
"But she never pays," says her sister.
"We could sell this property for a great deal," Randolph continues.
"We know we could. But we love it."
The years just keep ticking by. Another Christmas. Time to haul out the German music boxes and glass stars. Another Easter. Dust off the bunnies in the front stockroom and get out those glass eggs.
"People come in and say, 'Please keep it going.' That's the only thing that keeps us going," says Randolph. "We are worn out."
"I do get so tired of all the money this store costs us," says Roberts. "But then someday we might just come out ahead."
What would happen if, heaven forbid, something happened to one of the sisters, neither of whom has any children to carry on the trade?
"I guess we would go out of business," sighs Roberts. "Nobody could run it like we do."
"No, they couldn't," says Randolph. "They would probably want to make a profit."
HIS WIFE LEFT HIM, TAKING THE SILVER AND THE POPOVER PANS. AND Everything else, too.