By Holly Burnett
Character is defined as “the quality of being individual, typically in an interesting or unusual way.”
So bear this in mind and join me on a walking tour, the site of Alexandria’s first town hall, schoolhouse and even the jail. It’s where George Washington built his house in town, coining the structural description “townhouse,” to receive late night visitors to Mount Vernon. There was also the Masonic Lodge and the Market House, ravaged by a fire in 1871 and rebuilt.
William Yeaton erected a house, purchased in 1830 by Thomas, Lord Fairfax, Ninth Baron of Cameron, whose father was a close friend of George Washington. Hence, the street, a centerpiece of local activity and community spirit, was named Cameron. So it should come as no surprise that the shopkeepers who reside on this street are as unique as the ghosts they work amongst every day…in interesting and unusual ways.
At 309-C Cameron Street in the courtyard, you will meet Judy Shavin, perhaps one of the most revered individuals in Alexandria. As proprietor of Scriptorium for 37 years, she is the city’s first lady of words, teaching us the etiquette of written communications through the announcements and invitations she creates for her clients.
Born in Nashville, Tennessee, Shavin has a honeyed Southern drawl that when mingled with the classical music lightly drifting about her shop, is nearly hypnotic. Whether it is a young bride to be or a husband wishing to secretly invite guests to his wife’s birthday party, Shavin works with each customer to ensure their satisfaction while also maintaining written standards over the words that will be printed.
Scriptorium is also the best source for stationery of all types, including invitations that can be printed or written at home. As she discusses her extensive stock of stationery options, such as Crane & Co. and Vera Wang, she adds, “Remember, stationery has an e.” Her eighth grade teacher taught her that e was in the words pen and pencil, which you would use with “stationery,” not “stationary.” Judy Shavin is an education not to be missed.
At 309-B Cameron Street, also in the courtyard, is Donna Lewis, a shopping destination for both men and women who are seeking an international wardrobe that offers luxury as well as practicality. “In the right clothes, you will look good no matter where you are in the world,” owner Chris Lewis affirms. On Cameron for 13 years, he is a transplanted New Yorker with a discerning eye and a fashion philosophy that would seem more akin to a designer than a store owner.
Dressed in jeans, a checkered, crisply-cuffed shirt, pink socks and black velvet loafers, Lewis would be forever blamed by his wife if their children were ruined growing up in New York, so he moved to Alexandria to assuage her concerns. With 95 percent of his stock from Italy, his looks reflect cutting edge trends as well as the classics.
His shop is intimate with clothes on metal rolling racks as if they have just been pushed up Madison Avenue. And he and his staff specialize in premium customer care, whether the client lives two blocks or two thousand miles away. Donna Lewis is truly a clothier and stylist in one, with Lewis the pied piper of fashion, an individual in the business of setting individuals apart.
Just around the corner at 303 Cameron is Trastevere Antiques & Collectables where you are greeted by Scout, a jolly white Westie, who enhances the store’s lush interior as if walking into the main drawing room at Downton Abbey. The furnishings are grand and exquisitely maintained. Owner Wendy Abbruzzetti is Italian by marriage, British by birth. And she shares not only a first name, but a rare countenance with acclaimed actress Dame Wendy Hiller, recipient of the 1959 Best Supporting Actress Oscar for Separate Tables. Tell Abbruzzetti what you are seeking, and she will find it.
On Cameron Street for 10 years, the store was named after Trastevere, a city port in Rome on the west bank of the Tiber where goods were stored and sold at the time of Augustus and continued to do so until the end of the 19th century. Each piece in her shop has been carefully selected, and Abbruzzetti can keenly explain its origin and historical significance. A shopkeeper of discerning taste, she can transform your ideas into reality, taking you home to whichever century you’d like to go.
While its address is not Cameron Street, Gadsby’s Tavern at 138 North Royal Street is most definitely a Cameron Street resident, sitting on the corner of Cameron and North Royal. Named after Englishman John Gadsby, an entrepreneur who leased the building and was its tavern keeper from 1796 through 1808, the tavern was the hub of Alexandria’s economic, political and social life in the late-18th and early-19th centuries. Today, it is an Alexandria treasure where you can experience a traditional colonial meal including food, libations and entertainment of the period.
The brightly painted building at 325 Cameron Street is home to Gossypia, the brain child of Amanda Lasker, who has been located on this Cameron block 45 years. She decided to purchase 325 in the early 70s and is glad she did. She feels for the shopkeepers who must pay exorbitant retail rent each month. Standing on a ladder outside her store to change a light bulb, Lasker comments, “I have no idea how small boutiques can stay in business these days.”
Gossypia, named after the Louisiana cotton plantation where she grew up and the plural of cotton in Latin, is a unique two-story women’s boutique featuring goods from Latin America, where Lasker spent a great deal of time in her youth. The clothing selection is abundant. Sweeping artsy skirts you can pair with neutral cotton tops that perfectly complement the chunky handmade necklaces and bangle bracelets that abound throughout the store. Gossypia is a gift to the city, Lasker’s celebration of a culture that will leave an imprint on everyone who visits.
New to the street as well as Old Town is A Galerie at 315 Cameron, co-owned by Janice Godwin and Alex Massoudi, originally antiques auction rivals. They finally decided to join forces rather than continue bidding wars on the same pieces. Godwin, a former medical school teacher at Cornell for 20 years who looked through a microscope making diagnoses, wanted a career change. Massoudi, a noted watercolorist and rug designer, was the ideal professional partner because they had like tastes in and knowledge of antiques. Ask them a question, and you’ll discover there is a mental encyclopedia of information between them. They are to antiques what Martin & Lewis were to comedy.
A Galerie is a compendium of hand-picked antiques and designer decor that are the best, the most gilded, the most beautiful of their kind. As well, there are at least 400 original works of art throughout the shop. Inventory changes constantly, and they pride themselves on the fact that they have items at all price ranges. It’s impossible to travel through the store without eyeing a piece you can’t live without, be it an 18th century French love seat or a framed painting of modern sunflowers in a vase. A Galerie is perhaps the largest collection of eclectic antiques in Old Town and should be included on any walking tour you take.
Character abounds on Cameron Street. Judy, Chris, Wendy, Amanda, Janice and Alex. All individuals, giving of themselves and their knowledge every day, each a part of the Cameron Street legacy and of the stories yet to be told.