Staunton, Virginia: An Epic Love Letter

Have you ever felt homesick for a place you’ve never lived?

I know there are people who feel this way about London, New York, Paris. Doug and I feel this way about Staunton, Virginia. (HINT: It’s pronounced STAN-ton not STAWN-ton.)

It all started on our honeymoon. Our work schedules were both very demanding at the time and we could only get away for the week so rather than spend half the time traveling, we went to Charlottesville, Virginia. Unfortunately, after four or five days, we ran out things to do and started looking at the guidebooks we brought to find some hidden gems in the surrounding countryside. Which is how we ended up at the Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library and Museum on our fifth day as a married couple. I never said we weren’t nerds.

After viewing the 5,000 square foot Presbyterian Manse where Wilson’s father was serving when he was born and the 1919 Pierce Arrow he rode around in while he was President and after, we decided to walk down the hill into downtown and grab some lunch.

This is when we started to wonder about Staunton’s history. You see, the neighborhood above downtown is filled with gorgeous old Victorian homes built around the turn of the last century. Since the Shenandoah Valley now isn’t much of an economic powerhouse, we wondered what had happened those many years before that made it so prosperous. After covering every angle between slave trading and vampire lords (don’t ask: nerds), we decided to seek out a knowledgeable source. Luckily, we found one.

Ron Ramsey is a lifelong resident of Staunton and owns a small independent bookstore downtown called Bookworks. Not only does he carry several volumes of local history, he knows quite a bit himself, both about the area’s history and about local attractions and events. I highly recommend stopping there first. Buy a copy of the local paper, the News Leader, pick up the latest issue of Garden & Gun and spend some time chatting about what’s going on in town. There is also an official visitor’s center downtown, but shh: we haven’t found them as helpful as Ron.

It was at Bookworks where we learned about Sunspots Studios glassblowing demonstrations. We also learned that despite our guidebooks providing ample detail about the Statler Brothers Museum (no longer in operation) and Frontier Culture Museum, also in town, they did not provide even a whisper on the fact that Trinity Episcopal Church has twelve of those same Tiffany windows. That’s Louis Comfort Tiffany. In a town of 25,000.

By the way, this seems like a good place to add that Staunton made all its money by an accident of geography. There are two natural passes through the Shenandoah Mountains: Staunton and Winchester. And if you want to get valley-grown food to Richmond, you don’t want to go north to Winchester. First it was wagons and later the railway, but Staunton got where it was by virtue of building warehouses and acting as brokers to the majority of the farmers in the Shenandoah Valley. Not vampire lords, but still pretty interesting.

As for Trinity Episcopal Church, it’s open to the public from 1 to 4 pm on weekdays and sometimes there’s a volunteer tourguide hanging about. If not, there’s a little booklet in front that tells about the windows. It’s a lovely old church with a Taylor & Boody Mechanical Organ. If you want to hear the organ, they play it every Sunday and it’s an Episcopalian congregation so they welcome everyone.

Right across the street from Trinity Church is another one of our favorite Staunton spots, George Bowers Grocery. Brian and Katie are transplants from New York, though if I recall correctly, Katie grew up in Staunton. This is a wonderful place to stop for lunch as Brian makes delicious sandwiches and burgers. Keep an eye out for locally made Route 11 Potato Chips and Bold Rock Cider. Bring a cooler and check out their selection of cheeses too. And get some beer and gourmet chocolate for later.

Speaking of later, Staunton is rather a small town in some respects. There aren’t tons of after dark activities, but there are several good restaurants, a few good bars, two historic movie theaters and, finally, the American Shakespeare Center, a very fine venue for both Shakespeare and other theater. It’s comparable to the Folger Theater here in DC in quality, but a bit larger in size. We’ve seen several performances and they’ve all been terrific.

We have a few more favorite places to eat, Cranberry’s Grocery for lunch (great for natural and vegetarian food lovers), Shenandoah Pizza for dinner and the new Barking Dog for a glass (okay, bottle) of wine and a snack before dinner or other evening activities. I especially love that you can grab a bottle from the retail section of the store and pay retail price instead of inflated restaurant or wine bar prices. There isn’t even a corkage fee!

Veggie sandwich at Cranberry’s

In even better news, I recently discovered that chef Ian Boden has a new place open called The Shack. Boden formerly headed up the fabulous Staunton Grocery, which closed at some point last year. We were desperately sad to see it go, but now we can’t wait to check out the new place next time we visit.

As for where to spend the night, we’ve stayed a number of places in town, from the historic and slightly swanky Stonewall Jackson Hotel, to the tiny B&B-ish Storefront (great if you want to cook for yourself or have kids since it’s a small townhouse with a kitchen and sleeps 4) to the more traditionally B&B collection of Frederick House properties. They’ve all been wonderful, but we like the location and service at the Stonewall Jackson. Plus, they allow dogs so we can bring Chester–always a plus.

It’s impossible not to notice while wandering around the downtown area that Staunton is brimming with charming antique shops and independent retailers. Some of Doug’s favorites are the gaming store The Dragon’s Hoard, the Beverly Cigar Store and used book store Black Swan Books, which is a recent export from Richmond. They also sell records if you’re into that sort of thing.

Beverly Cigar Store

Black Swan Books

Some of my favorites are Rule Forty-Two, where beautifully painted and refinished antique furniture lives side-by-side with other hip home decor. New retailer Made; By the People For the People carries American-made goods and a number of locally made clothing lines, soaps and housewares. Stuff: Antique and Vintage Interiors is a new place a little off the beaten path, but well worth the trip for unique and affordable housewares, especially if you’re already headed out to Newtown Bakery, another favorite snack stop of ours.

There are also scads of thrift stores and antique stores, none more unique than Worthington Hardware. It actually was a hardware store until that business dried up and the owner started bringing in antiques to flesh out the inventory. Here’s the thing though: the hardware never left. They still sell pounds of nails and make keys. Don’t miss the antique radio graveyard in the basement, but take a buddy or you might get lost down there.

Finally, I would be remiss if I didn’t at least mention the Augusta County Historical Society, which has been very helpful when random nerdy questions have occurred to us. They don’t seem to mind at all if you wander in and ask questions about Staunton’s architecture and history. Plus every summer there is the Staunton/Augusta Farmer’s Markets, which happen right downtown on Wednesdays and Saturdays. Speaking of summer, there is a free concert series in Gypsy Hill Park in their old-fashioned bandstand that is very well-attended. We’ve seen everything from jazz to bluegrass there. And though it might seem a little morbid, Thornrose Cemetery is full of ornate and glorious old monuments and mausoleums.

But really the best thing about Staunton is the people. Despite its obvious sophistication, people are friendly, warm and from what we can tell, rarely in a hurry. It’s almost impossible not get drawn into conversation at every turn. People seem especially proud of its history and optimistic about its future, which is a wonderful thing to see in a small town with thriving independent businesses downtown.

So, go see it for yourself! I promise you won’t be disappointed.

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