When Janet Woolwine first saw the site of the Park Street Guest House, it decidedly did not look hospitable, or at all like the downtown Abingdon visitors have come to know and love.
Undaunted by the property's appearance, she bought it, tore down the tiny house and built one of Abingdon’s outstanding vacation rentals, a charming two-bedroom cottage close to many of the city’s attractions and shops. A believer in the city’s downtown, she also built or renovated buildings in the area that house The Parq, a high-end hair salon, and A Likely Yarn, her own knitting supply shop.
“Because of the diversity of ages, of interests, of socioeconomic levels, geographic starting points, the artistic community,” Woolwine ticks off the beginning of her list of positives. “There are lots of writers, and artists, sculptors. And in my experience everybody, for the most part, is pleasant, accessible and willing to go more than halfway. We have history, we have antiques, we have music and people just walking along, holding hands.”
Woolwine’s confidence in Abingdon is reflected in the healthy mix of downtown businesses and attractions. Best known is the Barter Theatre, which has developed an international reputation for fine theatrical productions since its humble beginnings during the Depression, when it literally bartered tickets for produce and other goods. Across Main Street from the two-theater complex stands the historic 1832 Martha Washington Inn, a former private home and a girls’ school, and haven of luxurious accommodation and fine dining since 1935.
“Lots of tourists come in to go to the Barter and the Martha Washington, but we’re trying to get people to go to both ends of Main Street and experience the whole footprint,” says Jennifer Montgomery, who took over as head of Abingdon’s Main Street program in late 2015.
Downtown’s Unique Businesses
“Main Street has a very diverse shopping scene, a lot of galleries, a lot of unique shops, like Abingdon Olive Oil, interesting retail clothing and products for the home. Up and down that footprint you’ll find privately owned restaurants and businesses you may not find elsewhere,” Montgomery says.
The attraction of Main Street for merchants continues to grow, she says. A new cheese shop, a bakery and a jewelry store are expected to open this year, adding to the variety of downtown retail. A growing national trend is also helping local businesses flourish.
“Increasingly business owners recognize that consumers are looking for local, individual experiences – something that makes them feel tied to the area they are in, not so much a cookie-cutter experience,” Montgomery says. “They want to give people a local experience. When people get to know the local shopkeepers, farmers and owners, it makes them feel connected to a place.”
In addition to shopping, entertainment and hospitality options, Abingdon’s calendar of fun events makes downtown the place to be. The newest community festival, BuskerFest, in 2015 took advantage of Main Street’s length to showcase street performers (buskers) that included magicians, fire-eaters, one-man bands, human statues, acrobats and many other fascinating acts, followed by an evening showcase with music.
Among the city’s other popular community gatherings and celebrations are the Virginia Highlands Festival, the Barter Theatre’s January Jams, Thursday Jams at the Farmers Market and Music on the Lawn at the Martha Washington Inn.
“Abingdon is a growing, sustainable, vibrant community,” Main Street’s Montgomery says. “Communities in Southwest Virginia sometimes get overlooked because of where they are in relation to larger cities like Richmond and Washington, D.C. We’re getting the message out about why this area is special and what people should come and experience here.”