David and Goliath: Moms-and-pops in boxville

T.J. Maxx, Pier 1, Circuit City. Drive 29 North, and these behemoth national chains catch the eye. But nestled among the Goliaths are the Davids small locally owned businesses whose proprietors have dared to stray from the boutique-friendly confines of downtown. Will their slingshots aim true enough to allow their survival in the strip mall jungle?

You bet, says Caroline Macdonnell, owner of the Artful Lodger, a furniture and accessory shop that opened May 1 in the bottom of the Nextel building next to Grand Home Furnishings.

"Choosing 29 was a good business decision," says Macdonnell. "Route 29 is destination shopping." Its access to residential areas including northern counties such as Orange, Greene, and Madison means steady traffic, she says.

And the corporate setting, as opposed to the "quaint and darling" feel of downtown, is something Macdonnell says she's making the most of.

"My being here shows you can take any space you have and transform it into something personal," she explains. When two 18-wheelers pulled right up to her front door with a delivery last week, Macdonnell says she knew she'd made the right decision.

And shoppers are finding her store. "I've had more response than I ever expected," she says. "It's been very gratifying."

Tamar Pozzi, owner of Glad Rags in the Village Green Shopping Center at the corner of Hydraulic Road and Commonwealth Avenue, agrees that being away from the Downtown Mall has its benefits lower rent and easier accessibility top among them.

"My consignment customers need to be able to park close to the store so they can carry their things in," she says. And though she doesn't get the foot traffic that a downtown shop might expect, that hasn't hampered her success.

"I've been here for 11 years," she boasts, and in that time the size of her shop has doubled from 500 square feet to over 1,000.

When Pozzi started looking for a spot for her store nearly a dozen years ago, she says finding a small space downtown was difficult if not impossible. And Susan Sorbello, owner of English Rose Bridal Design, which opened May 1 on Arlington Road by Barracks Road Shopping Center, says things haven't changed.

"It seemed like all the spaces downtown were 3,000 square feet," she explains, far more space than she needed for her tiny shop. Since her custom bridal design business requires significant time and attention for each customer, she's glad to be off the beaten track so that she's not inundated with browsers. But she still hopes to drum up a little more business.

Though she's been in business for five years having previously operated out of the back of Les Fabriques on 29 in the Shoppers World Shopping Center she says, "People haven't really found me yet." She hopes an advertising campaign and an upcoming grand opening will put people onto the scent of the English Rose.

While boutiques may have to shout loudly to be heard amid the din of the 29 shopping district, Rhett Craddock, owner of Rhett's River Bar and Grill, says his business has been building rapidly in the two years since he opened.

"We're meeting new people here every day," he says, citing far-off Waynesboro as one surprising source of clientele.

Though he admits that many people questioned his decision to locate his restaurant north of town instead of in the downtown dining district, he believed the demand would be there and he says he's having the last laugh.

"It's growing because it's so convenient," he says.

As for other local businesses making a go of it north of town, Craddock says it's hit-or-miss. Even a well established business like Blackstone's Coffee in the Albemarle Square Shopping Center isn't guaranteed success it closed two months ago.

"It's a ton of work," Craddock acknowledges, "and you have to find the right niche."