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  • Alicia McCaslin

Street Style: Alicia McCaslin of The Tullebox

It’s hard to believe how fast time passes when you take a moment to look back and reflect. It’s now been five years since my family moved out of Old Town from the home where my husband grew up on the 200 block of S. Fairfax Street. I commemorated that major moving event with a Love Letter to Old Town in December of 2014. So, when I was asked to take the stage as the Street Style feature before Christmas, I wanted to make sure the content would not be redundant from my previous Street Style moments. My perspective for Alexandria Stylebook has always been based around style with a twist of philosophy, how to’s, and cultural influences. What makes Alexandria Stylebook so interesting is the point of view each contributor brings to this publication. So, I pressed to find an untapped point of view that few contributors have been able to offer. I hope I do this justice as I attempt to offer a little nostalgia based around the importance of small businesses and how crucial they are to our town. I hope you enjoy my second Love Letter to Old Town as I step back into my own history of the place I grew up. Please reach out with any of your own memories because I’m sure there are many that remain untapped.

Alicia is wearing Lizzie Fortunato Earrings (see similar here), L’Agence Coated Jeans, $265, Ulla Johnson Blouse, $325 (see similar here), Denim Jacket (see similar here and here), Aquatalia Boots, On Sale for $200 (see similar here), Necklace (see similar here), Rag & Bone Backpack, $495, Rag & Bone Fedora, $225, all available at The Hive & The Shoe Hive

How long have you lived in Alexandria?

My entire life! Born in Alexandria Hospital in August of 1966 and my husband was born in the same hospital a year earlier, in July of 1965.

What are your earliest memories of Old Town, Alexandria?

The fountains at Market Square. Children are always intrigued by the water but dropping pennies into the fountain was the earliest memory of Old Town, specifically that I can recall. Of course, those same fountains were part of an epic senior prank in the 1980s when bubbles took over those fountains… I can safely say that was not my senior class!!

Can you offer some throwback trivia of businesses you remember or knew about that resided in some of the iconic destinations we know about today?

My husband, Mark, grew up in Old Town. He told me that there was a hardware store, Herbert Bryant Hardware, where Landini’s operates now. Mark had his first skateboard cut there since they had a band saw. After they cut the board, you would sand it down, drill holes in the deck, and attach your wheels and own the streets! It wasn’t as congested with cars during the ’60s and ’70s. Kids played stickball or football on Prince Street only interrupted by an occasional car coming through. Mothers throughout Old Town would have their children walk over to Herbert Bryant’s Hardware to pick up keys, lightbulbs, etc.

As I grew up, Old Town became a destination for teenage gatherings. Behind the Torpedo Factory was a gravel public parking lot which many teens in Alexandria knew as The Docks. This is where the party started, so to speak. There was a boat ramp with a lift where many dares were satisfied by a heroic jump into the Potomac. Tying your beers to the piers kept them cold and out of sight from the occasional police officer that came down to break up the congregation of kids. There were too many stories surrounding being a teenager in Alexandria that I was never a part of but heard about even without social media. A streaking instance on the grounds of Little Saint Mary’s (now Alexandria Country Day) campus caught the boldly undressed sitting in AP English next to me with our teacher/parent sharing that her daughter happened to be on the playground that day! John Hughes films seemed to mirror teenage life in Alexandria as stories such as these are unearthed.

The Wednesday before Thanksgiving was a who’s who – and a who’s your ID say you are – at The Fish Market. Schooners of bad beer never tasted so good! Every time I go upstairs in The Lucky Knot, the memories of the piano guy, cigarette smoke, and running into an old boyfriend take center stage in my mind. The maze of rooms that the original Fish Market occupied created a parade of characters as you did “the walk,” colliding circus with cocktail party atmosphere. My bestie, Robyn, took me to The Fish Market on my 21st birthday when I was able to drink with my own ID and had a room full of guys sing “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin'” in the piano bar. The math works…Top Gun came out in 1986.

If your teenage years were in the ’80s, what stores were on your radar in Old Town?

Old Town had a couple destinations for preppy – which was a driving force of style in 1980 for some. Smith’s of Bermuda was in the grande building on South Washington Street. You would go there for ribbon watchbands, shell earrings, kilts, shetland sweaters, and I believe they offered monogramming. Then Why Not – which I still miss dearly – reminds me of a very funny story involving my mom and dad. They never will let me live this one down. We were all upstairs at Why Not and I was about 11 or 12. Either my mom or dad pulled a Lacoste shirt off the racks and asked if I liked it. I said it was cute… except for that alligator on the chest. It’s true, I’m not one for labels, but I had a hard time convincing them to buy me an alligator shirt after that critical comment. FACT: My first one was pink!

I also loved Unique! Unique was a little charming destination for stickers, colored pencils and markers, animal erasers, candy, cards… basically every dime of babysitting money could be spent at Unique. Now She’s Unique keeps the memory of the name and I still find myself delighted with the delicate jewelry as I shop alongside my daughter. Another good energy moment!!

There was also The Small Mall. This was a mini mall of stores that included a flower store, a bookstore, and the Levi’s shop, to name a few. The Paper Source now occupies this space, but I loved me some Small Mall! And Dockside was a destination for anyone who was visiting us from out of town. Dockside was a warehouse-style space close to where Starbucks is on King and Union. You could buy candles and pottery. Olsen’s Books and Records is another business I miss. Now that vinyl is back in vogue make sure you check out Crooked Beat Records at 802 N. Fairfax.

The other iconic destination restaurant was Henry Africa – an original fern bar and where many high school couples would go eat before big dances. Up the street was the 704 Club. That would be 704 King Street. They played reggae music and served anyone who made it past the doorman. The other favorite that remains today is Union Street Pub – although I think I’ve outgrown all but the oyster bar!! Many great memories there with my bestie Robyn and her favorite bartender in Old Town, Bruce!!

Mark had such fond memories of The Snack Bar growing up; he gave the name to the short-lived restaurant in Del Ray. Back in the day, Snack Bar was a joint on the 100 block of King Street that offered takeout or eat-in fare at the long bar. A gentleman named Tony G was the face of Snack Bar and had no need for a point of sale system. Mark said he could rattle of totals fast and furious in the height of a lunch rush.

Another blast from the past was The Poster Store where the Chipotle resides now. Mark and I agree that this probably wasn’t the name, but everyone knew it as The Poster Store and would go purchase posters for their room. Mark’s memory is that his older brother John bought a poster in the ’70s of a model whose dress was made out of the yellow pages. The poster read, “Let Your Fingers Do The Walking.” I can’t include the poster image – it’s a little creepy in the light of 2021 but feel free to google it!

If you could bring back a business that you remember on or around King Street, which one would you bring back and why?

One of my favorite buildings in Old Town is Gilpin House. I remember the visits to the Gilpin Book Store growing up. It was very similar to the bookstore in the film Notting Hill. Very quaint with a fire going in the fireplace and the front windows awash with natural daylight. My dad has always been a fan of bookstores, so I remember him taking me there while he would scour the bookshelves for new finds. If I remember correctly, it seems like there was jazz playing and the vibe was very soothing to the soul. I would love to bring that experience back to Old Town but not if it meant relocating Principle Gallery, which was where Gilpin Book Store was located. Some spaces are destined for good energy and Principle Gallery remains a treasure to our town that supports a community’s need for artistic enrichment. If you want to read more about the history of Gilpin House, head here to Principle Gallery’s website.

Another one I would love to bring back is Deli on The Strand. Those were the best deli sandwiches to grab and go! Anyone else crave a great deli?!

Cate’s Bistro would be my last “bring it back” business. I have a feeling Mae’s Market & Cafe might satisfy my desire for what’s been missing since Cate’s left. Cannot wait, Nicole!!

Do you have any guilty pleasure businesses that stay on your radar today?

Hard Times Cafe. You might think because it’s winter and chili is an undeniable comfort food of choice. The story is a little more sentimental. Hard Times Cafe was where I worked in the early to mid-’90s after the recession. How apropos, you might say. The Hard Times logo was designed by Fred Parker, who was inspired by the depression age image of a child in a tub. In the early 1990s there were a lot of college graduates that were having a tough time finding a job. I had been laid off and found myself happily waiting tables. You might say I stayed longer at that party than I had initially intended, but destiny had a plan. Mark and I met while both working at Hard Times Cafe. It’s a good story and has a happy ending . Needless to say, the chili still makes its way to our home and still feels like the first time .

Another is 219 and The Bayou Room. Anywhere to be able to hear live music these days is a real treat. There’s a romance vibe to 219 and The Bayou Room captures late nights with good friends where time seemed to slip away.

As a stylist, what shops shaped your love for fashion over the years?

It’s safe to say, my love of clothing and fashion came from my mother’s side of the family. My grandmother sewed dresses for my mother as a child, which put Anne Lane on the “best dressed” list of her high school in Columbia, Tennessee. That same desire to create was passed onto my mother who also sewed many of my clothes as well, including Homecoming dresses and my senior year prom dress. Finding inspiration for ideas often meant shopping excursions to Old Town. I’m not sure if anyone remembers the fabric store that once lived behind one of the most iconic businesses in Old Town, Why Not? on S. Lee Steet. That’s what we called the 1-2 punch. My mom would satisfy her desire to hit the fabric store by getting me something from Why Not?! My brother and I were accidental tourists traveling around the beltway to every fabric store in the DMV. The proof is in my mother’s nickname ~ Beltway Annie!!

Other inspirational boutiques included Nancy Flemming (South Washington Street), Margy-Betts and Frankie Welch which used to be a couple doors down from The Hive. The 300 block of Cameron Street has always been a fashionable destination. Gossypia might be one of the longest running clothing based businesses in Old Town (40 years!!). They are an incredible resource for skulls, handmade items, Latin-American inspired folk, and vintage wedding dresses. It’s a great place to find unique gifts for an eclectic friend. Nuevo Mundo brought global style to Old Town with Maria O’Leary’s distinctive point of view for culturally rich jewelry, accessories, and art. Then there was the second location of Annette Dean, a fabulous boutique in Richmond, Virginia, that I became acquainted with during my college years at VCU. How thrilled I was when they followed me back to Alexandria and took the space down the alley where Donna Lewis now resides. The alley on Cameron Street is another example of a destination for incredible style with a history of good energy. Donna Lewis stepped into the Annette Dean space most eloquently with a quiet presence of refined clothing where “Buy Less Choose Well” never fails to satisfy. Chris Lewis has great taste for impeccable clothing. I never can just pop into Donna Lewis without being coaxed to try something exquisite on. Inevitably that item will haunt me… Chris is a master at his craft!

Do you recall that moment when a shift in the types of boutiques took place in Old Town?

After finishing my design degree, I came back to Alexandria from Richmond. My first job was in Bethesda at a small architecture firm. Within the year I moved into commercial interiors at a well-known D.C. design firm, Duepi & Associates. Creative jobs have always given me more leniency with work attire. Subliminally, I probably made it a prerequisite. Jobs surrounding Washington usually meant navy suits and even ribbon ties at the neck. Thankfully design careers allowed for injecting style into your attire (even in D.C.). I would love shopping for work but could not necessarily afford boutique clothing unless I was shopping sale racks. It was in my twenties where I became a discerning shopper and started assessing the ROI of my favorite finds and scrutinizing where fashion could be incorporated into workwear! Living this reality of blended lifestyle pieces with workwear appropriateness has become second nature for me and why I’m easily able to reconstruct usage through proper styling.

Two of the “turning point” boutiques for Old Town were Hysteria and Farinelli’s. Farinelli’s was on upper King Street with a very minimalist interior that was reminiscent of New York designer storefronts. Marco Farinelli brought indie ready to wear designers to Alexandria such as Cynthia Rowley. I still have a strapless bandeau that I purchased from him from Urchin by Mark Eisen and it’s still an amazing basic. This is when I felt Soho and NYC had finally reached my hometown.

This post would be remiss without mention of Hysteria. Hysteria really was the crux of how I claimed my passion for styling. It’s where I became acquainted with more indie designers such as L.A.M.B. (Gwen Stefani’s line), Loeffler Randall (yes, they made clothing too!), and my mothership, SMYTHE. I went to fashion shows at Lincoln Center and hosted new designers for trunk shows. Some even stayed at our house! I could continue to wax poetic with the very first experience I had on S. Royal Street to the day I applied for a part-time job as a young mom, to the memorable buying trips to New York as the buyer of the most charming slice of style that eventually landed on S. Fairfax Street (Sarah Akram Skincare). I stepped into having first-hand knowledge of designers, a proper cut, the perfect fit, exceptional quality, while managing a schedule, hiring and training staff, and receiving an understanding of small business practices… it was the definition of baptism by fire which I describe as my master’s studies. How honored I was to be asked to manage that little gem that just happened to coincide with one of the most epic financial crises encountered in our history. I spun every idea I could come up with to keep that store open because in the back of my head I could hear a little mantra saying, “not on my watch.” That’s the kind of heart that goes into running a small business. Those days pale in comparison to this global pandemic which laid a mightier hand. I’m grateful for the friendships that remain intact through my years in retail and offer creative energy and support where I am able but don’t envy the owners of the brick and mortar stores and restaurants as they continuously adjust to fight another day.

These memories crystalize the importance of small businesses for me. Communities need places that have a face behind them because we need to be connected in order to feel understood, for no man is an island. The year we have endured has proven how hollow isolation can become. Transactions made through big box companies over the Internet are also hollow experiences that I urge you to consider. That happy dance they speak of that occurs when you purchase from a small business is real – now more than ever! Finding ways to make technology work with us instead of against us is the compromise of an ever-changing, growing society. With that compromise comes an understanding of altering expectations. Having spent a significant part of my career in restaurants, I urge us all to be reminded of realistic expectations of our servers and owners working under the unprecedented requirements. We must remember these requirements are put in place to protect the knowingly and unknowingly weak as we fend a virus mutating for its own survival.

I am quite certain my expectations have adjusted since March 13th of 2020. Winter may be a time of hibernation, but I implore you to continue to find creative ways to carry the businesses you value through the next few months. Alexandria has proven a worthy opponent to history’s darkest days and persevered with the tenacity of a community that will strive to create a better tomorrow.

Each of us has the power to make space for the improvements through continuing to connect with each other and the people who run our unique businesses. Valentine’s Day can be the impetus to show the love you have for your community, exercising a little good old fashion consumerism. Shop Local ~ Support Local ~ Love Local ~ Live Local!

To learn more about Alicia follow her on Instagram at @tullebox.

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