‘There’s definitely a feeling of energy that’s putting the spotlight on us’
There’s a buzz surrounding Sperryville — and everybody seems to feel it. Between shops and restaurants, art galleries and breweries, B&Bs and yoga studios, Sperryville in a seemingly short amount of time has become the “it” place of Rappahannock County.
The big question: is the recent spate of growth of small businesses in the village — creating an almost palpable enthusiasm — something unique or is it cyclical?
“There’s definitely a feeling of energy that’s putting the spotlight on us in so many ways,” reacts Colleen O’Bryant of Wild Roots Apothecary in Sperryville.
This so-called energy isn’t going unnoticed by outsiders, either. Thrillist recently tapped Sperryville as the best small town in Virginia and one of the 50 best in the entire country. Not too shabby, given 20,000 towns dot the United States.
“A lot of renewed vitality has been breathed into our little village,” says Gordon Wicks, who with his partner Susan Huff owns Stonewall Abbey Yoga and Qigong. At the same time, he realizes there’s always some activity in Sperryville due to its proximity to Shenandoah National Park.
“It’s like a beach town,” describes Wicks, referencing the seasonal nature of tourism that the friendly village benefits from in the fall and spring, when visitors pass through to witness the brilliance of changing leaves or to hike a springtime mountaintop.
Perhaps it is the welcoming environment that has made Sperryville a place where certain businesses have flourished over the years, while others not so much. Collectively, the Sperryville business community thrives on cooperation, not competition. Shops, inns, and restaurants coexist in a joyful symbiosis, as business owners know better than anybody else just how tough the going can get.
This hospitable atmosphere hooked Craig Bachelor, who with his wife Caitlin and brother Clay owns the Corner Store, Thornton River Grille, Rappahannock Pizza Kitchen, and the new Francis Bar.
“This is a business friendly community. People are open and welcoming, collaborative not competitive,” he says. “A rising tide truly raises all ships here. Critical masses only bring more and more people.”
O’Bryant, who when not mixing potions at Wild Roots Apothecary is stirring them into creative cocktails at Batchelor’s bar Francis, points out that a “flux of people want to get out of the city, and what they find are really nice people who are making really unique, quality products.”
Wild Roots was opened by O’Bryant in July 2015, her aim to both support her family in a creative way and to create a more accessible way for the community to look at herbalism.
At nearby Pen Druid Brewing, the Carney Brothers attribute the newfound focus on Sperryville to business owners’ “oneness” of sorts with Rappahannock County.
Jennings Carney, the eldest of the three beer-making brothers, offers: “I have felt a perceived vibe among people in general who are really excited about what is going on. There’s a lot of people doing really cool things that are focusing on the strengths of what makes Rappahannock so great: its natural beauty and agriculture. That’s what Sperryville is doing.”
Indeed, the Carney brothers, like many other business owners in Sperryville, strive to craft their product using local ingredients. The brothers use wild yeast from Rappahannock in all of their beverages, and they work with local farmers to get the ingredients they need.
Alex Sharp of Copper Fox Antiques, immediately next door to the brewery, suggests that the “vibe,” as Jennings calls it, is due in part to new businesses like Pen Druid, several of which have taken refuge under the roof of an old apple house that Sharp and his wife, Ashleigh, own.
“The buzz is true to the extent that there’s more of a draw,” says Sharp, whose roots run deep in Rappahannock. “The brewery has changed the foot traffic [here]. I don’t think you can necessarily say this is all someone’s big plan . . . . We just hope that we can do whatever we can to facilitate what is happening and not to constrict this growth.”
Sharp, it appears, is doing anything but constricting growth. After the apple business went south in 2000, he converted his family’s old cold storage, apple packinghouse, and cider making plant into the popular antique shop.
He says he loves the antique business because it is a “placeholder.” In recent years, he has shepherded into the old packinghouse entrepreneurial pursuits that include Pen Druid, Flourish Root, Kat Habib Ceramics, and Heritage Hollow Farms. A new real estate office — Sharp’s — is set to open there soon as well.
Similarly, Jess Sutten of the Before & After espresso bar believes Sperryville is garnering attention because it simply has it all: the right vibe, the right businesses, and the ability for locals and travelers to come together for many common interests — especially her coffee.
“I think Sperryville has seen an influx of people because it has things that people want and need — Sperryville is so laidback and relaxed; it’s like this beautiful utopia,” she says. “We like to view Before & After as Rappahannock’s living room. We are welcoming to all people. Part of our job is to introduce all the people in the coffee shop to each other. It’s so beautiful when travelers and locals can just be together.”
Despite the beauty of this diverse community, like any other town, Sperryville has indisputably gone through its economic ups and downs.
Sherri Fickel at Hopkins Ordinary Bed & Breakfast and Aleworks notes that changes in business can be due to gas prices, a new mention on a blog, weather, or nearby festivals and events.
“Sperryville business goes up and goes down, but every time it always seems to go down less,” she explains. “It has been a very steady rise, with businesses staying open and doing good things. The Inn at Little Washington and Shenandoah National Park have always been steady sources of visitors.”
Copper Fox Distillery’s Rick Wasmund, who has been in and out of Sperryville for at least 20 years, says the village crowd has changed, but it has always been a beautiful little town.
“There’s been a transition in Sperryville from ‘hippy-ish’ to ‘hipster.’ There’s a lot of really cool, creative people that, for whatever reason, gravitate to this part of the world,” says the Sperryville — and now Williamsburg — whiskey maker.
“But Sperryville has always been known by people in the know, and we aren’t getting inundated by visitors. [Recent attention] is a pretty expected recognition of the fact that Sperryville is a cool place to go,” he comments.
Andrew Haley of Haley Fine Art corroborated Wasmund’s sentiments, stating: “Sperryville has always been a good place to do business.” Since 2000, Haley Fine Art has drawn clients from all over the world to its gallery with its exquisite pieces.
Still, many of the Sperryville business owners insist that the attention is like nothing they have ever seen in the past.
Erin Platt, who co-owns Headmaster’s Pub with Cliff Miller, says, “I don’t think Sperryville has been like this before. At times it’s had its highs, but this is something new, and hopefully it lasts. Any new business that comes into town is good for all of us.”
Headmaster’s is no stranger to the renewed sense of economic vitality — since Miller moved permanently to the county from San Francisco (his family has been in Sperryville for eight generations), he had identified a need for a local “hangout.” Headmaster’s has become just that place, serving everything from Virginia chicken wings, to grass-fed burgers and beer.
“Business has increased every year,” notes Platt, helped by Miller’s golf course that was landscaped two years ago just outside the front door.
Other businesses in the area also have big plans, hoping to expand upon the services they offer and to capitalize on the renewed energy being injected into the Sperryville economy.
At Stonewall Abbey, Wicks and Huff are set to build an addition to their yoga studio — a much-needed exercise space and gym.
At Before & After, Sutten plans to transform a side room into a tasting area that will highlight both Virginia and international wines, while also displaying freshly boxed lunches for hikers who might like to pick up something quick while passing through Sperryville.
In addition, John and Diane MacPherson, who recently sold the popular Foster Harris House in the town of Washington, are working away on renovations for their soon-to-open restaurant, Three Blacksmiths.
Jen Perrot at Flourish Root believes these new business opportunities are arising in part because owners can draw people to the area via social media. “Instagram is quite vital for me,” she explains. “All people are finding us on Instagram and Facebook — locals and visitors alike. . . . It’s a way to communicate, and it will only be better for us locally when we can get better internet coverage. . . . There is a core group of us that really try to be on social media in a calm way, tagging and highlighting each other. It’s very visual.”
Whether the attention is due to the friendly business environment; the warm, creative community of business owners; a possible demographic shift towards a wealthier populace; the new social media presence; or, of course, the long-standing proximity to Shenandoah Park, the Inn, and the Thornton River that runs through it — Sperryville is certainly experiencing something unique and arguably prosperous.
Or perhaps, all this attention is due to something less tangible — a sentiment that residents, weekenders and even visitors immediately recognize. It’s what brought the Carney brothers back to their native Rappahannock County to open Pen Druid after touring this country and Europe for many years with their band, Pontiak.
“Always in the back of our heads we thought, Rappahannock is the place to be. I loved Rappahannock,” explained Jennings. “If there was an excuse or reason to live back in the county, that’s what I wanted to do.”
Ultimately, it may be this authentic love for home — and a natural landscape that has disappeared in so many other places — that brings people through Sperryville, and even entices some to stay.