Author Archives: Jessica Quillin

Old Town Boutique Week

Boutique BagsShhh…. Don’t tell my husband, but next week is Boutique Week in Old Town Alexandria. Participating retailers have joined together to offer shoppers a week of discounts, deals, and events. Shoppers also can qualify to win a $1,000 shopping package, including one night at the fabulously chic Morrison House hotel and a shopping spree in Alexandria. All you need to do is download the Boutique Week Shopping Guide and the Boutique Week Entry Form.

I’m too scared to divulge the news about Boutique Week to my husband. You see, I brutally failed with the Old Town Scavenger Hunt a few weeks ago. Actually, I successfully completed the Scavenger Hunt, dragging my poor husband around Old Town in 90 degree temps for two days. Yet, I subsequently forgot to mail in my completed entry form, became inundated with work, and, to add insult to injury, ran out of time to even write about my Scavenger Hunt adventures for this blog.

In a word, the Scavenger Hunt itself was definitely an adventure. For what seems like a quiet colonial town, Old Town suddenly became like a sports arena between battling the heat, other slightly crazed shoppers who were treating it like the Amazing Race, and trying not to take advantage of every single great deal I found.

As the picture of my shopping spoils reveals, I wasn’t too successful with avoiding the amazing sales. It was really the blue-and-green Diane von Furstenberg wrap dress at Treat that undid my otherwise steely reserve. All I did was walk in the door. There it was on the mannequin in my size. How is a girl supposed to resist a perfect fitting dress?

As an entrepreneur, I’m big on brand strategy. In a nutshell, brand strategy is all about a company or store understanding the best way to promote its products to its target consumer. Perhaps to the detriment of my bank account, the shops in Alexandria have mastered this art. The incredible range of shops and services in Alexandria really does offer something for everyone.

This quality guarantee, to go with a cliché, is the advantage of shopping local. You not only can get ahold of amazing, cutting-edge products and services, but also you receive personalized attention in the form of educated shop owners and salespeople who are there, in person, to answer your questions and remember you the next time you come in.

So, Happy Shopping next week!

Old Town Scavenger Hunt, Part One: The Plan

Beginning tomorrow, I am a girl on a mission. It’s the 3rd Annual Old Town Boutique District Scavenger Hunt. I have three days to hit 28 stores. Last year, I brutally failed to meet the challenge due to poor planning on Day 2. But, this year, I’ve got a plan.

For those who are new or unfamiliar with the event, the Old Town Boutique District Scavenger Hunt is a three-day treasure mapping of Old Town Alexandria, if you will, wherein you aim to visit as many boutiques in possible in hopes of being eligible for the grand prize $2,800 shopping spree (or one of the 28 $100 prizes). No purchase is necessary for the Hunt, but you do get a cool gift from every store that you visit.

The first thing you need to do is to visit the Old Town Boutique District website to print out your scavenger hunt card and map. Otherwise, you’ll be an explorer without a flashlight. Then, like me, you need to determine an appropriate strategy and plan.

When devising your plan of attack, it is essential to keep two factors in mind at all times: time and distraction.

It is easy to overlook how spread out the Old Town Boutique District actually is. It’s important to allot enough time to travel between locations, either on foot or by car. You also need to figure out the order in which you want to hit the stores. You can approach it geographically, by store type (i.e. clothing shop v. arts store), or even by theme (i.e. cooking, jewelry, shoes).

Next, perhaps more critically, you must permit yourself adequate time to explore the stores once you get there, which is where the distraction factor comes in. The 28 shops that make up the Boutique District are all unique, which means that they have the side effect of alluring one into wandering around perusing delights and delicacies for much longer than intended.

Last year, I failed in both dimensions. I didn’t realize how much area the boutiques covered and spent way too long in some stores and therefore wasn’t able to make it to others.

So, here’s my plan for this year:

  • Phase One: Visit the stores west of Alfred St;
  • Phase Two: Visit the stores east of Alfred St but west of Royal St, yet including Mint Condition and GRAPE + BEAN (which are on Royal St across from the Stanton Gallery and Lawrence Miller & Co.); and
  • Phase Three: Visit the stores between Royal and the Alexandria Waterfront.

Since I, like most people, have to work tomorrow, I’m going to try to hit a few of the stores in Phase One tomorrow night and then approach the Hunt in earnest starting Saturday.

Remember, many stores open at 10:00 a.m. tomorrow and Saturday but not until around noon on Sunday.

Happy Hunting! Check back next week to see how successfully I follow through on my plan!

A Car-Less Weekend

Jessica biking through Old TownThis past weekend I inadvertently did an appropriate follow up to my first column on the Perfect Shopping Saturday. Completely without design or pre-planning, my husband and I spent the entire weekend on bicycle and on foot, without using our car once. It proved to be the Ideal Summer Weekend in Alexandria.

Despite excellent metro access throughout most of Northern Virginia, the concept of going carless in Alexandria is nonetheless a bit of an anathema. While it is quite natural for residents of DC not to own a car, here in Alexandria, it’s a little different. Most people own a car and use it frequently, even if they commute to work via metro. Even in historical Old Town, in spite of limited parking spaces and rising parking meter prices, people still drive everywhere. I guess that we’ve got one foot in metropolitan living and one foot in suburbia. 

For me, the whole idea of not driving on the weekend always seemed ridiculous, particularly when you factor in food shopping and other errands. In my family, there’s also the difficulty of leaving the car itself. We own a MINI, which is, in my opinion, the world’s most adorable car. When the sheer act of seeing your car, never mind zooming around in it, induces a smile, all other forms of transport pale in comparison.

Nevertheless, when we woke up on Saturday morning, the beautiful weather, my Dutch-style bike, and my husband’s fixed-gear bike were beckoning. So, we threw on clothes and headed directly for the Farmer’s Market in Old Town Alexandria. There, we stocked up on fruits, vegetables, sunflowers, and more fruits and vegetables (I cannot get enough of either).

In August, the Old Town Farmer’s Market is heavenly. Between the free samples of peaches and apples, the cornucopia of in-season vegetables, the local vendors with their display of colorful crafts, and the delectable freshly-squeezed orange juice sold by a vendor on the eastern edge of the square, there’s nothing better. 

After the market, we then piled the fruits, vegetables, and sunflowers into my detachable basket and headed home. But, instead of locking up the bikes and heading out to run errands as we usually do on Saturdays, we merely dropped off the food and headed back to Old Town.

We grabbed lunch, walked around the Torpedo Factory, perused the cool products at Decorium and ArtCraft, then strolled up to get coffee at Misha’s. Naturally, we had to go to The Hours to admire their amazing selection of cocktail shakers and glassware. Eventually, we wandered back down towards the water, had a leisurely dinner, and caught a film at the Old Town Theater.

On Sunday, we followed a different pattern. In fact, we did something very weekend traditional: we slept in, and then cycled to Old Town for brunch at Chadwick’s. It was once again a gorgeously sunny day and the bicycles beckoned.

Lingering over brunch was very convenient, as it was suddenly opening time for most of the stores in Alexandria. In my world, boutique browsing is a natural accompaniment to Sunday brunch. Of course, being on bicycle did not stop me from shopping (really nothing can). Even though it was over 90 degrees, I found a wooly page-boy style hat at The Shoe Hive that is destined for fall cycling.

Yet, just when I thought that my weekend was set for a leisurely pace, my husband suggested that we cycle at least part of the way to Mount Vernon. This was an entirely mental suggestion because I was wearing a sundress and wedges with a shopping bag in tote. Nevertheless, I became convinced. So, we strapped my Shoe Hive bag to the back of my bike, bought some water, and headed down the Mount Vernon trail.

Suffice to say, my shopping bag received many disapproving looks from more serious road cyclists down the trail. For this reason, I took great pleasure in passing a number of people who were fully kitted-out in Lycra on their expensive bikes whilst I was in my wedges and on my heavier upright bike with my shopping bag.

Once completing a circle on the Mount Vernon Trail, my husband and I headed back to Old Town for a coffee and snack, and then rode over to Trader Joe’s to grab food for dinner. We then trekked home, completing an ideal weekend in Alexandria without ever putting our car key in the ignition.

Which Pot to Brew?

This week, I wandered into La Cuisine. It was initially a rather sheepish visit, mind you, as I am deeply intimidated by fancy cooking utensils. When I arrived, I poked my head through the door and saw that the salesperson was occupied with another customer. Here was my chance to sneak in without attracting attention.

As followers of this blog probably know, La Cuisine is a small and wonderful shop, full of assorted kitchen treasures and cooking must-haves. On my visits to the store, I am always mesmerized by the array of copper-bottomed pots and pans on the wall behind the counter. They suggest a gleaming promised land of culinary masterpieces that I could create only if I owned the right equipment or if I were ever to follow recipes diligently.

While I love to cook when I get the chance, my weapons of choice are generally no frills: a large Cephalon skillet with a lid and a stainless steel spatula. I inherited a small cast iron pan from my grandfather, who trained as a cook in Paris in the 1920s. Yet, I’ve never had a clue what to do with the pan.

While admiring pots, pans, and goodies of all sorts in La Cuisine, I fell in love with a 12-cup Bialetti stove-top coffee maker. Despite being wooed by baking supplies (one day I will make the perfect gluten-free, dairy-free cupcake) and a delectable selection of olive oils, I disciplined myself to stick with the coffee maker. This, at least, was something with which I felt comfortable in approaching the counter

As I waited for the salesperson to wrap the coffee maker, I once again couldn’t take my eyes off the gorgeous copper pots. So, boldly, I finally asked the salesperson to explain the advantages of cooking with copper pots. Then, the questions kept coming: Is it worth investing in a full set of copper pots and pans? What are the advantages of copper pots in comparison with stainless steel and cast iron? Is it safe to use my grandfather’s cast iron pan?

The salesperson immediately told me of her experiences with her much-prized copper pot. She praised the even cooking and sheer delight of cooking in her copper pot, and even explained the variances between tin-plated and non-plated copper pans. She also helpfully told me that their website explains how to season cast iron pans so that I can learn how to prepare mine for cooking.

This experience at La Cuisine emphasized to me the advantages of local boutiques. I cannot imagine getting this level of tailored advice and one-on-one attention anywhere else. While larger national stores may carry fuller lines of pots and cooking supplies, these stores do not bring the expertise, never mind the range of specialized products, of a store like La Cuisine.

On Saturday, I will cycle to Old Town to stock up on fruits and vegetables at the Farmer’s Market. Then, I’ll see what magical creations I can cook up in my newly-seasoned old cast iron pan.

The Perfect Shopping Saturday

I have lived in the DC area for nearly seven years. Yet, even though I am admittedly a shopaholic, it is a rare weekend that I ever venture outside of Old Town Alexandria. Why should I? A quick jaunt through the Old Town Boutique District always meets my shopping needs.

When you can find a dress straight from this season’s runway at a boutique like Treat or Hysteria and a pair of handmade leather heels from an exclusive Italian designer at Shoe Hive, the argument for getting in my car to drive 20 minutes on the beltway to a shopping mall or to head to Georgetown to fight for parking suddenly loses credulity.

I am not lazy. As the owner of a new small business, I work crazy hours and am glued to my Blackberry and laptop. My weekends are much coveted free time to hang out with my husband and relax.

For me, there’s nothing better on a Saturday morning than rolling out of bed, hopping on my Dutch-style bicycle, and heading to Old Town for the Farmer’s Market followed by an afternoon of shopping in the hidden gems of the city’s boutiques.

So, over the past two Saturdays, I formulated a mini quest to chart out the perfect shopping Saturday in the Old Town Boutique District. I had intended to do this in one day. Yet, I was faced with the difficulty of this venture by its sheer magnitude because there are 28 shops in the Old Town Boutique District.

I love the idea of shopping local, both to support the city’s economy and to explore the unknown within the familiar. I’m always amazed at the selection of unique design, impeccable craftsmanship, and sheer variety available with the shops that comprise the Old Town Boutique District.

Combining data from my two samples, here is my personal ideal shopping Saturday in the Old Town Boutique District. Since I am a fashion addict, this list is exclusively clothing and accessory-related, and covers only a small fraction of the other shops in this group. There is no purchase necessary on my Saturday agenda, as most of the fun (and hence angst for my husband) is in wandering around to discover things.

  • Begin with a leisurely coffee at Grape and Bean.
  • Get a designer consignment fix at either Mint Condition or Diva.
  • Browse finds from this season’s sample sales at Treat.
  • Wander up King St to stock up on makeup and beauty products at Bellacara, then check out lingerie and sleepwear at Bloomer’s (secret: it’s also the best place in the DC area to find Spanx).
  • Walk down to Arts Afire or Fibre Space to admire their handcrafted goods.
  • Heading back down King St, saunter down St Asaph St to look in window of Fitness on the Run in order to contemplate whether or not to trade in gym membership for a private studio.
  • While pondering fitness goals, go to Red Barn Mercantile to browse their quirky and unique home furnishings.
  • Favoring the fitness value of walking via window shopping, walk five blocks to S. Fairfax St. to check out selection of designer clothes at Hysteria.
  • Walk a quarter of a block south into a cute little brick courtyard to admire (and inevitably try on) shoes from familiar and little known designers at Shoe Hive.
  • Finally, drag tired feet a few more blocks north and then east to buy a much-deserved piece of dark chocolate or other sweet treat from The Sugar Cube.

My next quest? To tackle La Cuisine and their myriad of cooking resources.