With the bright November sun peering through my slightly opened car windows and a light breeze funneling through, I slammed on my brakes and gritted my teeth after nearly hitting a group of clueless college students who had unexpectedly jaywalked across West Cary Street. Welcome to Carytown! On an unusually warm Sunday afternoon in November, I visited Carytown, located near the Fan District and nestled between South Belmont and South Auburn Avenues on West Cary Street.
Carytown has its own vibe–some people walking in a hurry and others walking very slowly and window-shopping along the sidewalks. Carytown is not only filled with crazy pedestrians and tight parking spaces but also individual shops and restaurants that offer an experience large malls do not.
Carytown has evolved over the years from its current state. In 1938, the Cary Court shopping area opened in the Museum District of Richmond. Cary Court was built in the Art Deco style and designed in the shape of a “U.” Between 1949 and 1951, Cary Court was expanded east and west. In 2001, Cary Court was added to the National Register of Historic Places for being the first shopping center in Richmond and in the South. Carytown also houses the historic Byrd Theater, which was built in 1928.
When I first arrived in Carytown on a beautiful and busy Sunday, I found it packed with pedestrians and filled with heavy traffic. After navigating the one-way streets and crushing my parallel park job, I began to observe my surroundings. Sunglasses were required, as the daylight was extreme and blinding. Carytown also has a unique smell: pleasant scents emitted from bakeries and restaurants, like Carytown Cupcakes, mixed fuel exhaust. I heard many street musicians playing saxophones along the sidewalks next to street vendors selling multi-colored, hand-woven shirts, dresses, blankets, and handmade jewelry.
The vendors would let their handiwork advertise themselves as I observed individuals walk past racks filled with clothes and then retrace their steps to fully take in what was being displayed. People were also darting in and out of the various retail stores with boxes and bags in tote. I also noticed that the people around me in Carytown were dressed more casually, with dark, neutral clothing, as opposed to my classic Collegiate School attire — Vineyard Vines polo shirt, a Patagonia jacket and L. L. Bean Boots.
Carytown is filled with locally owned businesses and restaurants, all of which promote the idea of shopping local. In 2009, Think Shop Buy Local RVA was created to promote the idea of supporting the Richmond business community. This is not just a local phenomenon. Since 2010, American Express has encouraged their cardholders to support local businesses on the Saturday after Thanksgiving. However, shopping local can have pros and cons. The first major advantage of shopping locally is supporting the businesses in your hometown. Without massive corporations and chain stores, most local shops and restaurants see the profits and sales go right back to them, and not through a large corporation.
Yet, there are some downsides to shopping locally—location and convenience. The drive to Carytown from my house is about 20-25 minutes, depending on traffic. Adding on the time it takes to search for available and free parking, the effort to go to a local shop is may not worth it to me. I can go online to and get most of my shopping done and have it arrive to my doorstep in a few days. Another thing to note with shopping locally is the price. Items from a small boutique store are going to cost more than from a large corporation store, like Target. However, the items being sold may be rare and hard to find, which can justify the price.
Living in the Museum District of Richmond, Spencer Rider (‘17) appreciates how close he lives to Carytown. As he puts it, “Being in walking distance of all sorts of great businesses has made my life much easier.” He also hopes that whichever college he selects to attend next fall manages to have the same “vibrant and alive energy” that he feels living near Carytown.
Carytown is filled with diverse opportunities for shopping, dining, and entertaining that support local businesses. I recommend a trip to Carytown to anyone for a meal, for shopping or just to be a different environment for a few hours.
All photos by Duncan Owen.