As the slogan says, Virginia is for lovers.
But have you heard the one that goes, “Draper is for Dreamers”?
It often happens that you can be someplace for a long time and sort of not really see it anymore. It can take newcomers to help re-open your eyes to what’s right in front of you. Take those abandoned buildings still standing at forgotten crossroads southwestern Virginia; whitewash fading, boarded up windows, beautiful and compelling in their decay. That’s what led Debbie Gardner and her husband Bill to purchase the Draper Mercantile, 5 years ago.
“There wasn’t a whole lot that we didn’t have to redo. We tried to use everything that we could, but it was in pretty rough shape," says Gardner.
The Gardners are from Charlotte, North Carolina. They call the Draper Merc the most expensive cheapest thing they ever bought. They spent more than a million dollars to refurbish a property they paid seventy thousand for. But they brought it back to life, so it’s no surprise they now refer to it as ‘she.’ “And we always say, she’s had this red dress in the back of her closet she’s been waiting to drag out. And I always look at it as building the village and all these elements have to work together to support the whole because in putting all this money into it, it has to be a destination point to survive.”
So the Gardners added a restaurant, & café, a shop featuring local foods plus hard to find gourmet items; there’s music here on weekends, community groups hold events. Then there’s the New River Retreat side of the business, vacation cottages and larger houses near Claytor Lake. There’s even a package where a chef will come to your place, cook dinner and clean up for you and your guests, a high end amenity Gardner says has proved a to be a draw, not a drawback.
“One of the things that the locals said, is why would anybody want to come here? And also you would never get $100 a night for someone to stay here, there’s nothing to do. So to see that transition into 33 vacation homes on The New River Trail and Claytor lake. In Pulaski County alone we’ve had 9 people who stayed with us buy property here," she says.
The words Draper is for Dreamers are hand painted on a retaining wall. It’s a theme Gardner says has played out here not only for her but her employees, like Thomas Hash, who runs the Merc’s bike rental and repair shop.
“I met Thomas when he did the ‘Trans America Tour’ And one of his things was, when he graduated form Virginia Tech, he wanted to move to the west coast. He wanted to move to where things were happening. He didn’t want to stay here. And as he was doing the tour his mother handed him a bag lunch from the porch of the Merc and he remembered this place and he said by the time he got all the way toward the end of his journey, one of the things he learned was, everything he ever wanted in life was right here.”
Hash is working on a memoir of his cross-country bike trip. One of the things that ride taught him is that it’s not about finding some perfect place but about creating your perfect place.
“And that’s the goal of me being here. I don't’ want my children’s graduating class to feel like they have to run to Oregon like I did in order to fulfill their dreams. There’s plentiful resources and opportunities right here in our own backyard and it’s just a matter of opening some people’s eyes to it.”