By Stephanie Cavanaugh
LET ME MAKE one thing perfectly clear: I can’t afford much of anything at J. Brown & Co. in Old Town Alexandria, Virginia. Oh, perhaps a $35 napkin. One.
That said, I can never pass up a visit.
The little shop on upper King Street beckons, firstly, with a riot of plants outside the front door. That has nothing to do with the store’s contents, but the sight is so alluring it empties my lungs and causes my knees to go weak. It is a fantasia of flowers in pots and planters, spilling with color under a yellow-and-white awning. Pulling me in.
Which is what happened the other day with a visit on a whim, Baby and me. Lunch? she said. Thrift-shopping? Ah, so.
It was our first stop. When thrift-shopping you need to prime the eye. At J. Brown it is more than the goods, which are out of our range. It is the ideas that spill onto each surface—the glitter of crystal, the interplay of extraordinary patterns of china, the heaps of pillows that invite a wallow, the big round table that commands the center of the shop, always dressed so elegantly, plate upon plate upon service plate, embroidered napkins, ornaments interspersed and in the center . . .
This is actually the subject of today’s screed, a monumental, near ceiling-tickling floral centerpiece.
Surely, you’ve read at least 12 times that your centerpiece should be low enough that guests can see one another across the table.
What we have here is the opposite, an arrangement so tall that it explodes above the heads of the diners, creating an umbrella of flowers in a towering glass vase. What a heavenly triumph!
Of course, it would get messy should you have a chandelier above your table, or a ceiling fan (which I have) or particularly low ceilings. Yet the effect is so glamorous, dazzling, gob-smacking that it could be well worth moving the dining table to create head room.
Do also note, if you visit J. Brown the brick floors. This near-trompe-l’oeil masterpiece, which appears to be ancient, one might believe the store was at some point a stable, imaginatively resurrected as a home design shop.
It is not, Brown explains with a twinkle—he seems to love yelling this story—the bricks, which are about an inch thick, he laid himself about 20 years ago, when he had just bought the building. They were cheap—like nothing for a box of many—at Home Depot. He bought many boxes, neatly laying the bricks from doorstep through the main level, up a short rise of steps and into the next room. The bricks were then scuffed and well distressed, giving that patina of age, then covered with mortar, which was then scrubbed off, letting the residue settle for some texture. Several layers of polyurethane were then applied.
Glorious. Do visit.
Then hit the thrift shops. Fake it till you make it.
J. Brown & Company, 1119 King Street, Alexandria, Virginia 22314; 703-548-9010.