“These kinds of stories—you’d never learn about them as just a regular customer,” Valeria Gelman says.
Gelman is host of The Local Shop, a 10-part radio series on WERA airing Saturday mornings through April 21. Each episode features interviews with “legacy businesses” (open for at least 25 years) in one of two neighborhoods in Arlington, Nauck/Green Valley and the Lee Highway corridor. The show, launched in December and produced in conjunction with Arlington Independent Media, grew from a project with Virginia Tech’s Urban and Regional Planning program at the university’s National Capital Region campus in Alexandria, of which Gelman is an alumna.
Though the highlighted businesses initially appear commonplace—from a bakery to a cab company to a shoe repair shop—the stories behind them are far from mundane. One of the more intriguing narratives for Gelman is the story of Friendly Cab, a business that popped up in the predominately African-American Nauck neighborhood in response to 1940s segregation.
“They start telling me how ‘Well, you know. The reason,’” she says, “‘why our taxicab started [was] just because at the time, people who lived in this particular African-American neighborhood were completely cut off from D.C.’”
In an episode airing tomorrow on Heidelberg Bakery, a sought-after spot near Lee Highway for bread, pastries and cakes since 1975, founders Wolfgang and Carla Buchler discuss their reasons for getting started, and for sticking around.
“Arlington, although it’s a big city, it sometimes feels like a very small Heidelberg community,” Carla says in the show. “Customers move away and they’ll send us cards or pictures, or if they come back to town they’ll always stop by. It’s sort of like a home base.”
Elizabeth Morton, associate director of VT’s Urban Design Initiatives and the oral history project supervisor, says Arlington County has not yet designated these companies as historic entities but that the first step in preserving local businesses is research.
“A lot of this, like all planning, starts with an information campaign—just simply raising awareness of the fact that these businesses are there,” Morton says. “Maybe you take them for granted, but as Valeria was saying, there are these really fascinating stories that lie beneath.”
Morton says she was surprised to learn that some of the millennials she worked with, a generation known for prizing “authenticity and experience,” were still loath to frequent local businesses over recognized chains.
“It’s nice for people Valeria’s age to really step back and think about ‘What’s our relationship to local businesses?’” Morton says. “[It] really makes you think about the under-sung heroes of a community and the contributors to the character of a place that you don’t realize are important really until they’re gone.”
Gelman, who had no prior experience with radio, says she was motivated to start the radio show (also available on Mixcloud) when she realized the interviews might otherwise lie dormant at the library. Local businesses, she says, are vital to keeping the local streetscape from becoming “bland and homogenous.”
“And to me, well if you have a very nice area with a bunch of beautiful houses—that’s beautiful [but] it has no soul. The soul is when people hang out, when they interact. And they interact at businesses.”