The Clifton Store offers hot sandwiches, fresh coffee and groceries. But most of all, it's the kind of place that's all but vanished in fast-paced Northern Virginia — a down-home, friendly spot where locals gather to chat and share the latest gossip and everyone feels at home.
And Sunday, March 13, was a homecoming, as past and current employees converged on this small, cozy store at the entrance to town to celebrate the Clifton landmark's 75th anniversary. Old friends hugged, happy to be reunited, while reminiscing and telling colorful anecdotes about when they worked at the store.
"EVERY CLIFTON kid works here at one time or other," said Alicia Hersman, 28. She now lives in New York, but grew up in Clifton and worked in the store from ages 15-21.
"There's still a hole in the tile floor in front of the cash register where Alicia once Super-Glued a quarter to see how many people would try to pick it up. And they always did," said current Clifton Store owner Tom McNamara. "So finally, I got tired of waiting on people who were stooped over, trying to pick up the quarter. I had to chisel it out of the floor, and I made a hole."
Actually, this cheerful store on Main Street started out as the Clifton Garage. And Malcolm McIntyre, 59 — whose father, Mynor McIntyre, was Clifton mayor from 1976-82 — worked at both the garage and store from 1956-62.
"We sold gas and kerosene and worked on cars," recalled Malcolm McIntyre. "We mostly just sold soda, cigarettes and bread." Howard Price bought the building in 1956 and gradually turned it into a full store in the late 1960s.
"I pumped gas and kept the coolers full of soda," said McIntyre. "And later, I stocked the store. I enjoyed it." He was just 12 in 1956 and worked for 50 cents an hour. "It was the only job in town," he said. "And I took an hour off of work each day to deliver the Washington Evening Star."
Now, there's a lot of people in Clifton he doesn't know. But, said McIntyre, "Back then, you knew everybody. And in the evenings, all the menfolk — the farmers and businessmen — would come down here to shoot the breeze, have a cigarette and a Coke." And, he added, Cokes cost just a dime then.
When Price died, his widow Mary sold the store to Earl Lee. And Diane Dygve, who's lived in Clifton for 30 years, worked for Lee three decades ago. "Earl used to buy things in big, case lots from stores going out of business," she said. And he'd store them in what's now the Long & Foster building on Main Street, but what was then called the pink house.
"One time he'd bought a huge load of tennis shoes in all colors and sizes, and you had to dig through them to find a matching pair," said Dygve. "One time, my husband Rick got some to play basketball in and, when he came home, his toe was bleeding. He looked at the shoe sizes, and one was a 13 and one was a 10. So to get a matching size 13, he had to wear one yellow shoe and one red shoe."
Then, she said, the Clifton Store sold hand-dipped ice cream, as well as sandwiches, feed, hardware and worms for bait. Working with Dygve was Becky Keenan, who was a teen-ager when she was a store employee from 1972-1974.
"I WAS AT work the day Diane had her first baby — who's now 28," said Keenan. "Thirty years go by, you get older. Where does the time go?" At the store, she said, "You sold everything from deli items to paint to horse and cow feed. It was great. My parents lived here 53 years; my granddad, Raymond Padgett, was the town police sergeant in the 1960s."
Keenan lived on Main Street and walked to work. "It was a lot quieter — we didn't have the outside traffic here. You knew everything going on in the town." And though she now lives in Manassas, she said, "If you grow up here, you're always a Cliftonite."
Lee later sold the store to the Camp family, which ran it for about three years. Then Tom and Judy McNamara — who runs a flower shop, A Flower Blooms in Clifton, next door — bought it in 1989.
"The Clifton Store has great sandwiches and lovely flowers," said Sen. Jay O'Brien (R-39th) of Clifton. "The flower shop has bailed me out countless times when I've needed flowers for birthdays, anniversaries and to get out of the doghouse."
Alicia Hersman worked in the Clifton Store for six years, beginning in 1992. One weekend, the McNamaras went away and left Hersman, then 21, in charge of the store. Security cameras had just been installed, and the couple reviewed the tapes — so Hersman made sure they were entertaining.
"I'd have my boyfriend Jeremy write silly sayings on signs, and then we'd hold them up to the video camera to see if Tom and Judy were really watching the tapes," said Hersman. "She also had Jeremy do 'Stupid Human Tricks,'" said Tom McNamara. "They were trying to see how long he could sit on the hot grill in shorts before his [rear end] would get too hot." Said Hersman: "He'd say, 'It's hot!' and I'd say, 'Stay on there, Jeremy.'"
One year, she was the cook, the day after Cinco de Mayo. But she'd been out partying, the night before and came to work plastered. "I was 16 then and had been drinking all night long," said Hersman.
"I didn't know she was drunk," said McNamara. "So when she collapsed at work while she was cooking a breakfast taco, we thought she had a breathing disorder." He immediately called for help. "All the firemen came with ambulances and lights flashing and scooped her off the floor," he said. "They told me, 'She just needs to drink lots of water.'"
HERSMAN SAID she enjoyed hearing about the McNamaras' nights out, too, as well as any Clifton gossip. "The store was always the meeting spot for all the kids in and around the town, and Tom and Judy were like parents to everyone," she said. "It was a joyful part of my life, and I made a lot of friends through the store."
Danielle Strzelecki, 19, of Colchester Hunt, worked there all through high school and into college. "I liked it because I got to know what everyone was doing, who was dating who, and who moved into town, and where," she said. "Some of the customers became regulars and you saw them all the time." Happy to be at the anniversary, she said it was nice seeing so many former employees all together.
Clifton resident Helen Buller worked behind the grill at the Clifton Store from 1995-99. "At least half the people who came in every day, you knew," she said. "The other half were lost. People were always coming in to ask directions, usually to Prince William County or Centreville."
The regulars were day workers — many in construction and landscaping. Since so many were Hispanic, Buller learned Spanish so she could speak with them. And the lunch crowd, she said, was "humongous — a never-ending rush on the grill. It was chaos — food was flying everywhere."
Eight to 10 sandwiches cooked on the grill at the same time, while order forms kept coming in for more. "One day, there were customers lined up everywhere, and a picky man kept bothering me about having his sandwich done a certain way," said Buller. "So finally, I took an old dishrag out of the bucket, rang it out and folded it inside his sandwich."
"I wrapped it up in paper and gave it to him," she continued. "And after he left, Tom — who'd seen me do it — and I just roared and roared with laughter. And when that customer came back again, he ordered another sandwich, but never said a word about the dishrag. I think he knew he deserved it. Some customers can really drive you crazy."
Clifton's Carolyn Leetch worked the grill with Buller in 1998 and said the hardest part was cleaning it afterward. "You stood on your feet for so long, and it really got busy," said Leetch. "You'd serve 100-200 people a day at lunch. But I had a lot of fun working with Helen and Tom; the people there made it that way."
"You could laugh and joke around with people," said Buller. "And Tom was always interested in and sympathetic to what you were doing. You could share your most intimate things, and you just felt like it was your home away from home."
Tina Nienaber worked there as a short-order cook from 2000-2003, while attending GMU. "I loved it," she said. "I liked the idea of making someone a good meal and, after Tom gave me a key, my favorite thing was opening the store at sunrise, having coffee and watching the world wake up. I also liked it because Tom and Judy embrace people as they are, and they've been there for me through major events in my life."
Nienaber also enjoyed hearing the town gossip. "It's amazing what people will tell you — including who's done what, good and bad," she said. "Someone would tell you something about someone else and leave. Then that person would come in and talk about the first person. Then I'd go home and report it all to my husband."
Lifelong Cliftonite Casey Donahue has manned the grill there, off and on, for years. "It's like being with your family," he said. "Tom's like my brother, and I like the whole, small-town feeling here. You see kids come in, reach into the candy jars and their faces light up."
ONE HALLOWEEN, Donahue and McNamara put on costumes and opened the store at night. "Tom and I were a monk and a pregnant nun," said Donahue. "I loved the attention — it was great." He ran the store when the McNamaras celebrated their 30th anniversary in Paris. But, he said, "I didn't have patience with the other employees and was glad to see them come back. I had a new appreciation for what they do."
Justin Engel, 21, has worked at the Clifton Store "in between every job I've ever had — just long enough for Tom to get fed up with me showing up late, every day. But it's always been fun working here because of the people I work with and the people who come into the store."
"I can even call people by their food," added Donahue. "I'll say, 'Oh, there's BLT, egg and cheese on a grilled croissant.'" The store's such a neat place, said Engel, that "people will come in and hang out for 45 minutes while waiting for a sandwich that takes five minutes to make."
After telling a customer about the store's anniversary, McNamara said the man called him "the steward of the store," and he takes the title seriously. "I've been here 16 years, and I hope the store's here for many years after I leave," he said. "I think of it as my store, but it's not, really. It's the town's and the community's store."
"It's the heart and soul of the town," said Donahue. Added McNamara: "It's more than just an old, green, block building — it's an institution."