For 15 years there’s been only one place in Old Town to get HP Sauce, British baked beans and something that Vivien Bacon calls “biscuits.”
“You call them cookies,” said Bacon, a native of Norfolk, England. “I suppose we speak a different language, don’t we?”
The days when folks could stop by Bacon’s tearoom and speak the queen’s English over a spot of Earl Grey are drawing to a close. The doors to British Collection on Royal Street will be closing at the end of February when her lease expires, ending years of dedicated patronage for many of Bacon’s regular customers. Bacon said that her decision to close was not based on a rent increase or declining business — just a desire to do something else with her life.
“I’m exhausted,” she said as she sat down in her tearoom on a recent afternoon. “It’s been fun, and it’s been very successful. But it’s also a lot of hard work.”
Bacon said she has grown tired of 6-day workweeks and endless business concerns. She’s ready to say “cheerio” to the business and call it quits. She said that she has no immediate plans, other than visiting her family on the British Isles and enjoying some much-needed downtime.
“I want to go out on a high and get some time to myself,” said Bacon. “I wouldn’t call it a retirement, but I want to take some time off and reevaluate my life.”
THE BUSINESS CLIMATE in Alexandria seems to be constantly in flux, with businesses opening and closing all the time. Valentine’s Day marked the last day of operation for Romance for the Senses, which will close its King Street location to make way for a new location for longtime local business Today’s Cargo. Bruegger's Bagels opened a new location on King Street last week and is planning to open another location on John Carlyle Square this spring. But another King Street clothing retailer, Silk Road, will be closing its Old Town location to move to Georgetown.
“For every business that has closed over the past two years, another business has been created in its place,” said Stephanie Landrum, acting executive director of the Alexandria Economic Partnership. “A majority of the businesses that are closing are doing so for personal reasons, like a death in the family or a relocated spouse.”
One frequent source of frustration for businesses is regulation. Shana McKillop, deputy managing partner of La Tasca Spanish Tapas Bar, said that city regulations limiting the kind of signs that can be displayed on the street limit how her restaurant can be marketed. She said that the city government’s restrictions have caused a difficult time for creating the right image.
“From the outside, the restaurant looks like a formal place, but we are really very casual,” said McKillop. “Putting a sign out on the sidewalk could change that.”
BACON KNOWS the difficulty of trying to create a business in Alexandria — sometimes in opposition to government. She recalled the difficult experience she has in 1990, when she tried to get a special-use permit to open a tearoom on Union Street. That was a time when many Old Town residents opposed new restaurants because of the potential for noise.
“I’ll never forget going to City Hall to try to get that permit,” said Bacon. “Jim Moran, who was the mayor at the time, said that the business could never make it. And they denied the permit.”
Two years later, when Bacon found a larger location on Royal Street, the business atmosphere in Alexandria had changed dramatically. Moran had moved to Capitol Hill and Patsy Ticer was sitting in the mayor’s seat. Old Town residents were still concerned about noise, but there seemed to be more flexibility.
“When I first became mayor, the city had a cookie-cutter approach,” said Ticer, who now represents Alexandria in the Virginia Senate. “There was a rigidity and a lack of willingness to differentiate between users. I mean, how many people get rowdy after going to a tearoom?”
As mayor, Ticer took a different approach. She helped user Bacon through the permit process, launching the 15-year business that Bacon poured her heart into.
Now, as Bacon looks toward the next chapter of her life, she still remembers the struggle she had to endure just to open her doors. As she stares out toward the passing cars on Royal Street, a smile came to her face.
“Maybe I’ll open a rowdy pub,” she said with a wink.