Today, publicists label the Avenues at Libbie & Grove a “lifestyle”, a touch of class, even a “hint of chic…absolutely unique”.
As we plow through this first decade of aughts, my reflection concludes Libbie & Grove didn’t originally embrace “chic”. Following WW II, prudent, friendly customers, touched by the era of pre-“avenues”, 1940-50’s, savored its middleclass nature, and satchel of normality.
The quasi-busy intersection abounded with two-story flats, trolley rails, shops – without presumed exclusivity. Safeway (near Granite Ave.), the Five and Dime at Libbie Ave. (Hampton House until recently), were anchors for decades.
Two pharmacies, a bakery, the original “Libby Market” – on Grove, Carl’s Barber Shop next to Westhampton Cleaners (1935), the infamous pool hall, watering holes, restaurants, plus theater(s), all sprinkled services for unassuming folk – in their coming and going.
It was the lunch counter at Jake Fratkin’s University Pharmacy (customers called him “Doc”), which produced the best chicken salad, west of Miller & Rhoads Tea Room – thanks to “Aunt Dottie” (Mrs. Fratkin). We all loved her; she simply cooked fresh chicken – at home; it was unmatched – not debatable.
While the University of Richmond students frequented Phillip’s Continental Lounge, the younger crowd would hang around Milton’s Westhampton Inn (later Smokey’s) – the magnet was its dalliance-ridden, sketchy newsstand. Curious pre-teens consumed the opportunity to examine such nefarious tabloids as Police Gazette, Variety, Confidential, Modern Romance, Billboard, and of course the New York Daily Mirror Comics, which kept us appraised a week ahead on the exploits of Detective Dick Tracy….we all knew who Walter Winchell, Westbrook Pegler, and Drew Pearson were.
Surprisingly, you could get an ice cream cone at Milton’s provide you were immune to aroma of stale draught beer and cigarette smoke….sorry, no ice cream at the Pool Hall down on Libbie Ave – just clouds of smoke.
Libbie & Grove exuded a split personality – friendly neighbors, unsophisticated transactions, with a mixture of shoppers, recognizable characters – alluring to all. Yet, it was a second theater marquee at 5606 Grove Ave. which intrigued.
A block west of the 1938 Westhampton Theater, Neighborhood Theaters’ (NTI) suburban crown jewel, this second invader theater was modest by comparison.
Later, fronting as a Spotless Hardware Store – then Jack Thompson’s Furniture, in the late 1940’s, the mysterious marquee regaled. Its heavy, brooding presence reached toward Grove Ave, indirectly across from venerable “Doc White’s” Westhampton Pharmacy.
We were RTD paper carriers (boys) in those late 1940’s – early 50’s.The marquee shielded – covering freshly delivered newspaper bundles, paper-carrier bags, collection books, and bicycles, from rain and snow…it was our weather protector.
Dr. Kathryn Fuller-Seeley, Professor of Communications at Georgia State University, (formerly of V.C.U.) – aided professionally by Elisabeth Dementi and Wayne Dementi, authored the beautifully researched “Celebrate Richmond Theatre” (Dietz 2001). Her work discovered that Libbie & Grove did have a second film house: The Grove Theater. Its construction almost coincided with Westhampton’s.
It was May, 1936 when Richmond shed its Sunday-go-to-meeting clothes, legally opening movies for Sunday showings. The stage was set for heated competition among untested suburban theaters such as Grove Theater at Libbie & Grove.
Unable to compete with Mrs. Morton Thalhimer’s Westhampton European antiqued lobby, Grove Theater would serve as suburban alternative: NTI versus Wilmer and Vincent, a New York theater chain outfit.
Planned ineptitude reigned.
Several new suburban theaters resulted from this edgy rivalry, inciting 1937 “movie house wars”. The scene was settled on May 17, 1937 with a rather presumptuous ad: “VISIT A RICHMOND OWNED and OPERATED Neighborhood Theatre” including the State, Capitol, Grand, Venus, and Ponton Theaters.
While Grove Theater was consigned to show second runs from the Colonial/National Theaters down town, the late Arthur J. Shaheen, local investor, assured, “it never opened up”. Uniquely, the theater marquee endured into the 1970’s. By 1944 Wilmer and Vincent theaters merged into the Fabian chain. With this armistice, they lost the war to NTI – no movie competition at Libbie & Grove.
Today, the withering cultural traditions continue to confront that exquisite shopping intersection. In quixotic attempts to “chic” it up, an inexplicable farewell to The Peking became a disappointing reality in recent years. Later, Phillip’s Continental Lounge – after 70 plus years was diminished – for an eclectic establishment. The conundrum for current developers is the rumored future predicted for our treasured gem: Westhampton Theater. This potential loss leaves one feverish, queasy – almost sick of heart.
Libbie & Grove will always bring warmth to those who grew up there. Shared memories, proud associations carry life impacting identity – nostalgia, and recollections aside.
That aged Grove Theater marquee vanished years ago – so has its protection of a marvelous middle class neighborhood shopping culture. The unfinished symphony continues.