Exciting things are astir at the intersection of George Mason Boulevard and Lee Highway (U.S. 29) in Arlington County, Virginia. This should come as no surprise: it’s a prominent intersection, given that Lee Highway is a busy, heavily commercialized arterial, while George Mason Boulevard is a stately collector (much of it with a tree-lined median) that links some of this affluent county’s most desirable older neighborhoods. Here’s the northwest corner of the intersection in question, featuring a squat, tidy, versatile little building that could have hosted a variety of retail or light service uses.
Due to the building’s site on a prominent corner, I could easily see it at one time accommodating an auto mechanic shop, then, with some scrubbing of the interior and the elimination of the garage, it has morphed into a more office-oriented use. According to recent Google Street View images, it was the home of a title loan office as recently as November 2019. With only about a dozen or so clearly defined parking spaces, it may be tough to host something like a restaurant, which has customer surges at certain times of the day. But many other services expect a more steady, even customer base spread across those operating hours. Like title loans.
And then there’s the smaller space just to the left of the main tenant.
Needless to say, it’s vacant too. A quick visit to that same Google Street View image indicates that it was the site of Sam Torrey Shoe Service until recently. Also gone. While the vacancies are relevant, what intrigues me more is the trim at the cornice line for the left-hand tenant: the horizontal red, blue, and orange. Is it purely decorative? Or could it be a reference to the Armenian flag?
My vote is on the latter—usually a safe vote. If businesses have a chance to signal something through their embellishments, they often do. Why shouldn’t they? It means the ornamentation serves two functions rather than one: both aesthetics and a second, often cryptic signal. I wrote about the placement of multi-national flags at an auto body shop on the Maryland side of DC metro last year. That Maryland storefront had a lot more flags—Armenian was among them—and it was much more overt. Maybe this location in Arlington deploys the Armenian tricolor purely coincidentally. After all, “Sam Torrey” is hardly a dead-giveaway for an Armenian establishment. Armenian last names are distinctive, and this ain’t one of them.
A quick search on the history of Sam Torrey Shoe Service reveals that local media covered the closure: the owner decided last summer, after several months of coronavirus-related shutdowns, to fold the bricks-and-mortar, while continuing to run a shoe repair service online as he prepared for an eventual move to the Outer Banks of North Carolina. It’s understandable, really: the absence of personnel using their customary white-collar offices has devastated both the demand for formal and business casual clothing (Banana Republic has been clobbered), as well as their attendant services. Dry cleaners like the one below (from another location amidst the vast Northern Virginia suburbs) have been hit hard. They primarily serve a clientele that needs its silk, wool, rayon, or other textiles cleaned—all textiles common to business casual attire.
Most shoe repair services also target the business casual demographic, since dress shoes are far more likely to warrant repair than a pair of Nike or Vans or Adidas or Saucony. But if white-collar workers are staying home, meeting their work obligations from laptops while lounging in their bathrobes and slippers, they’re obviously not adding much wear-and-tear to their shoes. Sam Torrey Shoe Service, in business since 1945, could no longer justify a bricks-and-mortar presence, even though the proprietors also offered repairs to belts, purses, and briefcases. The focus was in leather goods, a standard material in business casual attire. But leather belts and briefcases also don’t get much use during a lockdown.
Perhaps more important is a key detail revealed through the ARLNow interview with the business owner. His name is Jojo Tchalekian. Tchalekian. That’s an unmistakable Armenian name! (A disproportionate number of Armenian names end in -ian or -yan, almost like an Armenian suffix.) His family purchased the business from Sam Torrey back in 1985. And so the Armenian tricolor on the trim of the storefront was an unmistakable hat tip to his heritage. Since I harbor an almost instinctive empathy for small business owners, I hope Mr. Tchalekian can keep his long-standing enterprise going strong through the online service, which will obviously make him far less wedded to a certain place. And though there’s not a lot of white collar industry in the Outer Banks, hopefully in due time Mr. Tchalekian be able to fly a big red, blue, and orange flag from his home at Kitty Hawk. And people can wear business casual for their beachfront weddings.