Located right in downtown Richmond, Carytown is one of Richmond's oldest shopping districts, setting itself apart from newer multiplex malls like Short Pump. The street itself - named Cary Street - is less than a mile long but packed with unique, brightly-colored storefronts that give the area a distinctly quirky, yet upscale vibe. In Carytown today, one can find a diversity of modern options - from foreign cuisine to eclectic clothing. You can stop for a cupcake at Carytown Cupcakes, buy some new music at Plan 9 Records, and pick out a new shirt at Clementine - all in one trip.
ORIGINS: A THEATER & A STRIP MALL
"Carytown" is a relatively new name for the area, but you can catch a glimpse of its historical roots in an old brick building with an iconic facade and a well-worn marquee sign on Cary Street. The Byrd Theatre was constructed in 1928 and named in honor of William Byrd II, the city’s founder. It remains the single most historic structure in Carytown. Designed by local architect Fred Bishop, The Byrd’s glamorous interior was modeled after European opera houses. There were plush velvet seats, hand painted murals, sweeping balconies, and a two and half ton crystal Czechoslovakian chandelier. At the time of its opening, patrons paid 50 cents per ticket - about 25 cents more than the average movie ticket in the 1920s.
Only a few blocks down from The Byrd is the Cary Court Park & Shop, the area's other historic icon. Built a decade after The Byrd in 1938, Cary Court was Richmond’s first strip mall. Originally, it was just a couple of grocery stores and a five-and-dime shop, but the parking lot was the largest in the area at the time, making it an attractive option for local shoppers. As Cary Court developed, it became known for being a “one stop shop.” Its popularity led the way for subsequent business development along Cary Street, transforming it from a quiet street to a prominent shopping destination.
Despite its success and growth in the 1940s, Cary Court and the area surrounding it faced stiff competition from newer commercial projects, like Willow Lawn Shopping Center, in the 1950s. Willow Lawn and others had more parking and more stores, so shoppers found them more convenient. The result was an economic slowdown that lasted for a couple decades. Cary Court Park & Shop lost customers, and the area surrounding the historic Byrd faced higher rates of petty crime.
A HARD-WON COMEBACK & A New Name
The fortune of the small shopping strip turned once again in the 1970s, largely due to the commitment and initiative of local businesses, store owners, and residents. Together, they successfully petitioned the city of Richmond for the construction of two parking decks near The Byrd Theatre. They also pooled together some of their money to pay for an off-duty officer to patrol the area.
In 1974, the community voted to rebrand the neighborhood “Carytown,” after its main road, Cary Street. The street had gotten its name from the politically-influential Colonel Archibald Cary, one of early Virginia’s richest men, a major financier of the American Revolution, and friend to several of the nation’s Founding Fathers.
Carytown store owners began to host sidewalk sales to advertise their unique products. They branded themselves as specialty merchants, thus differentiating themselves from other commercial competition that focused on regular retail. They were determined to keep Carytown’s small, local feel. Later, festivals like the Carytown Watermelon Festival helped further distinguish the neighborhood’s developing character; today, the Carytown Watermelon Festival is the Carytown Merchant Association’s largest fundraiser and promoter of the neighborhood’s local businesses. Today, Carytown is a prime, upscale location with a quirky, fun feel.
AN ENDURING PAST MEETS THE PRESENT
Over the decades of ups and downs, The Byrd Theatre and Cary Court have remained steady markers of Carytown’s story. The Byrd is now operated by The Byrd Theatre Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to the preservation of the theater’s original features. As a result, the building's rich architectural details remain intact. Despite the fact that The Byrd turns 90 years old this year, only the sound system and screen have been modernized, and prices have barely risen - they are currently $4 a ticket. Along with its low price, The Byrd has also been popular for its Midnight Movies tradition, where Richmonders could get together to watch classic films at midnight, as well as its consistent Saturday organ shows and live performances.
As for Cary Court, the original businesses are gone - replaced by a new group of popular shops and restaurants like For the Love of Chocolate and Lou Lou Boutiques. Yet, its distinctive parking lot still remains - even if somewhat incongruously among the area’s crowded and narrow streets.
Over time, the neighborhood has developed a singularly “Carytown” identity that Richmonders know and love. Even though the stores can be pricey, it is almost always busy, attracting families, students, locals, and tourists alike. With over 300 stores, these shoppers’ bags are filled with everything from vintage books to craft beer. The “Mile of Style” - as it is endearingly called - lives up to its name.