Richard A. Waller Jr. is a watchmaker and jeweler like his father, his uncles and his grandfather before him. His son, the third in the family to carry the name, works beside him at Waller & Co. Jewelers at 19 E. Broad St.
Waller greets customers from the working side of a solid wooden showcase with a life spanning more than nine decades. He recalls wiping down the glass when he was just old enough to pitch in around the shop.
On a nearby wall, customers can get a glimpse of family lore through black and white portraits of his father and grandfather. Above them is a painting of himself in 1980, working dexterously at his bench. It’s a snapshot in time of the 78-year-old when he had jet-black hair.
And it’s a narrative that’s woven its way into the histories of other families, he says. “We’ve got customers who come that are third generation — my grandmother came here so I’m coming, that sort of thing.”
Waller & Co. got its start in 1900 as a grocery store, where founder Marcellus Waller, a pioneer in Richmond’s community of black entrepreneurs, took in watches for repair. It was a 70-year-old business by the time his grandson, Richard Waller Jr., moved it to Broad Street in 1968. It’s been open at its current location since 1980.
Reinventing Broad Street
A growing university, real estate development and high speed buses are changing the face of downtown.
Waller says he’s proud of the business’ black- and family-owned roots, and that the adversity faced by his grandfather drives him to succeed.
“Other people wouldn’t even sell him tools to make clocks and watches — so he had to make his own and he did,” Waller says. “I have no excuse, none at all, and I tell young people that today.”
Much of the store’s daily operations are taken care of by his son, but Waller comes in two days a week for the more intricate repairs. On a recent weekday, he inspects a pear-shaped engagement ring for a simple cleaning. He shifts his jeweler’s eye loupe — a magnifying lens used to find the tiniest of flaws — from his forehead to his face. He squints his left eye tight to peer at the ring.
It’s the same eye that closes ever so slightly more than the other in a look of concern while listening to a customer. Perhaps it’s from years of repetitive peering through the loupe. He uses his right hand to fashion together the parts of a watch. Something broken becomes as good as new: a constant for more than 100 years.
Outside, beyond the store’s threshold, a streetscape is being reinvented. Broken is becoming new. The business sits on the eastern end of the arts and cultural district on Broad Street, an area that’s at another crossroads of change.
The arts district has a wide footprint. Its general western boundary is Belvidere and Virginia Commonwealth University’s ever-expanding Monroe Park campus. Its eastern edge encompasses Capitol Square. It reaches north into Jackson Ward to include the Maggie L. Walker National Historic Site, and south into Monroe Ward and the Richmond Ballet. It includes CenterStage, the National, the Coliseum and numerous galleries.
But zooming into the heart of the district, on Broad Street, you’ll see the most obvious metamorphosis happening under forces of gentrification. The landscape is undergoing major changes and it’s hard to tell who will have what it takes to survive.
Historically, the corridor has retail roots, with anchors such as the former Thalhimers and Miller and Rhoads department stores. The area was blighted after the demise of the department stores and the 6th Street Marketplace.
As for how things look now, a handful of familiar mainstays like Waller recall the petering out of the commercial behemoths. There are barbershops, beauty supply stores and clothing businesses, many of which serve a black and mostly inner-city clientele. An influx of art galleries has helped shape the area for the last 15 years. Since establishing the official arts district, the city seeks to bolster the spaces through facade improvement grants and small grants. New retail and a burgeoning restaurant scene also have sprouted, and apartments have filled in many properties above street level.
The area’s role as a thoroughfare for the arts traces to the early 2000s, when a pioneering handful of gallerists rolled up their sleeves. They mostly included Corporate Museum and Frame, the Elegba Folklore Society, the Visual Arts Studio and ADA Gallery.
First Fridays events include more than 40 venues today, and have brought color and evening foot traffic to downtown Broad Street. Even in March, when a chill hung in the air, hundreds of people took to the streets, bundled against the cold. Kinetic and still images danced on the white walls of galleries, and hip-hop beats from a DJ at Utmost Co. clothing escaped onto the street. Circle Thrift placed free children’s books in bins on the sidewalk for passersby.
If there is an anchor, a solid testament to the area’s change, it’s Quirk Hotel, which opened last year. The building is a 60,000-square-foot, opulent blend of boutique hotel, art space and food-driven bar and restaurant. Renovating the 1916 Italian renaissance structure at Broad and Jefferson streets is the brainchild of Ted and Katie Ukrop. The couple banked on the success of Broad Street a decade earlier when they opened Quirk Gallery in the 300 block of West Broad. Now that gallery is adjacent to the hotel.
The growth of the arts laid the groundwork for transformation, but the juggernaut spread of VCU will bring the next wave of visual and economic shifts to the area.
The university’s medical and academic campuses — once on their seemingly separate ends of Broad — are reaching toward each other to grasp hands of concrete and steel. At the center of that meeting point is the arts district. Most notably, the university’s Institute for Contemporary Art, under construction at Belvidere and Broad, contributes to that linkage. The 43,000-square-foot building is scheduled to open in 2017, and is designed to be a work of modern art itself and a gateway to the Monroe Park Campus.
On the medical campus side, the new VCU Children’s Pavilion next to City Hall adds to the university’s real estate portfolio on Broad. And in the middle will be VCU’s new police headquarters in the old United Way building at North Third and East Broad streets. The university plans to finish overhauling the building, which it leases from the Washington real estate company Douglas Development Corp. Renovations will cost VCU $2.5 million and a $2 million federal grant will go toward a basement firing range.
The university’s ability to drive commercial investment on Broad Street has been demonstrated by the coffee shops, small stores and chain retail spaces that have popped up around landmarks such as the school’s Siegel Center in the last several years. And businesses along the arts corridor nearest Belvidere are getting a return from added foot traffic.
At Round Two, a sneaker buy-and-trade, it seems like every Nike shoe imaginable has found a home on store’s shelves. Mountains of bright-colored swooshes cover the walls leading up to the 20-foot ceilings at 202 W. Broad St. It’s frequently packed on a weekday with young sneaker heads on the hunt for that rare, limited edition find.
“We get students obviously, J-Ward locals especially,” co-owner Luke Fracher says, referring to Jackson Ward. “With the Quirk Hotel open right now we get a lot of young professionals who probably don’t really spend money but they’ll come in and look … and preppy white kids from the West End.”
Real estate developers also are keeping an eye on the university’s potential to bring cash flow to the east side of Belvidere. Douglas Development has been one of the largest investors, with the renovation of the Central National Bank Building at North Third and East Broad.
Across Broad from the soon-to-be VCU police headquarters, the art deco skyscraper is one of the biggest demonstrations of how campus expansion is driving commercial development. The 23-story tower and an annex were renovated to house a combined 200 apartments, marketed mostly to graduate students, and are scheduled to begin leasing this spring.
The company also has purchased empty store fronts in the 100, 200 and 300 blocks of East Broad, which has given it a strong foothold around its crown jewel, the bank building.
But change can’t come soon enough, says John Goodman, owner of Freidman’s Loan Office at 118 E. Broad St. He’s surrounded by empty storefronts, which means fewer neighboring businesses that could help draw potential customers.
“My block is in the works,” he says. “It’s vacant. Between us and [Melvin’s Progressive] barbershop there’s nothing.”
Most of the empty buildings in the 100 block of Broad Street are part of Douglas Development’s portfolio and have been cleaned and gutted. Goodman hopes the properties follow the trend of being developed into apartments or retail.
The transition is happening slowly.
Other developers have benefited from proximity to the Central National Bank project. The old Morton’s Jeweler’s building at 213 E. Broad St. has new life as a 24-unit apartment building. The city financed as much as $250,000 for the $3.6 million renovation, which fit into Mayor Dwight Jones’ push to create a thriving arts district. Developers Ronald Hunt and Michael Glass completed the renovation in 2012, one of several that have popped up in the last few years.
The projects have brought more money onto city tax rolls. Before renovations were completed, the Morton’s Jeweler’s property had a building and land value of $246,000, according to real estate records. This year it was assessed at more than a million dollars.
But successful development doesn’t deal fortune evenhandedly, says Janine Bell, who heads the Elegba Folklore Society. The arts and cultural center, which seeks to interpret and promote black artistic culture, has been on the 100 block of East Broad since the mid-’90s.
The steady gentrification of the area and rising property values may price many businesses out of the area, Bells says. “Everybody wants to see business and everybody wants to see the flow of people and buildings renovated, but the growth often happens in an un-evenhanded way.”
Barber Melvin McCormick Jr. takes a more optimistic view. He’s owned Melvin’s Progressive Barbershop in the 100 block for two years.
“It’s a totally different clientele, but like I say … when you bring businesses down here you bring people down here,” he says. “When you bring people down here those people are going to need services. The more people you bring downtown, the more people that are going to walk down during lunch that are going to need a haircut.”
On a recent sunny afternoon the door is propped open and the shop is packed. The loud clack-clack of hair clippers almost drowns out the R&B blasting from a radio at McCormick’s booth.
McCormick purchased the property from Franklin Harvey, who’s owned the nearby Harvey’s progressive barbershop for more than four decades.
“He sold it to me after I had been working with him for 24 years. I love it. I done grew up in this barbershop,” he says. “Working around these older gentlemen made me the man that I am today.”
McCormick owns his property, but rising real estate values from continued development could push rents out of the range of many galleries — which provided much of the life force for transforming Broad Street.
It’s a point that’s not lost on Emily Smith, head of 1708 Gallery at 319 W. Broad St., where things are humming in advance of a recent First Friday showing. The sound of screws being drilled into drywall brings a deafening squeal, with the installation of a modern art exhibition that brings bright, projected images to gallery walls.
Smith says that the nonprofit gallery has a landlord who supports the arts and keeps rent reasonable.
“Well the joke about the rent is that usually the people who get priced out first are the galleries,” Smith says. “So, that’s historic — not necessarily in Richmond, but in New York the galleries move as the neighborhood develops and gets fancier as things move on.”
The appeal of Broad Street is its mix of businesses, Smith says, noting that 1708 can exist across the street from Backstage, which rents audio equipment, and blocks away from Harvey’s barbershop.
“Right now, I think we coexist pretty well and I think that the challenge is keeping the flavor of the neighborhood that’s been here a while and keeping it Broad Street — keeping it still a teeny bit scrappy,” she says. “I think that’s the challenge.”
It isn’t only property values that are affecting the balance.
The recent decision by GRTC Transit System and the city to establish a central transfer plaza downtown was a bid to ease traffic on Broad Street, but it had the effect of crippling much of the daytime business along the corridor.
The change didn’t fall equally along racial or class lines, Bell says, considering the transfer plaza alongside her point about gentrification. Many of the bus riders were patrons of the nearby beauty supply stores, clothes outlets, barbershops and shoe stores that historically have served a mostly black clientele. Retail that served bus riders and those on foot looking for convenient services suffered as well.
“It took a lot of people off of the street,” Bells says. “A number of retailers complained about the [small number] of people who would come in for phone service, or to buy a quick blouse.”
A vendor who calls himself Africa is out on East Broad during a recent warm afternoon selling jewelry with Bob Marley’s likeness, hats, perfume and sunglasses. He’s been at it for 10 years but says that his sales have dropped. “They messed everybody up downtown when they cut the buses,” he says. “People don’t really come.”
Matt Trent, a clerk at the Shoe Tree, a beauty supply store in the 300 block of Broad Street, has had her hours cut by more than half because of dwindling business. She says she used to count on taking home at least $500 a week, but now that’s down to $50. And much of that can be blamed on the lessened bus traffic, she says.
“See, this is the first [of the month] — it shouldn’t be like this,” Trent says. “They would get off, come in, and get back on.”
Major public transit changes are set to change Broad Street once again and could have as much of a hand in shaping the area as VCU and the arts scene.
In what seems to be somewhat of an about-face, the city is bringing more frequent bus traffic to the corridor with its rapid transit, or BRT, project. Its aim is to cut transit times along Broad in half, with buses scheduled to run between Rocketts Landing and Willow Lawn in intervals of 10 minutes during peak times and 15 minutes at other points in the day. Within the arts district, there are stops at Adams, Third and Fourth streets, Ninth and 12th streets.
Construction is scheduled to start next month, with the route operational in October 2017.
There are mixed feelings about the project among retailers and gallerists along Broad, with many of them concerned about the loss of parking and increased traffic.
Contractors will be required to maintain access to businesses at all times, says Tammy Hawley, press secretary to the mayor. The city also is drawing up a marketing program to encourage people to continue to shop, eat, travel and conduct business on Broad through the construction process, she says.
But Chris Maloney, who owns Circle Thrift at 7 W. Broad St., is worried that the city may not do enough.
His sidewalk is frequently crowded with discount books and bikes. There are cardboard boxes of records and other odd items. All of these things must be hauled in from the vehicles of patrons who donate, requiring a functioning loading zone. Maloney says there’s only one loading zone for the block near the intersection of Adams and Broad, in the vicinity of where a transit stop is planned.
If businesses can weather the construction process, he says, the finished project has the potential to bring revenue downtown. But the city should have changed some existing street conditions that already were an issue, he says.
“It’s something that is supposed to be really great and supposed to bring business to us but there are already things that exist like loading zone and parking issues that already hinder our business,” he says. “Then they are going to throw this project overtop of all of these programs.”
The success of rapid transit also depends on more Richmonders trading their cars for the system, which could be a tall order based in the demographic the buses will serve.
The route passes through the more affluent parts of the East End before continuing downtown to Willow Lawn in the West End. That’s an area where many residents aren’t dependent on public transit. And with mostly one demographic in a single corridor as the incubator for bus rapid transit, only certain businesses in the arts district may see a benefit.
The world outside Waller & Co. is rapidly taking on a new form, with development changing downtown streets and edifices.
While he’s hopeful for the future of his business, Waller says it eventually may not have a place in the arts district — and the family could move to Short Pump.
But that’s not on his mind now, he says. It’s likely something that his son, Richard Waller III, will decide: “I’ve been doing this job for 60 years.”
Until then, the watchmaker and jeweler will be behind the counter that out-ages him by decades. And he’ll continue to assure customers with the refrain, “We can do that while you wait, happy to serve you.” S
Editor's note: This story represents a correction to the print edition that states that a $2.5 million grant was used for renovations to VCU's new police headquarters. The renovations were paid for with a $2 million grant in addition to $2.5 million from the university. We apologize for the error.