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The Big Smooch 

Our Valentine’s Day lovefest for all things Richmond is back.

click to enlarge Women in local media: Paige Mudd, executive editor of the Richmond Times-Dispatch, Jean Boone, publisher of the Richmond Free Press, Nikki-Dee Ray, meteorologist for WTVR CBS-6,  Melissa Chase, morning host at 103.7 Play, and Kelli Lemon, host of Coffee with Strangers podcast.

Scott Elmquist

Women in local media: Paige Mudd, executive editor of the Richmond Times-Dispatch, Jean Boone, publisher of the Richmond Free Press, Nikki-Dee Ray, meteorologist for WTVR CBS-6, Melissa Chase, morning host at 103.7 Play, and Kelli Lemon, host of Coffee with Strangers podcast.

Since Valentine's Day lines up nicely with our publication date this year, we thought it would be a good time for the return of a popular signature issue from the distant past known as the Big Smooch, which hasn't run in years.

This is where we spread a little love to people, places and things in Richmond that might often go unnoticed, under the radar, or maybe they're visible and we just don't thank them enough for what they do. Think of it as a positive bombardment.

Whatever your thoughts are on Valentine's Day — and yes, like most holidays it's been over-commercialized — who can argue with spreading the love around? We even tried to be snark-free this time, since the internet pretty much has that covered and then some.

But since we're a tiny staff, this is by no means a definitive list. Feel free to add your own suggestions for smooch-worthy nominees in the contents online.

Maybe we'll do it again next year.


click to enlarge ASH DANIEL
  • Ash Daniel

Wonton the bookstore cat

Chop Suey Books

It all started in the spring 2008 when a black-and-white whiskered fur ball invited himself through the window at Chop Suey Books. For about a week he hopped inside each morning, poked around during the day, then saw himself out before closing time. After a bizarre back-and-forth with his original owner, who, turns out, didn't want him anymore, the bookstore team christened the book-obsessed tuxedo cat Wonton and officially adopted him as the Chop Suey mascot. At any given time you may find him perched in the window display, poking his little face out from between shelved volumes, and helping staff unpack boxes, which looks an awful lot like parking himself inside a box and glaring at anyone who asks him to move.

"Chop Suey Books is his world," owner Ward Tefft says. "We just live in it."

Wonton comes and goes as he pleases, but he knows who pours the kibble, so he doesn't stray too far. He also can't disappoint his adoring fans, many of whom Tefft says come by on a regular basis solely to see the kitty, with no intentions of purchasing a book. He loves the attention, and on a friendliness scale of one to 10, Tefft puts him at a 10. Don't be offended, though, if he scampers away when you reach your hand out to say hello.  

"Don't think you can pet him," Tefft says. "Because he's a two for affectionate."

Wonton the cat was not available for comment.  


click to enlarge SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist

James River Park System Volunteers

Led by park superintendent Nathan Burrell, the James River Park System is thriving. Last year, over 1.7 million people visited this winding, 550-acre system of trails, greenery and bike baths through our city. A study performed by Virginia Commonwealth University revealed the system is a $33.5 million asset to the city.

But Burrell depends on a lot of helping hands to keep it functioning and the community stepped up in a big way last year— 1,872 volunteers logged 7,366 hours. We have to give a big wet, dewy smooch to those many volunteers who are cleaning up and protecting a true jewel that we can all enjoy.


Gov. Ralph Northam's Tidewater Accent

Having been born elsewhere, many of our governors had the wisdom to land in Virginia. So in recent years mostly non-indigenous accents have wafted through the Executive Mansion. There have been lilts from New York (McAuliffe), Pennsylvania (McDonnell), Minnesota (Kaine), Indiana (Warner) and California (Allen).

So how about a big smooch to Ralph Northam, a product of rural Northampton County on Virginia's rural Eastern Shore? His Excellency speaks unabashedly in a native drawl.

Miles Barnes, a historian based on the Eastern Shore says the speech is known as the Tidewater accent and he himself has adjusted his speech over the years: "When I was a student at the University of Virginia, I made an effort not to leave my accent behind, but to speak more slowly."

Northam needn't worry: He is coming through loud and clear. Ask any Republican.



click to enlarge SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist

John Shuck's work at Evergreen Cemetery

Nine years ago John Shuck would be surprised that his amateur interest in genealogy would lead to his becoming the point person in the relentless task of restoring Evergreen and East End cemeteries to some semblance of dignity.

When Shuck, now 70 and a retired bank performance analyst for SunTrust, started photographing grave sites in these woefully neglected African-American burial grounds, he could not have imagined retirement would find him serving as a coordinator for hundreds of volunteers in attempts to clear 75 acres of kudzu, poison ivy and forestation. The work is slow — and nature moves seemingly faster — but with the burial sites of such Richmond icons like Maggie L. Walker the trailblazing businesswoman and civic leader, and John Mitchell, a brilliant newspaper editor, and 7,000 others at risk, the work continues.

To Shuck, his tireless and dedicated associates, the Enrichmond Foundation, and all those who have turned out with weed whackers, rakes and shovels, here's a big smooch from the living on behalf of the dead.


click to enlarge SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist

Sherry Baxter 

Women's March participant

It was sea of pink in Carytown during the Women's March last month, and for a hot minute, Gov. Ralph Northam fit right in. Shortly after the newly inaugurated governor hopped out of his car and joined the crowd, marcher and local resident Sherry Baxter stuck a pink pussy hat in his hand. His presence at the event was evidence enough that he supported the cause, but donning Baxter's hat, which she made herself, even briefly enough for just a few photos, really drove the point home. 


Angela Ciolfi

Director of Litigation and Advocacy for Legal Aid Justice Center

As much as any young lawyer, Ciolfi has fought the good fight when it comes to civil rights and racial justice, including winning the Oliver White Hill Award from the Virginia State Bar in 2003 and the Child Advocacy Award from the American Bar Association's Young Lawyers Division in 2010.

Lately, the University of Virginia Law School grad has pushed for adequate inmate care across the Commonwealth, as well as worked on a lawsuit to fight the practice of suspending driver licenses for unpaid court dates, writing a report that has been influential nationwide showing how the penalty disproportionately affects poor people. We're happy that courageous lawyers like Ciolfi, are out there fighting for those who often lack a voice or resources. Big smooch to her for integrity.


click to enlarge ASH DANIEL
  • Ash Daniel

Drinks with a view

They're not doing us a whole lot of good during these frigid winter months, but Richmond's rooftop bars certainly get a lot of love when the weather permits. It doesn't get much more enchanting than sipping a craft cocktail atop a 20-story building as the sun goes down, even if some of those hotel drink prices are a little steep.

We've got these sky-high spots all over town now: Quirk Hotel and the Graduate Richmond right across from one another in Virginia Commonwealth University territory with Postbellum nearby, Kabana Rooftop, pictured, on the 20th floor of the Homewood Suites and Hampton Inn & Suites tower in the financial district, the Hof Garden in Scott's Addition (where we caught a gorgeous sunset rooftop reggae concert by Mighty Joshua) and Havana 59 in Shockoe Bottom.


click to enlarge SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist

Michael Paul Williams

Columnist, Richmond Times-Dispatch

It's not easy being a newspaper columnist. Strong writing, reporting skills and something insightful to say each week are just the basics. To be a great columnist, you need to have a real love for your community, one that isn't afraid to challenge it.

Our daily paper of record has a must-read talent with Williams, an eloquent and soulful writer who many consider a great conscience of the city.

"It helps to have an easily provoked sense of outrage," says Williams, who grew up here and started writing columns 26 years ago after working a decade at the paper as a reporter. "We sometimes misconstrue what love involves – like patriotism. We should be willing to critique the thing we love and want it to be its best self."

In the past, Mark Holmberg has been a Pulitzer Prize finalist for his gritty column reporting at the daily newspaper, and we feel like Williams could soon join him as a candidate for the prestigious award, particularly this year with his consistently thought-provoking commentary on the Monument Avenue statues. Williams has written about the subject for years, in the past calling for more context and additional statues. But he says things took a turn after the horrific church murders in Charleston, South Carolina.

"After that, I could no longer reconcile these symbols having a place of veneration in 21st century America, given what we know they mean," Williams says. "They are inherently racist symbols of white supremacy. That's when I wrote two columns saying the monuments need to come down."

Williams firmly believes America has never fully and forthrightly dealt with the issue of racism. When asked if he considers the silos of identity politics to be too fragmenting or without a focused, uniting criticism centered on class and unregulated capitalism, Williams does what he does best. He takes a stand.

"White supremacy was a founding principle, the original identity politics of America," he says. "You cannot separate the white supremacist origins from capitalism. To this day, racism has been used to keep people, who might otherwise have common cause, mired in a state of disarray that serves the vast economic inequality we have."


click to enlarge Nikki-Dee Ray, meteorologist for WTVR CBS-6, Paige Mudd, executive editor of the Richmond Times-Dispatch, Melissa Chase, morning host at 103.7 Play, and Kelli Lemon, host of the Coffee with Strangers podcast, stand behind  Jean Boone, the publisher of the Richmond Free Press. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • Nikki-Dee Ray, meteorologist for WTVR CBS-6, Paige Mudd, executive editor of the Richmond Times-Dispatch, Melissa Chase, morning host at 103.7 Play, and Kelli Lemon, host of the Coffee with Strangers podcast, stand behind Jean Boone, the publisher of the Richmond Free Press.

Women in Media 

There's no denying that media has historically been a boys' club. But at least here in Richmond we've seen a surge of women rising to the top in the industry — from print to radio and television.

Given that our own ship is fearlessly steered by publisher Lori Waran, we couldn't help but give a smooch to the formidable females leading the charge in media, such as Paige Mudd of the Richmond Times-Dispatch and Jean Boone of the Richmond Free Press.

"We have so many strong women in the newsroom here, some veteran talents and some fierce young women who will never stop fighting for access to information and for the real story," says Mudd, the daily's first female executive editor in its 168 years. "That's the key to success at any level of the news industry, now and always, men and women: Don't accept a 'no.'"


click to enlarge SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist

The Peppas

Virginia Commonwealth University Pep Band  

There are college pep bands, and then there are the Peppas. More than just a motley crew of brass-wielding undergrads, Virginia Commonwealth University's notorious pep band is a collection of musicians who are dedicated to pumping Stuart C. Siegel Center full of energy, regardless of how the team's doing. They don't stand at attention in the stands, repeating the same tired old classic rock tunes that high school and college bands seem to love — they dance, sometimes with choreography and sometimes however the song inspires them. Much of their inspiration comes from local groups like No BS Brass band and Weekend Plans, but it would be impossible to pin down the Peppas' precise style — they've covered Miley Cyrus' "Wrecking Ball," Toto's "Africa," Old Crow Medicine Show's "Wagon Wheel" and Rebirth Brass Band's "Do Whatcha Wanna."  

And we aren't the only ones who love them. A couple years ago, Mount St. Mary's University hired the Peppas to perform in its stands when it went up against a rival, Robert Morris University. For the most part, though, the Peppas are loyal to VCU. And we can't help but adore them for it.  


click to enlarge SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist

John Henley's Art Elders Series

Since 2015, Richmond photographer John Henley has been documenting the elders of the Richmond arts scene. This series of portraits is currently on display at Linden Row Inn, a satellite gallery exhibition of 1708. Some of the artists included in the show are photographers Willie Anne Wright and Medford Taylor, sculptor Myron Helfgott, artist Aggie Zedd and graphic designer Rob Carter. The show is up for the next several months. Henley says collaborating with these creative types is rewarding. "They are like having great art directors on location shoots," he says.


The Brewery Brotherhood

On Richmond's beer scene, it's all for beer and beer for all. Look, we're not under any delusions that the ever-growing brewery scene doesn't come with a generous pouring of competition. But at the end of the day, the folks brewing, bottling, canning and serving beer want one thing: a thriving beer scene that will keep Richmonders happy and thirsty for more.

"We are definitely competing with each other, but it's to better ourselves," says Hardywood brewer Kevin Storm. "That being said, we all benefit from everyone else's success. It's like we are working independently to collectively create a beer scene that's unlike anywhere else on the East Coast."

Local breweries — and let's not forget the cideries, distilleries and restaurants — are known to cross business lines and collaborate, rolling out group-effort products like Give Me Stout or Give Me Death, an imperial stout with a whopping 9.5 percent alcohol created by Ardent and Hardywood, with a little help from former Gov. Terry McAuliffe. And according to Storm, the camaraderie goes beyond collaborative brewing.

"I don't think a day goes by where one of us isn't asking our neighbor for something," he says. "From grain bags to hops, or yeast to just a couple grams of salt, we all are on call for each other."


click to enlarge SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist

Stoplight Gelato Café

A block away from the Maggie Walker statue on Broad Street there are two other Richmond treasures, the Stoplight Gelato Café and its 80-year-old owner, Barbara Given. Her mission is twofold: to honor her deceased son, Bryce, who shared her vision for the cafe and to also celebrate the diverse Jackson Ward neighborhood. She wants the cafe to be a conduit for residents to gather and enjoy each other's company while enjoying coffee, gelato, breakfast, lunch and pizza for dinner. Givens is currently convalescing from hip surgery, but will be back behind the counter soon — it would take more than a little surgical procedure to keep her down.


click to enlarge SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist

Neil Amin

President, chief executive and gracious host of Shamin Hotels

We didn't love it when more than 50 of our fellow Richmonders were without heat during that relentless cold snap last month. We did, however, love it when a local business owner stepped in to help out of the goodness of his heart.

After the Richmond Redevelopment and Housing Authority shut off the heat in nine Creighton Court buildings due to issues from leaking pipes, 54 units were rendered frigid. When Shamin Hotel's president and chief executive, Neil Amin, caught wind of the situation, he immediately opened up rooms in his airport hotel to anyone from Creighton Court living without heat.

It doesn't get much warmer and fuzzier than that.


click to enlarge A scene from “Lucky,” which will be screening as part of a Harry Dean Stanton tribute at this year’s festival from March 13 to 18. - STEFANIA ROSINI/MAGNOLIA PICTURES
  • Stefania Rosini/Magnolia Pictures
  • A scene from “Lucky,” which will be screening as part of a Harry Dean Stanton tribute at this year’s festival from March 13 to 18.

James River Film Festival

It's amazing that this little local film festival that could has managed to keep going for 25 years, bringing stellar guests and smart indie fare to Richmond with a tiny staff and little funding. Over the years it has brought everyone from Guy Maddin, Les Blank, Stan Brakhage and Albert Maysles to Ross McElwee and Richard Kelly. And this year's big anniversary features one of the country's top female directors and writers, Kelly Reichardt of New York, who will be attending and showing some of her lesser known films.

It's not only film guests either — this festival has had killer musicians from Tom Verlaine and Pere Ubu to this year's returning guest, guitarist Gary Lucas (Captain Beefheart's Magic Band).

A salty, popcorn smooch to founder Mike Jones for all the work he and other volunteers put into this festival — oh, and for hosting one of the coolest potlucks of the year in the Fan.


click to enlarge SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist

Laura Lafayette

Chief Executive of Richmond Realtors Association

Some real estate mavens rate themselves by how many dwellings they sell. Laura Lafayette goes beyond that by trying to help secure affordable housing, protect historic structures and search for answers to personal theological questions.

In her official role, Lafayette is leading an effort to create community land trusts and banks in the Richmond area. One effort, recently approved by the city, involves the Maggie Walker Community Land Trust, which buys land and holds it in perpetuity. Homeowners can build or buy the structure and can cash out if they sell.

The system lowers the overall real estate price — an important task in fast-gentrifying parts of town where long-time residents can be forced out. "We have 16 parcels in some form of development," she says. Neighborhoods include Church Hill, Barton Heights, Carver and Randolph.

Thorough and articulate, she is a much sought after speaker thanks to her grasp of local real estate statistics. She was born and bred locally and spent a graduate year at Yale University studying religion and what influences people to write about theology.


click to enlarge SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist

Main Street Station Train Shed

How do you smack a kiss on something as ironbound, glassified, sweeping and yes, as beautiful as the train shed in Shockoe Bottom, one of our city's newest event spaces? Very appreciatively, that's how.

The restoration of this 1901 landmark of railroad's age of steam was never assured. But the announcement in 2003 that Amtrak passenger service would return to Shockoe Bottom set off a series of positive events that continues 15 years hence. First, the elegant French Renaissance revival head house was restored under the leadership of the state and city for mixed uses — offices, event spaces and a train depot. Following this came the imaginative landscaping of the spaces across Main Street from the station for a transit plaza and surface parking. Most recently comes completion and of the intelligent reworking of the train shed and its undercroft as a dazzlingly dramatic events space and visitor center. Currently underway is the revitalization of the 17th Street Farmers' Market. And with the Capital Trail being routed right under the complex and long-neglected history of the slave trade beginning to be told, Shockoe Bottom will be compelling. A big smooch goes to those making the complex mix of activities work.


click to enlarge SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist

City Awards Public Art Commission to Mickael Broth, Local Artist

It's about time the city of Richmond awarded a commission for public art to a talented local — feel us? It had been over a decade, but in December the Planning Commission approved a proposal for a sculpture installation in front of the Hull Street branch of the Richmond Public Library by longtime local muralist, Mickael Broth, who has roots in the graffiti scene.

A former assistant of Ed Trask's, Broth has become well known for his own mural skills — his cartoonish, slam-dancing Bernie Sanders off West Broad Street went viral. We think he deserves the love and the $51,000 commission, money that covers fabrication, installation, insurance, permits and his stipend, paid for by the 1 percent for the arts program.

Broth tells Style he's aiming for an early summer installation but this is all dependent on the city's finalizing the contract, which is being reviewed.


click to enlarge SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist

The CSX Viaduct

Richmond may be the River City boasting of breathtaking views of the James River along with hiking trails and white water for rafters. Yet there is a quiet and constant presence that has been part of the landscape for 117 years.

It is, of course, the CSX Viaduct, a 3-mile-long elevated, double-tracked bridge that runs along the northern river bank from Oregon Hill east past Rocketts Landing. As many as 10 trains a day slowly rumble by, according to CSX spokeswoman Katie Chimelewski.

The trains carry mixed freight. Or they can take car after car of Appalachian coal to Newport News for export. Any time of day, sets of yellow and blue locomotives murmur their presence. Most often, they aren't even noticed.


click to enlarge A.J. Brewer holds his son Parker Lee. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • A.J. Brewer holds his son Parker Lee.

Brewer's Café

Since opening in 2015, Brewer's Café has gained a foothold in a Manchester neighborhood once known for urban blight. Owner A.J. Brewer quietly has built a thriving business in this neighborhood on the rise. He gets his coffee beans from Red Rooster Coffee in Floyd County and has added local baked goods, sandwiches, and beer and bourbon to the eclectic menu. With apartment buildings sprouting up around him, and the transformation of the Hull Street corridor a block away, Brewer sees his future as anything but a grind. We love the spot for meetings out of the office.


click to enlarge Andrew Randazzo Big Band - PETER MCELHINNEY
  • Peter McElhinney
  • Andrew Randazzo Big Band

The Downstairs Bar at the Vagabond

Whether you call it the Rabbit Hole or the Gypsy Tea Room, both names are confusingly in use, the downstairs bar at Vagabond, next door to the National, has become one of the best places in RVA for live music. Part of that is the ambiance: midevening dark with a mirror-patterned wall, lined with cozy tables and a long bar with unobstructed views of a corner performance space, delineated by a bright red curtain that recalls the one behind the stage in the quintessential New York basement club, the Village Vanguard. Superior acoustics and a mostly attentive audience provide the ideal setting for some of the best gigs in the city, especially jazz.

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