WORD of the imminent closing of Roxbury Farm and Garden Center brought disappointment as well as a palpable sense of loss to the gardeners of the region—as well as to non-gardeners who likewise mourned the disappearance of yet another iconic business that, like Fredericksburg Hardware before it, embodied the Fredericksburg of an earlier day.
A rural redoubt in the heart of the city, Roxbury had long been a throwback: a gritty refuge for gardeners in an age of glitz. To such folks, it was more than just a business, so crucial was it to their avocation, in ways both tangible and intangible.
The culprits in Roxbury’s demise are complex, involving both broad cultural changes and hard economic factors. In a changing demographic, fewer people had rural roots—less traditional commitment to the land, its beauty and its bounty—and thus a declining interest in gardening.
At the same time, those who still appreciated the joys of working the soil could procure basic supplies at chain stores or online, often at lower prices.
But it was not the same. Catering to the serious gardener, Roxbury provided specialized products not available at other outlets, including a wide array of implements and plant materials. Among its thousands of items, for example, were over 60 varieties of tulips, a similar number of narcissus, and almost as many “minor bulbs.”
There were also heirloom vegetable varieties, available by the ounce or pound, not pre-packaged. Or, if one needed such products, there was chicken scratch, cracked corn, burlap bags, and bushel baskets as well as, up until a few years ago, baby chicks, ducks, guineas, turkeys, geese, pheasants, quail, and even rabbits.
But even more significant to the store’s uniqueness than the products it sold were the people who sold them: In the main store Jeff, Christine, and a handful of other Roxburians; outside, the gurus of the greenhouse, Judy, Tina, and Sharon; and in the yard, a dedicated crew who (literally) did the heavy lifting, always cheerfully.
Directing the enterprise was the gregarious Andy Lynn—general manager in title, paterfamilias in practice—presiding over a congenial group that was more family than staff.
As for Andy himself, a puckish nature served to disguise extensive horticultural knowledge that he shared generously, and genially, with his customers. Presented with a sickly plant, he would be quick to diagnose the disease and to recommend a remedy—all the while lending a sympathetic ear to the triumphs and travails of the gardener.
Reminiscent of Andy of Mayberry, Andy of Roxbury dispensed good advice and good humor in equal measure. Reflecting his convivial nature, his store was the kind of place where “everybody knows your name”—a kind of “Cheers” without the beers. (Although, if it was suds you wanted, they were able to provide the makings for that as well.)
It was, above all, a neighborly place. Always a soft touch for community causes, Andy gave freely and frequently to worthy local projects, as well as to individuals in need of gardening assistance.
As a personal example typical of the latter, he once rescued me when a monsoon descended upon Fredericksburg just before our house was to be open for the Historic Garden Week tour. Needing stepping stones to permit navigation of certain boggy areas in our yard, I consulted Andy, who suggested the necessary materials, but at a cost I found a bit steep to meet a one-time need.
No problem, said Andy. “Just bring them back after the tour.” (I did—though I eventually bought them.)
But to me, perhaps even more than to most of Roxbury’s dedicated clientele, the store presented yet another dimension. It was not merely the materials they sold, but the memories they stirred, that made it special.
Just walking into Roxbury—with its worn wooden floors, crowded shelves, and distinctive smell—was to be transported to an earlier day when, as a farm boy, I spent many hours in just such places following my father around as he bought from, and sold to, local feed and seed stores.
Those days are now (or soon will be) gone, likely never to be replicated, the penumbra, it seems, of forces that might be called “progress.” One wonders.
But if the cause is uncertain, the consequence is clear: the disappearance of another venerable Fredericksburg landmark—a vanishing vestige of a time that in retrospect appears saner, seemingly sunnier, and certainly simpler.
So we reluctantly bid farewell to Roxbury, which meant so much to so many for so long.
And one more thing: Thank you.
William B. Crawley is Professor Emeritus of History at the University of Mary Washington and Director of the University’s Great Lives lecture series.