WARDENSVILLE, W.Va. (AP) - For years, Paul Yandura and Donald Hitchcock had passed through this small dot of a town on the way to their vacation home in Lost River about 20 miles away. The Hardy County town, with a population of about 250 people, really only has one main drag, but it’s a classic Main Street, which had been a sleepy one for many years.
In 2011, the Lost River Brewing Co. opened at one end of town, a craft brewery and pub featuring a menu packed with items like pan-seared snapper, sun-dried tomato risotto, bison meatloaf and raw oysters on the half shell. That was an interesting new development in the tiny town.
Now, Yandura and Hitchcock, longtime partners, have bookended the town at its other end with an upscale, eclectic antique store, baked goods, coffee shop, art gallery and just-about-everything shop called Lost River Trading Post, which they opened in 2013.
Yandura, 46, and Hitchcock, 42, were initially part of the weekend exodus out of Washington, D.C., to Lost River and the Guesthouse Lost River, popular among D.C.’s gay community as a place for weekend getaways and vacation homes. The New York Times even noted the trend in an October 2013 article, “In the backwoods of Lost River, a Gay Retreat.”
But Yandura and Hitchcock had other ideas than merely a retreat from D.C.’s hustle and bustle.
“We were coming out all the time. Weekends started to become Thursday, Friday, Saturday. Then Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday, Monday,” said Yandura. “We were always trying to be out here as much as possible.”
Yandura was burned out from working in D.C. He’d started young, as a 23-year-old assistant in the Clinton administration. So young that he’d earned the nickname “Grasshopper,” a reference to what Master Po called his young student in the “Kung Fu” TV show.
Hitchcock had also been deeply enmeshed in D.C. political life, first as a civil rights activist working on gay and lesbian equal rights, then a stint with the Democratic National Committee and then in his last four years in the city as a medical device salesman.
They kept their D.C. jobs while earning real estate licenses to use in West Virginia.
Their first commercial listing was for a 1940s building in the town that had been a Southern States feed store and most recently an antiques shop.
Today, it’s “the building we now have here for Lost River Trading Post,” said Yandura. “It was just a fluke. We kept thinking, ‘Boy, if you built an all-American-made or locally made-from-scratch bakery/coffeeshop and put it in this old feed store, it’d probably be a big draw.’ We were actually using that to sell the building, that business plan.”
Then they thought, why not do it themselves? After all, said Yandura, more than 4,000 cars a day pass through Wardensville on average, and it’s a gateway from the east into the state.
“So, we found a way not to actually just come out on weekends but to be out here full-time,” said Yandura.
The trading post’s merchandise is constantly evolving, featuring a wide variety of local and regional crafts from jewelry, handwoven rugs, heirloom Fiesta dinnerware, rocking chairs fashioned from branches and tables made from recycled barn woods to tin signs, hand-painted axes and possibly the only disco ball for sale in all of Hardy County. There’s also a small art gallery named for Yandura’s past: The Grasshopper Gallery.
They stock a wide variety of craft beers and wines, and area foods like honey made in the town and chocolate from not-too-far-away Warrenton, Virginia.
They initially thought their main clientele would be the stream of gay travelers heading in on weekends and traveling through the town on their way to Lost River, gearing their days open - Friday, Saturday and Sunday - to the influx.
“We actually thought that would be our major audience - to get some of the gay market to come in here and shop,” said Hitchcock. “And it has been a major part of our audience. But we’ve really expanded who we know in this area. We are surprised how many people welcome us outside of that community.
“The reality is we’re really getting a lot of families coming through, going skiing,” said Hitchcock. “We’re getting a lot of young couples that are going hiking for the weekend. So, we’re getting a lot of diversity coming through here. And we’re getting a lot of people that live here, either full time or they’ve either retired here or they relocated here. And they’re really excited - you know, you can get a really good cup of coffee. You can hang out and use our Wi-Fi. We’ve introduced vegan products, and gluten-free and raw products, to this community.”
Last year, they bought a house next door to the trading post, hanging a rainbow flag out front. They helped launch a Main Street Initiative and have lobbied in Charleston on behalf of Wardensville, along with Mayor Barbara Ratcliff. They have worked with a host of people, young and old, to revitalize the town and to make Wardensville a destination stop.
“When The New York Times did their story, I thought it was too focused on gay and lesbian couples coming out here,” Yandura said. “Because the truth of the matter is, this town, Lost River, they’re just open and friendly. And so, it’s really a place where everyone could come.
“Our hope was always that we’d have a high-end client coming through. We just didn’t know who that was. We knew one segment of that has always been talked about it. Even that article missed the bigger picture of what’s happening here,” said Yandura.
“Lots and lots of people who want to get away from the city, want to get away from the hustle and bustle and stress of Washington or Baltimore or Virginia or anywhere - and they come out here and they kind of decompress. And they’re like, ‘Wow, this is amazing.’ The secret really is that.”
And some now are saying they want to retire in the area, he said.
“They’re working from here, now that there’s fiber-optic Internet. Yeah, we weren’t sure and we took a big risk. But, you know, it has paid off for sure.”
The store acts as a “dragnet,” said Yandura. Customers come in, hear the 1940s music playing - in homage to the building’s vintage - buy some food, or coffee, knickknacks or antiques or check out the real-estate listings that can be seen on a rotating computer screen or on a board out front of the shop.
They are constantly changing up the shop. “Every time you come in, it’s changed,” said Yandura. “We move things all the time. This isn’t supposed to be a grocery store where you know where the lemons are and you know where the salt is. For me, it’s like, you should come in here every time and be disoriented and try to figure out where everything is and how to find it because then you might see something that you didn’t before. It’s 5,000 square feet of stuff.
“People say, ‘Well, I don’t know if I need that.’ I’m like, ‘Well, we don’t sell need. We sell want.’ If you need what we have, there’s probably a problem. Really, we sell what you want, not what you need.”
Yandura and Hitchcock both say moving to small-town West Virginia as a gay couple has gone smoothly.
“Being new is one thing. Being not from here is another thing. These are all hard things,” said Yandura.
“Being gay is a whole other thing. But so many people have gay people in their families, now it’s less and less of an issue. If we would have done this 30 years ago, I’m not sure we would be feeling as safe as we do.”
Whether people like it or not, the world is changing, he said. “So, the question really becomes, can we all work together or not?
“But since we’ve been so involved, the pastors here, the people who grew up here, they’ve been very supportive. I know that there are people who are not. We didn’t come here to change their mind. We came here to start a business. We came here to make this place a destination.”
Lost River Trading Post is open 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., Friday through Sunday. Call 304-874-3300 or visit www.lostrivertradingpost.com .
Information from: The Charleston Gazette, https://www.wvgazette.com
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