VIRGINIA BEACH — In front I offer the delicious aroma of roasting coffee while in the back I smell of freshly planed wood.
And in between I radiate the pleasing fragrance of paint and leather.
What am I?
The answer is The Alley, a former garage/warehouse space belonging to Wave Riding Vehicles that since 2016 has been home to four thriving businesses in the heart of the ever-expanding ViBe Creative District.
LG Shaw, operations manager for WRV, stands outside the building in the hot sun as traffic streams past along 19th Street (which is under construction and will soon be widened and on-street parking added). He points in turn at the four businesses now located there (Three Ships Coffee, North End Bag Co., Igor’s Customs, and Benevolent Design), and explains how the various spaces were once used for storage of racks, surf camp equipment, trailers, and other items necessary for their surf business.
“Truly, it’s a unique thing in the ViBe,” he said, adding that before The Alley became The Alley, it was at one time rented to a graphic designer and even to a flooring business.
The name The Alley, Shaw said, comes from a time, years ago, when there were so many surfboard builders in that area that locals gave it the name Surfboard Alley.
Kate Pittman, executive director of the ViBe District, agrees the cooperation among businesses there is rare.
“I don’t see it in other areas of the city, it’s really unique to the ViBe, where these senior successful businesses have taken it upon themselves to help shepherd the neighborhood in a new direction,” Pittman said.
WRV has been in business in that area since 1967. LG’s father Les bought it in the early 1970s and with a partner built the current structure in the 1980s. Along the way he bought a lot here and a building there, including in the mid-2000s the old garage/warehouse that is now The Alley.
Back then, Shaw said, it was “definitely a rundown neighborhood,” as he recalls stories of WRV managers being held up at gunpoint.
“We’ve used WRV as a model for other businesses,” Pittman said. “Things like this are critical to growing our district.”
Both Shaw and Pittman credit the City of Virginia Beach for not only creating the arts district, but also for making it possible for property owners to lease their existing buildings and for new businesses to get licenses and get started.
You can’t miss the smell of coffee being roasted if you’re anywhere close to Three Ships Coffee, which Brad and Amy Ewing started as a home-based roasting business before moving on to sell their product at farmers markets and out of a coffee trailer and eventually to sub-leasing a space.
That was before taking the plunge to their permanent physical location, where Amy serves as head roaster.
In addition to delicious aromas and air conditioning, Three Ships offers family-centric historic relics on the inside, along with seating and a history-based mural outside. Customers fill the shop, even in the early afternoon on a Thursday.
Just behind (or beside) the coffee shop the smell of leather takes over the smell of coffee and that’s where you’ll find the North End Bag Co., another business that started small, but now has four employees while hiring additional help during the holidays.
Aaron and Sara McClennan have their one-of-a-kind leather products on display in the retail space, but customers also have the unique opportunity to get a first-hand look at how the items are made since the workshop is adjacent to the retail space and open for viewing.
The McClennans got their start selling leather bags, belts and more at the Old Beach Art Market and other craft shows.
Paint overwhelms leather as you near Igor’s Customs next door, and “The World’s Smallest Museum” offers a diminutive collection of oddities that greet visitors to the shop.
Igor does small jobs for the average Joe, as well as large custom lettering projects for institutions such as The Cavalier in Virginia Beach and The Main in Norfolk.
Hard at work but willing to chat, Igor said that once upon a time, bartending, real estate sales, or restaurant work were among the few options for college graduates from Virginia Beach – especially those who were artistically inclined.
“They used to move away after college to find a career,” he said. “Now they come back and make their career here.”
The smell of reclaimed wood being run through a planer lets you know that you’re approaching the last business in The Alley, Benevolent Design Co.
Patrick Ryan, the artisan behind Benevolent Design, said that while they specialize in reclaimed wood, they try not to be “too rustic,” and give their product “a modern twist.”
While Benevolent Design still does smaller custom jobs, they’re currently doing work for the new Beecroft and Bull location in Hilltop North, as well as Back Bay Brewing’s Farmhouse Brewing project in Kempsville, and the new TASTE expansion into Richmond.
“We try each and every day to learn and be better than we were the day before,” Ryan said. “That approach has given us the opportunity to work beside many other great businesses, for whom I am extremely grateful.”
Benevolent Design is only open by appointment, but Ryan and his team can usually be found working in the shop or even outside The Alley.
“It’s fun to watch the growth here,” Shaw said. “We’re also drawing a bigger pool of people, because the ViBe District is now a destination.”