Travel to Lewisburg

Carnegie Hall, built in 1902, offers plays, comedy acts, dance performances and concerts in Lewisburg, West Virginia. It also has three art galleries and pottery, art, dance and weaving studios. (Valerie Reed/Philadelphia Inquirer/MCT)

LEWISBURG, W.Va. — Peering in the windows of the Old Hardware Gallery, I can see it is no ordinary screws-and-tools hardware store. There's handmade jewelry, West Virginia's own Blenko glassware and Fiesta ceramic dinnerware. But the store is closed around 2:30 on this gray Tuesday afternoon.

"It's on West Virginia time," a voice behind me says with a chuckle.

Clutching a cup of coffee, Tina Owens easily introduces herself as "born and raised" in this six-block town of 3,830. The 60-year-old hairstylist then rattles off a dozen or so of her must-visit spots, including the Bakery with its jalapeno bagels, the new Bella Casa Italian restaurant past the visitor center, the Studio Gallery and the iconic Carnegie Hall.

In just five minutes with Owens, one can tell why this place 250 miles southwest of Washington had just been voted America's Coolest Small Town.

"We love it here," Owens says proudly. "There's a lot of fun things to do, a lot of music.

"I'm always asked, 'What do you do here?' I say: 'Anything you want.'"

How could a small, rural town win such a contest in Budget Travel magazine? Owens chuckles again.

"We had a campaign," she says. "You could go online and vote something like once every few hours."

Down Washington Street, the main thoroughfare lined with shops, eateries, galleries and offices, there's a sign for the contest, with the just-added message: "We did it. Congratulations!"

Not that Lewisburg is unaccustomed to the limelight. Mrs. America 2010 Shelley Carbone was here just a few days ago, and actress Jennifer Garner stops by with her actor husband Ben Affleck when she visits her nearby hometown of Charleston.

Instead of heading to City Hall in the handsome 1897 Greenbrier Valley Bank Building to ask the mayor about Lewisburg's lofty ranking, I follow one of Owens' tips and round the corner to the Bakery on Court Street. There are bagels, biscotti, brownies and breads on one side of the cozy shop, salads and made-to-order sandwiches on the other.

A few locals are chatting among themselves and with the staff. This obviously is a place to gauge the town's take on the news of the day, but my wife, Valerie, and I don't want to interrupt; we want to explore.

Street names — Washington, Jefferson, Lafayette — hint at the history of this town that traces its roots to a 1750s outpost during the French and Indian War. It is named for the pioneer Lewis family: Col. Andrew Lewis' militia defeated Chief Cornstalk and the Shawnee in 1774. But it's the Battle of Lewisburg in 1862, when Union troops defeated a Southern force in the predominantly Confederate town, that is re-enacted each year.

As we stroll along Washington and its side streets, Valerie blurts out, "Newtown got robbed," referring to our Bucks County, Pa., borough, which placed seventh in Budget Travel's poll.

But I'm not so sure, as we come across the Greenbrier Valley Baking Co. Any town with two bakeries rates high with me.

Lewisburg won the poll with 139,118 votes. This is the magazine's sixth annual contest, but only the second year for readers to decide the top 10 towns after editors narrow the field to 20.

How do they define "Coolest Small Town"? It must have a population less than 10,000, and it's "got to be on the upswing, a place that's beginning to draw attention — and new residents — because of the quality of life, arts and restaurant scene, or proximity to nature," according to the website. "And cool doesn't mean quaint. We want towns with an edge, so think avant-garde galleries, not country stores."

The Old Hardware Gallery definitely fits the bill, and there are a few more in the downtown National Register Historic District. At least seven buildings date to the late 1700s, and dozens more were built throughout the 1800s. But this is no staid and stuffy town living off its past.

Artists and craftspeople energize the community with an eclectic mix of performance theaters and music venues, art and fine craft galleries. The Greek Revival Carnegie Hall, built in 1902, offers plays, comedy acts, dance performances and concerts from bluegrass to the Vienna Boys Choir, jazz to the state symphony orchestra. It also has three art galleries and pottery, art, dance and weaving studios. The Greenbrier Valley Theater has evolved from putting on performances in a tent to its modern Actors' Equity house in a refurbished department store.