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.
The creative thread also binds the locally owned storefronts; no sign of chain stores here. Who needs Starbucks when the Wild Bean serves up espresso, coffee, smoothies and veggie dishes, plus an occasional band performance?
There's Tuckwiller Gallery, with paintings and prints of area landscapes, and Cooper Gallery, mixing traditional and contemporary photography, sculpture, paintings and ceramics. One of Owens' picks, Studio 40, has contemporary furniture and crafts to decorate the house, plus fine and fun jewelry and clothes.
At the Greenbrier County Visitors Center, the list of events and activities includes First Fridays After Five, a farmers market on Saturdays from May through October, and annual Chocolate and Taste of Our Towns festivals. There's also a 78-mile biking trail along the Greenbrier River.
Owens recommends the Stardust Cafe, and there are several other eateries that also entice us — enough that it seems the entire town could dine out. Unfortunately, we're still full from a big breakfast, so we walk it off by heading over to the Old Stone Presbyterian Church, one of the oldest buildings in town, dating to 1796. It was one of several buildings used as temporary hospitals after the Battle of Lewisburg, with the wounded from both sides often housed together. The church cemetery has graves of the town's pioneers. The 95 Confederate soldiers killed in the Battle of Lewisburg were buried here but later moved to the Confederate Cemetery a quarter-mile away. The Union dead were buried outside town and later moved to the National Cemetery in Staunton, Va.
On the other side of town, we peek into the General Lewis Inn, as much a museum as a hotel and restaurant. Out front under a portico stands a brougham carriage used in the late 1800s to shuttle guests from railroad stations to the area's mineral-spring spa resorts. Inside, the front desk dates to 1760. And in Memory Hall, pioneers' tools, guns, utensils and musical instruments fill the walls.
"Feel free to look in any rooms with doors open," the hospitable clerk says.
If we weren't staying at the Greenbrier, we would check in here. Because it's almost tea time, though, we head back to the four-star resort nine miles away.
A few years ago, the Greenbrier and its sporting club were bought for $20 million by former coal company owner Jim Justice. But he still lives in Lewisburg, where he coaches the girls high school basketball team.
How cool is that?
If you go
Lewisburg is more than a one-hit wonder. In addition to its title as "America's Coolest Small Town," it has been listed as one of the "Dozen Distinctive Destinations" by the National Trust for Historic Preservation, "One of the Best Small Arts Towns in America," and a National Geographic "Best Small Town Escape."
Things to do
Walking Tour of Historic Lewisburg: Get a feel for the town by walking its streets and seeing 72 houses, churches, and cemeteries (you may want to drive to a few of them). Get the 20-page booklet with map at the Greenbrier Valley Visitors Center, 200 W. Washington St.
Chocolate Festival: Annual April event includes chocolate tastings, bake-off and chocolate mousse-eating contest. lewisburgchocolatefestival.com
Battle of Lewisburg: Re-enactment of May 23, 1862, battle, plus Confederate, Union and civilian camps and expert speakers. Washington Street. battleoflewisburg.org
Carnegie Hall: One of four Carnegie Halls in the world offers live performances, educational programs and rotating exhibits. carnegiehallwv.org
Greenbrier Valley Theater: The state's official year-round professional theater. gvtheatre.org
Greenbrier River Trail: Bike, hike or ride a horse along the 78-mile rail trail, with lodging and trailer and RV camping available along the way. Cellphone service is limited. greenbrierrivertrail.com
Greenbrier County Convention & Visitors Bureau: 800-833-2068, greenbrierwv.com
Where to stay
General Lewis Inn: Rooms with antique furnishings, private bath and flat-screen TVs for $110 to $155 a night. 301 E. Washington St.; 800-628-4454, generallewisinn5-px.rtrk.comCopyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun