Pair of Shepherdstown landmarks on market

August 09, 2009|By RICHARD F. BELISLE

SHEPHERDSTOWN, W.Va. -- Two Shepherdstown landmarks -- the Opera House movie theater and the Shepherdstown Sweet Shop Bakery -- are for sale.

Owners Rusty and Pam Berry said when the businesses are sold, they plan to move to Prince Edward Island in the Canadian Maritimes and try a new, as yet undecided, venture. They bought a house and 50 acres on the island, setting of the novel "Anne of Green Gables."

The theater at 131 W. German St., which specializes in independent and foreign films, has been one of Shepherdstown's most popular attractions from the day it opened in 1992. It draws patrons from across the Tri-State region and beyond.

The Berrys bought the bakery at 100 W. German St., known then as Ye Olde Sweet Shoppe, in 1997.

The couple moved to Shepherdstown from the Washington Metropolitan area, where they designed computer networks.

"Arlington County where we lived was booming and we felt it was time to do something else," Rusty said. He was 34 at the time and Pam was 41.


They discovered Shepherdstown and bought the theater building with no idea what they would do next.

The theater had been dark for 35 years. It was closed when its then-owner refused to integrate the movie house. Black patrons had to sit in the balcony, Rusty said.

"We had no thoughts about reopening the theater when we bought the building," he said. "The only experience we had with movie theaters was going to movies."

When they decided that the building, with its sloping floor, lent itself to its original use, they began renovations. 

"We knew it was bad, but it got worse and worse the more we got into it," Rusty said.

The rear of the building was floating off the foundation and had to be rebuilt, he said.

"The seats were torn out and piled against one wall," Rusty said.

The theater was built in 1909, and the Berrys wanted it kept as original as possible, so they refurbished all 131 seats.

"We'd come home on the (commuter) train at night and work on seats," he said.

They live in one of three apartments above the theater.

Rusty found a Simplex 35 mm projector made in the early 1950s and had it rebuilt. Today, a digital projector works alternately with the 35 mm projector. It provides more movie choices, Rusty said.

The projection booth takes up the balcony.

The theater, in addition to showing movies, is also set up with special sound and lighting systems for live music and stage shows.

The Berrys decided early on that their movie fare would not be run-of-the-mill, mainstream, teen-oriented action films. They opted for more obscure, sophisticated, critically acclaimed foreign and independent movies, what used to be referred to as "art films."

The Opera House shows up-to-date, popular movies when Rusty thinks they will appeal to his audiences.

"We did well with 'Star Trek' and Al Gore's 'Inconvenient Truth,' which sold out for a week," he said.

"It's unusual to find a small-town theater that shows movies that you'd usually only find at theaters like the E Street Theater in Washington, D.C.," said George Wilson of Shepherdstown, a local movie aficionado. "It's fortunate to have access to these films without having to travel a long distance. It's one of the amenities of Shepherdstown." 

It's not unusual for Jim and Alice Fisher of Waynesboro, Pa., to drive to Shepherdstown for dinner and a movie "almost every week," Jim Fisher said.

"We can see high-quality films there that we can't see anywhere else," he said. "It's small, intimate and comfortable, and it has a good sound system. We often meet people there. If a new owner closes it, it will have an impact on local restaurants because a lot of people have dinner before the movie."

The Berrys opened the Pharmacy Cafe in 1994 and ran it for a few years before they bought the bakery.

"The front of this building was divided into two retail spaces," Pam said. "We expanded to both sides and doubled the size."

The bakery has numerous specialties, some depending on particular customers. Some like the warm, freshly made doughnuts, some favor the quiche, the many varieties of muffins or the bakery's famous cupcakes.

"The cupcakes are hot," Pam said, rattling off some of her concoctions, including organic lavender; the Elvis, made with peanut butter fudge and bananas; the night crawler, with chocolate cookie crumbs and gummy worms; and one made with orange, ginger and white chocolate.

The bakery also specializes in wedding cakes, cheesecake and, for Christmas, German stollen. It is a daily morning coffee meeting spot where regulars crowd around the small tables in front of the plate-glass windows.

Sylvia Boyer is one such regular.

"They have good choices, from muffins to quiche and pastries," she said. "The staff is welcoming and friendly. It's a good place to meet the locals."

"It is a town gathering place," Pam said. "People have impromptu meetings here, kids come in after school, and mothers and babies come in after the library's lap baby reading hours. We're seeing more and more bicyclists. The bakery is a favorite stop on the bike routes."

"They're like friendly locusts," Rusty said. "They storm in and eat everything."

The Berrys declined to state the asking price for their businesses. They are being listed by the Hafer Real Estate Group in Martinsburg, W.Va.


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