In Shepherdstown, one for the ages and T-shirts

Tiny W.Va. town takes historic role in Mideast peace talks in stride

January 09, 2000|By Jay Hancock | Jay Hancock,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

SHEPHERDSTOWN, W.Va. -- Every so often the grand and powerful descend on some obscure, uncrowded burg to focus their minds and cast the fate of nations.

Borders are altered. War is contemplated. History is made.

And a whole lot of "Peace Talks" T-shirts are sold.

This town was historic; now it's doubly so, as its role in the Israeli-Syrian peace talks this month joins its legacy as a makeshift hospital in the Civil War's battle of Antietam.

Israeli President Ehud Barak and Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk al-Sharaa have been here since Monday, saying "maybe" to peace after 50 years of hostility. Shepherdstown will enter the vocabulary of Middle East diplomacy with Rhodes, Camp David, Madrid, Oslo, Wye and Camp David -- simple names that evoke passions from the Nile to the Euphrates.

Like the Super Bowl

But for now, Shepherdstown is besieged, as hundreds of journalists, diplomats, security agents and technical experts make it their temporary home.

Imagine the Super Bowl in Monkton, and that gives a rough idea.

"I think they're tired of being in a goldfish bowl," local newspaper editor Mary Corcoran said of the 2,000 residents. But at the same time, she added, "they're very positive about what's going on. We're really proud. We're really thrilled."

Cheery goodwill

The whole town exudes a cheery goodwill -- even toward the Secret Service agents and big-shot journalists -- that seems left over from Christmas and New Year's.

Store owner Jan Bender asks all comers to sign a card for the "Peace Tree" in her back room and says the business she has lost as a result of the talks is a small price for Middle East concord.

"I think our customers are afraid it is going to be mobbed and don't come in," said Bender, proprietor of the Village Green gift shop. "If the peace talks are worthwhile, I don't think anybody minds."

Other merchants get the chance for world peace and a noisy cash register.

Hotels and motels are booked for miles around. Many restaurants are doing well. The Yellow Brick Bank, a well-known gourmet restaurant with a nice $23 rack of lamb, has been packed nightly.

"We've been doing 150-plus a day," said hostess Kate Richards. "That's good."

Treated gently by time

Settled by Europeans on the Potomac in the early 1700s, Shepherdstown has been treated gently by time. Treacherous rapids and falls downstream ensured that it never developed into a commercial hub. Its well-preserved Colonial and Federal homes, made of the sturdy local brick, line quiet, straight streets that quickly turn into winding lanes.

The town has a triple personality that blends culture and cosmopolitanism with rural honesty. Federal employees commuting to Washington, 70 miles away, share Shepherdstown with a thriving arts community and families with decades-old roots. Shepherd College lends an intellectual flavor.

"It isn't just a little, dinky small town out in the sticks," said Corcoran, editor of the Shepherdstown Chronicle. "It's really a bedroom community for the D.C. area."

The residents are highly knowledgeable about the Syrian-Israeli talks and deeply interested. They swarm sidewalks at odd hours to watch President Clinton's helicopter as he commutes from Washington.

Celebrity-sighting

Celebrity-sighting is a competitive endeavor.

"Mrs. Barak was just in here," said Roni LaVache, owner of On the Wings of Dreams, a gift shop. "She was lovely. An absolutely charming woman."

Clinton visited the Old Pharmacy Cafe on Friday, venturing from the Clarion Hotel and Conference Center where the talks are based.

Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright had dinner Tuesday at the Yellow Brick Bank, briefly visiting the kitchen and congratulating the cooks.

Petty indignities

In addition to basking in the planet's gaze, Shepherdstown has had to endure the petty indignities that result when newly arrived journalists view the community through an unfamiliar lense.

CNN misspelled the town's name. The British Broadcasting Corp. put Shepherdstown in Virginia, not West Virginia. One of the local papers took exception when USA Today referred to the Clarion as "a mid-price hotel."

But residents are being good sports.

They're proud that their home is on the map -- on newspaper graphics around the world. And they're hoping that peace and goodwill are contagious.

"We're all being interviewed so often about what our feelings on peace are that we're really talking about it among ourselves," said LaVache, who sold hundreds of "Peace Talks" T-shirts last week. "I'm thinking about peace in my own life."

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