by Henry Lane Hull
In 1576, the Italian artist Giorgio Vasari wrote that both art and life were cyclical, going from birth to growth to decline, all to be followed by rebirth. Here in the Northern Neck, in one instance, his remark also applies to the grocery business.
Over a century ago Denson’s Grocery Store was an iconic part of the Colonial Beach experience. A family business, the old stand on Bancroft Avenue had a loyal following in the days when the town had an A&P and Hopkins Grocery as the only competitors. The Denson establishment was in a small frame building that in my time had tan Brixtex siding.
Denson’s was known especially for its meats. The store was operated by Bernard Denson, known to all as Boozie, his mother, Jetta, who was the widow of the founder, and his wife, Anne. In addition, all three Denson children worked in the store as well, Jetta, Carole Anne and later son Rocky. The elder Jetta was famous (the word is not an exaggeration) for her lightning speed at calculating the totals for her customers’ groceries. With a pencil in hand she could beat any calculator.
Boozie and Anne decided to build a new store across the street, with construction underway in early 1956. At the time they were expecting a third child, and as it happened the store opening and the baby arrived on the same day, April 4, 1956. The new arrival was given his father’s name but always has been called by the nickname Rocky.
After distinguished service during the Second World War, upon his return Boozie became active in town politics, being elected to the town council, and in 1958 to a first term as mayor. As Rocky grew up, he followed his sisters in helping at the store, but ultimately spent his first career in the insurance business. Boozie died in 1980, having served off and on as mayor and councilman, at a time he was again serving on the council. Appropriately, Rocky was appointed to complete his father’s last term.
To the great regret of many in the town, Denson’s closed and seemingly passed into the lore of the town’s history, customers still remembering Boozie’s meats, his mother’s calculating ability and the friendliness of all of the Densons in greetings their customers. The old store was razed, and under new ownership the new store was remodeled almost beyond recognition and converted to new uses. Sadly, Denson’s was no more.
Back to Giorgio Vasari. After his career in the insurance industry, upon retirement, Rocky and his wife, Blair, decided to resurrect the name and the business. A few blocks away, on the site of the western half of the old Breakers Hotel, they opened a new Denson’s Grocery and R&B Oyster Bar, specializing in gourmet food products and affording patrons the opportunity to dine in house.
In the early 20th century, the Breakers was run by Mary Costello Cahill, who was actually the foundress of tourism in the Northern Neck. She was renowned for her cuisine, drawing people from Washington who arrived on the steamboats. The Breakers was a two-part Victorian architectural masterpiece with a dining porch connecting the two buildings. In the 1960s the western half was demolished, and now on part of that site stands the new Denson’s. Mrs. Cahill would be pleased, for she was in her element serving people good food.
The new Denson’s replicates much of its past history. The door from the old store is present to welcome customers, as are a picture of Boozie and Anne and other mementos of the family’s history in the food business, now augmented by new recipes from Blair’s family.
If he were writing today, four centuries later, Giorgio Vasari could cite Denson’s as another rebirth to be celebrated.