In the final days before Christmas, veteran Cox Farms employee and official Christmas tree pricer Lynn Hertz will sell her last tree of the season. This year, it will also be the farm's last sale at this spot along Chain Bridge Road.
The produce and plant stand that has stood for nearly 40 years on Route 123 near Nutley Street is closing Dec. 23, news that elicits a gasp from just about any Vienna resident.
"I'm really sad," said one customer, who didn't want to give her name. "It gives (Vienna) a small-town feel."
Members of the namesake family discuss the news with a heavy heart, too. Vienna and this particular section of town made an indelible mark upon their lives.
It started with 'baby hippies'
The stand, which began as a card table tomato stand in 1972, has attracted customers from Vienna, neighboring Oakton and beyond for nearly 40 years with seasonal produce, plants and old-time charm.
The business started with a bunch of "baby hippies" in the summer of 1972, said Bob Richard, whose sister Gina married Eric Cox right after graduating from Herndon High School.
"He's one of nine kids and Gina is one of six," he said. "All through the early '70s, we all worked in the summers at Cox Farms to help us through high school."
The Richard-Cox family bought a plot of land in Centreville in 1979. It ultimately grew to 116 acres and became what is now Cox Farms. There are 20 greenhouses along with rabbits, chickens and goats. It's a working farm, and as the farm matured, the family acted on a longtime plan to close the Vienna market and consolidate the operation in Centreville.
"Ever since we bought that property in 1979, we've been aiming to move out there," Richard said. "We've been waiting for 30 years for our Centreville business and our farm to grow enough to be the focus of the business."
Now that the outer suburbs in Fairfax and Loudoun counties have also matured, the family believes there's enough of a customer base to cut down to one location. And it has nothing to do with the rocky economy: It's about space for things like Easter egg hunts, Santa hayrides, rabbits and chickens and goats.
"Everyone's going to think business is bad," Richard said. "But in fact, one indication that business isn't bad is that our landlords are opening their own business doing the same thing in 2011. They wouldn't be doing that if this wasn't a good location for this."
Amy DePaul McMullen, the daughter of the original land owner, is planning to open her own version of a farm stand, called DePaul's Urban Farm, sometime in late March. She said hopes to live up to the high bar set by Cox, a classmate of hers in high school.
"I hope we can meet everybody's expectations," she said. "The main thing is I want people to know it's going to be the same. We aren't new people. We're getting all the great stuff and maybe a little more variety."
Which means she is not, as rumors have alluded, developing the property on which the Cox stand made its mark.
"We have no plans to ever develop there," she said. "I grew up partly in the house that's there. My parents lived there. It's not a hostile takeover," she said.
The transition means some employees will leave the company, but Richard stopped short of calling it a layoff.
"Most of our full-time Vienna retail crew are either going to work for the DePaul family, or they're going to (be offered) seasonal employment with us," he said. "Which means some of them are going to want to leave. So, sadly about half-a-dozen people are going to be leaving the company."
missing "The Fresh Stuff"
The 15-mile drive to Centreville, through one of Fairfax County's most congested traffic corridors, will mean a loss of some longtime regular Cox customers, too.
Terence Barrett, who lives in Vienna near Route 7 said he won't be able to make the trip.
"Everyone's moving farther out," Barrett said while shopping for apples and gourds to use as a holiday centerpiece. "Going out there is not possible."
There will be some incentives, Richard said, to drive to the farm. There will be special coupons e-mailed to those with Vienna addresses who register on the Cox Farms website.
Come spring, customers will have a bit of consolation. McMullen said the new stand will use the same vendors the Cox family has for years, and her business is going to make an effort to keep as many employees who want to come back when the stand opens.
On a cool day before Thanksgiving, with the skies threatening rain, Barrett and a handful of other customers milled around Cox Farms looking for last-minute cider and gourds. It was a quiet, late-autumn scene. The leaves had turned and the Christmas rush hadn't yet hit. Employees, many of them members of the Cox family or children of former employees, wrangled Christmas trees off a delivery pallet and into display areas.
Barrett says he knows what he'll be missing.
"I don't think you can go to a supermarket and get that kind of stuff," he said. "It's getting fresh stuff that's not put in the freezer and loses its taste. Generations are growing up without knowing what it is to savor that taste."
And, for those wondering about the iconic red, yellow, green and blue wooden ship with a slide, that generations of children have played on while their parents shopped, it will be making the trip to Centreville, too.
"Half of the people say they're going to miss the ship (the most)," Richard said.