By GRANT RAYCROFT
As the leaves turn red and the days grow cold, a cozy little place off the brick walk of old-town Fredericksburg is where one can get safe inside from the chill.
A tame and quiet shop around midday, a back-room stocked with books ranging from a grand population of Tor fantasy novels to the works of Anne Rice, is where it is possible to hide in a little corner and disappear inside a good novel or computer screen.
You can get a warm cup of creamy cocoa, topped with powdered chocolate and forget your problems, because this is Agora Downtown. The latest addition to the downtown Fredericksburg scene would not be reality without the dream of two sisters.
Andi and M.J. Stone come from a set of five siblings in Stafford County. Born two years apart, with M.J. being the elder, the two have always joked about running their own business.
Andi saw herself running a bakery. M.J. wanted a coffee shop. Ideally, they would also be neighbors. It was nothing more than a fantasy at the time, but things would change.
After graduating from Brooke Point High School, the sisters went their own ways. Andi went to Virginia Tech. M.J. took to school at New York’s Elmira College.
While attending, their parents, Keith and Kristine Stone, suggested making their dream a reality and the two decided it was worth a shot.
Andi graduated from Virginia Tech with a bachelor’s degree in food, science and technology. M.J., after completing her bachelor’s in art, spent two more years in school and graduated with a master’s in business the same year as her sister in 2014.
With their credentials in order, the two had to go about setting up shop. The location they happened upon was none other than one of Fredericksburg’s longest standing buildings. Surviving both the infamous Fredericksburg Fire of 1807 and the entirety of the Civil War, the home at 520 Caroline St. stood since 1787.
In fact, to this day it retains its original floor and some walls. With the help of their parents, who have worked in real estate with a specialty in repairs and renovations, Andi and M.J. spent 10 arduous months remodeling the home into a business front.
Looking back, it was a lot more work than they thought, according to M.J. They had to put up new walls, their father redid all the plumbing for the kitchen, and the stand-up shower was transformed into broom closet.
After nearly a year of hard work, the Stone sisters had their very own homegrown business. The name they settled on was Agora Downtown.
Agora, deriving from Greek, holds a double meaning. It is defined as a gathering place, which the Stones say means “Come, stay awhile, meet people and enjoy yourself.” The other meaning is purely coincidental as agora also means “right now” in Portuguese. Agora features a skip-the-line option for morning commuters short on time. They are allowed to “grab some coffee and pay on an honor system in case they are in a hurry,” says M.J.
Agora Downtown opened on May 2 and since, M.J. and Andi have been working tirelessly. They knew going in that a major struggle many coffee houses face is lease issues. The two of them have the good fortune to have their parents as landlords.
Right now the two of them work the place on their own. Though it might seem quiet, there is always someone going in or out. Andi likes experimenting with their baked goods. She is always trying new things. Currently she is trying to open their menu to those with dietary restrictions so many of her treats are made without milk or gluten.
M.J. says they deliberately do not label them as such, since many folks without those limitations think the words “vegan” and “gluten-free” are synonymous with bad taste. However they give them a color code, which people with those restrictions recognize.
M.J. also sells her artwork and handmade creations. The store is advancing in a set of stages, faster than the two had anticipated. One of the recent steps has been the acquisition of a liquor license.
M.J. says they are planning to open up the back for outside seating. Right now it is just an empty lot, but come spring, the Stones are going to start working on it.
With luck, they plan to hold events there and get local musicians to perform.
What is certain is that Andi and M.J. do not want to turn Agora into a franchise chain. They do not intend to be one of big names and want to keep hold of their identity. There are some thoughts of opening anew location, but it will be drastically different for what they have here.
Still in their first year, Andi and M.J. have big plans for their coffee shop, and so far, their hard work has yielded great results. If you are looking for a welcoming place to prop your feet up this fall, they will eagerly open their door.