Kim Gustafson, wearing her chef’s smock, stood on the iron staircase of Blüprint Chocolatiers in the midday drizzle last Sunday to check out the growing crowd of protesters across the street.
Ever since her landlord rented the upper two floors of the Old Town Alexandria townhouse to Richard Spencer and his National Policy Institute, a think tank that promotes white-nationalist ideologies, she and her husband, Bruce, had been trying to make sure everyone knew that their 22-month-old designer chocolate shop had nothing to do with the tenant upstairs.
The railing in front of her shop was braided with red and white ribbons, colors that the protesters have adopted. Like other storekeepers along King Street, she put a poster in her window declaring, “Everyone is welcome here.” And she meant it: She served Spencer a cup of coffee when he came downstairs to introduce himself.
But Valentine’s Day was just two days away, and Gustafson worried that the presence of her new neighbor, as well as the latest of what have become weekly protests, could be a deterrent for customers.
“You can plan for electrical problems. You can plan for not growing as fast as you’d like. You can’t plan for this,” she said.
Spencer came to national attention for claiming Donald Trump as his movement’s champion during the presidential campaign (Trump later repudiated Spencer’s philosophy). At the NPI’s convention in November, attendees responded to Spencer’s call of “Hail Trump” with Nazi salutes.
A dispute involving his mother’s business in Spencer’s part-time home of Whitefish, Mont., resulted in neo-Nazis threatening Jewish residents in that small resort town. And while Spencer was being interviewed in downtown Washington on Inauguration Day, he was punched in the face by a black-clad assailant there to protest Trump’s election.
So when the Atlantic magazine reported last month that Spencer had rented space at 1001 King St. with the intention of creating a “one-stop shop” for the alternative right, Alexandria residents mobilized — and the Gustafsons grew concerned about their sales.
At least three groups are coordinating protests outside the building every Sunday. Protesters have tried to spread the word that the Gustafsons are not affiliated with Spencer, and some make a point of going into the chocolate shop to buy candies before or after their demonstrations.
City council members have reissued a statement on inclusiveness, declaring Alexandria a hate-free zone. Alexandria spokesman Craig Fifer said city officials have “certainly received a lot of calls and comments” about Spencer but have no power to involve themselves in a private real estate lease.
The landlord, Mahwash Wasiq, did not respond to email and telephone requests for comment. Spencer, who did not answer his door and did not respond to messages left for him there, said in a text message in response to a phone call that he was unable to talk.
The orderly demonstration last Sunday, which drew about 50 people, featured chanting and signs with messages such as “Hate is not a community value” and “Virginia — home to immigrants since 1607.”
Scores of passing drivers honked in support.
“The whole concept of white supremacy is offensive, even if it is legal,” said Jonathan Krall, who was there Sunday and has organized some of the protests for the new Grassroots Alexandria group.
David Hoover, a parishioner at the nearby Episcopal Christ Church, said he and others will not be silent, even though the church is not taking an official position.
“Episcopalians are called upon at baptism to renounce evil in the world. Silence implies consent. I want to speak out against the evils of racism,” he said. “We believe questioning the humanity of black people and Jews and others is, to use church language, a sin.”
Adam Roberts, a member of Old Town Indivisible, said Spencer’s “thinly veiled white supremacy” is offensive to a town that prides itself on its racial, religious and ethnic diversity.
“I fully understand he has a constitutional right to free speech; I just want it to be very well-known that we are not okay with this behavior and his ideas. I want him to feel he’s not welcome here,” Roberts said. “I’m less interested in his long-term goals than I am in making sure members of my community feel welcome and safe.”
It turned out that the Gustafsons need not have worried. On Valentine’s Day, “we sold out of chocolates by 12:30 p.m.,” Kim Gustafson said in an interview. “We are making chocolate like crazy now to catch up.”
Gustafson said the business has had “just fabulous support, not only from our Old Town neighbors, but from the whole community.” That includes residents of Whitefish, the small Montana town hard by the Canadian border, who sent letters, emails and telephone messages of support to the candy store after hearing about Spencer’s new location (starting this fall, they and others will be able to order chocolates from the shop online).
“[We] hope that if you ever pass through Old Town Alexandria you’ll stop by and say ‘hello,’ ” Bruce Gustafson said in a message to Whitefish residents that he posted on the shop’s blog. “We have 6,649 hot chocolates just waiting for you to arrive.”