For a quarter of a century Susan Bernhardt has shared her treasures with Culpeper.
The owner of the Cameleer is celebrating her businesses’ 25th anniversary this Sunday with Davis Street Down Under, offering fun and food with an Australian Flair.
It’s been an adventure for the Cameleer, which started on the 100 block of East Davis Street, in the building now occupied by Seriously Sweet. She rented space from Sarah Hayes, of Quail of Woods, who opened on the same day she did. The Cameleer moved twice before settling in at 125 E. Davis Street in 2006.
“We’re not moving anymore, we love this building,” Bernhardt said with a laugh.
She started the business after traveling the globe, in an effort to offer unique gifts to the residents of Culpeper.
“We carry things from many different countries, we appeal to people who travel,” Bernhardt said. “We try to make it interesting, give them something to look at.”
It’s that level of uniqueness that sets the Cameleer apart. Bernhardt carries clothes and jewelry from small designers, usually ones she meets face to face.
“I don’t follow trends, I just buy what I like,” Bernhardt said.
Many of the designers have been with her since nearly the beginning, including Ayala Bar from Tel Aviv, Israel.
“Her work is so beautiful, it just keeps changing,” Bernhardt said.
One thing about the Cameleer that hasn’t changed is the fact that it’s a brick and mortar store. While she does own a website, which is currently under construction, Bernhardt only sells her wares in the store.
“I do nothing online,” Bernhardt said. “People have wanted us to sell online, but it’s impossible.”
That’s because much of what she carries is one-of-a-kind.
“Especially with the clothing, we order it six to eight months ahead of time and we deal with small designers,” Bernhardt said. “They take the orders, figure out how much fabric they need and cut and sew and they’re done. You can’t reorder it.”
Bernhardt will travel to meet the designers, many of whom make designs just for her.
“That’s a lot of fun,” she said.
One of the more unique items is possumdown socks, from New Zealand, which she’s been selling for 15 years.
“I import those directly,” Bernhardt said. “There’s nowhere else in the states, that I know of, that sells them.”
Visitors to the store are greeted with a warm hello and excellent service, another aspect that Bernhardt said she is proud of and focuses on.
“We have professional trainers who come in and do customer service for us on a quarterly basis,” Bernhardt said. “We don’t compete on price, but we try to offer service to the best way we can. It’s hard because every person who walks in the door, you never know what kind of service they need.”
The Cameleer has persevered through tough times, weathering the storm and becoming the anchor of East Davis Street as the oldest business along the block.
“I think all downtowns had those rougher times,” Bernhardt said. “Because the big box stores came and then suburbia. But the downtown has been a combination of having a Main Street program here and before the big landlords came in, it was smaller people who came in and took a risk.”
Come Sunday, all of East Davis Street will celebrate the country that helped her get her start – Australia.
Davis Street Down Under will transform Culpeper into the outback for one afternoon as all the businesses have partnered with the Cameleer to offer something from down under.
Australia was the first country she offered items from, so Bernhardt thought it made sense to feature that country on her 25th anniversary.
“I figured we started with Australian gear so I figured we’d do an Australian theme,” Bernhardt said. “I talked to John Yarnall (at It’s About Thyme) about doing some Australian food because we did an Australian dinner there years ago. It kind of morphed to all these people.”
The Australian Embassy will have a public diplomacy officer visiting town on Sunday and a pair of didgeridoo players will be on both blocks of East Davis Street.
East Davis Street will be closed to traffic on Sunday, making it like a street festival as each business will offer something unique.
“The beauty of this is that each store is doing their own thing,” Bernhardt said.
For example, Green Roost is selling Australian bamboo underwear for men and women – which they just coincidentally just started carrying.
Green Roost owner Kelsey Settle said that it only makes sense to honor Bernhardt and the Cameleer on their 25th anniversary.
“Susan laid the groundwork for what we are today,” Settle said. “She’s been a good mentor to all of us. Without a couple people, and Susan is one of them, Davis Street wouldn’t be what it is today. I’m excited that we’re doing a celebration that’s, even if she won’t say it, is all about her.”
Culpeper Cheese Company owner Jeffery Mitchell laughs when he thinks of his first impression of the store, being shocked that a business that sold Aboriginal art in Culpeper could be a real thing.
“I didn’t think it was a real business when I first saw it,” Mitchell said. “Aboriginal art on East Davis Street in Culpeper? I candidly thought it was a drug front.”
He quickly learned to love The Cameleer, and Bernhardt.
“It’s an amazing business,” he said. “The first time I was there I bought stuff and I looked forward to going back. She has something for everybody. I think it’s neat to see someone who cares about the community and gives back and she cares for her team. She’s a great neighbor, but I also like to call her friend.”
On Sunday, Culpeper Cheese Company will be offering Australian meat pies, Cooper’s Pale Ale and Australian wine.
Vinosity owner Kim Kelly said The Cameleer is the goal each downtown business strives to achieve.
“The Cameleer also sets the standard for consistency and customer service,” Kelly said. “On a personal note, I have the utmost respect for Susan. Her professionalism, grace and genuine care for the well being of all of Downtown Culpeper is something we as fellow retail merchants can be so proud of and use to pave the way for the next 25 years.”
For more information on Davis Street Down Under, email firstname.lastname@example.org.