Finding the Pulse of Franklin Street

Hey there.  My name is Andrew Neal, and I'm the owner of Chapel Hill Comics on West Franklin Street.  I've had in my RSS reader for a long time, but can't remember if I've ever posted anything here despite the fact that I have an account.

As a downtown business owner, I'm primarily interested in orangepolitics for the discussions in the Economy & Downtown category.  With recent posts about the lack of recent posts here, I thought I'd throw something into the mix and see if you're interested in discussing it.

Last week, the Independent ran the following article by Joe Schwartz (I see from the member list that Joe is registered here):

While it was better than most of the articles which seem to appear like clockwork every year or so in local papers about how downtown Chapel Hill isn't what it used to be, I took issue with the fact that the story was about looking for the "eclectic" on Franklin Street while seeming to miss at least some of what Mr. Schwartz was looking for on West Franklin.

Here's my letter to the editor which ran this week:

In attempting to locate the pulse of Franklin Street ("Finding the pulse of Franklin Street," Sept. 16), Mr. Joe Schwartz has made the same error many other local reporters have made in recent years: He felt the wrong extremity. While it's true that the East End isn't be what it used to be, neither is the West End, and that's a good thing, because the West End is getting better all the time.

How many articles about the perpetually expanding cloud of dreariness in downtown Chapel Hill have mentioned The Bookshop's spectacular selection of used books? How many have praised Mediterranean Deli's ever-expanding selection of delectable dishes? How many pay tribute to the fact that CD Alley is thriving in a time when many people are downloading their music rather than buying CDs? How many of these articles mention the fact that Chapel Hill Comics (the business I own and operate) expanded last year and features the biggest selection of graphic novels in the state?

I know things are changing. I know things aren't what they used to be. A bowl of soup ain't a nickel anymore, and the comics I sling are three or four bucks rather than the quarter I paid as a kid. I miss the Carolina Theatre, where I had the greatest movie experience of my life when I walked over to a midnight showing of Dead Alive after finishing a shift washing dishes at Swensen's. I miss the Burrito Bunker. Hell, I still miss Barrel of Fun, but you know what? This is the future. It's where some of us are lucky enough to live. Did you miss the turnoff? Let me help. Just turn yourself toward the west and walk a couple of blocks. It's not far. There you go. You're welcome.


The point I was trying to make with the 300 words allowed for a Talk Back letter to the Independent was that while there's nothing wrong with missing or even mourning the past, it's gone, and it's worth recognizing what we do have now.  West Franklin Street is much stronger than it used to be, even just ten years ago.  There's a great mix of locally owned businesses here, and we're very eclectic.  Despite that, every article about downtown Chapel Hill seems to me to be about how crappy things have gotten downtown.

I've gotten a lot of good feedback about this letter, but it has admittedly primarily been from people I know and would expect good feedback from.  I thought I'd post here and see what you guys had to say as well.


Andrew Neal



I gave up reading the Indy when my wife gave up writing for them (because she couldn't let her parents read her stuff as it seemed to always run across the page from adult ads).  But you've presented your case well.  I certainly wish for East Franklin to be better (because I get good parking down there at my church), but I enjoy the west end as well.   

Parking is certainly an issue. The parking situation does suck, but it's not insurmountable (unless it's a game day).

Chapel Hill's Economic Development Director Dwight Bassett recently gave a talk to the Sustainable Community Visioning Task Force.  He pointed out that many people have the perception that downtown Franklin Street is dying.  In reality, according to Dwight, 95% of the retail space on Franklin is leased which is a rate, he suggested, most towns or cities might envy.  Of course, many would argue that the mix of businesses isn't what they want to see but each person has their own tastes so who decides?

Peoples' interests and desires will always shape their opinions on whether Franklin Street is doing well.  If the Rat (or the Hardback Cafe, or any of a hundred places)  was the primary social gathering area for someone while they attended school here, but they come back 15 or 20 years later and it's gone, they think the whole place is falling apart because the place that was important to them is gone.

When I bought the store (it was called Second Foundation Bookstore and was located on Rosemary Street) it was half-full of science fiction and fantasy books that made up 5% of our sales.  I liquidated these books over the course of my first year as the owner of the store.  The folks who did spend money on the books tended to be incredulous that I was cutting out what they assumed was the only thing keeping the business alive.  In my experience, peoples' assumptions are generally informed by their desires and prejudices.

For people who grew up or went to school here through the nineties, East Franklin was Franklin Street.  It's taking a while for some people (as well as the media, in my opinion) to understand that West Franklin has a lot of good stuff to offer these days, because they're so hung up on the changes on the East End that they don't even think about what's going on down here on the West End.



George, I posted a reply earlier which has seemingly vanished into the ether, so let's try again.(Actually, I'm guessing I responded as ANONYMOUS. Feel free to not post that response as this covers what I was trying to say, mods.) Obviously
success can be measured by money, or even by accomplishing other
non-money goals the business owner may set.  Money's a very important
part of the equation, regardless.  If I weren't making a living, I'd
close up and go home, because while I love my job, it takes an awful
lot of work and time.As for other peoples' ideas about the
changes in Chapel Hill and whether they're good or bad, and whether or
not the represent success, I have found that peoples' desires and
prejudices greatly influence their opinion of whether a place is
thriving or not, especially if the spot they frequented during very
formative years of their life (The Rat, Hardback Cafe, even Taco Bell)
is gone.I guess when it comes down to it, the consumers' opinion
of an area is very important, because that can influence whether the
area is successful, but it doesn't necessarily directly reflect it. Does that make sense? Thanks,
Andrew Neal

Hmm.  Wonder what happened to my formatting there.

Hey Andrew. Try changing the "Input format" under your content when creating or editing if formatting isn't behaving as you want. Also, you're correct, the other comment was posted as Anonymous. Thanks for logging in and reposting it.

Thank you, Ruby.

First of all, Andrew, great letter, and thanks for representing downtown so well.  What we're dealing with here are the perceptions of downtown (of course, everyone's perception is reality to them, but that's a different story).  At a Chamber breakfast this week, Jim Norton, the exec. director of the Downtown Partnership, had one of the best lines I've heard lately.  To paraphrase, he looks at a block downtown, and sees 20 vibrant healthy businesses, and an empty store front.  Others look at the same city block, and see the empty store front.Really, you can expand that in about any direction you would like, too.  The article really got original and whipped out the old "t-shirt shop and bar" complaint, without acknowledging the myriad of women's and mens' clothing locations on E. Franklin, W. Franklin, and W. Rosemary (Laughing Turtle, Classic, Clothing Warehouse, Zinaz, Limelight, Uniquities, Julian's, to name but a few . . . in reality, there's only 4 "T-shirt" stores!).  But, you've got residents who feel the same way, because they've never taken the step back to realize it.  Hell, we've got a multi-term councilperson/mayoral candidate who today was lamenting the lack of a downtown hardware store (umm, Brown Paint and Hardware?  W Franklin?)!  If folks never take the time to find out for themselves, and base their perceptions on the feedback of others, they never get a chance to discover a new reality.Anyway, thanks for caring, and keep up the great work!

To paraphrase, he looks at a block downtown, and sees 20 vibrant
healthy businesses, and an empty store front.  Others look at the same
city block, and see the empty store front.That's a really good way of putting it. Speaking of empty storefronts, we've just lost another one next door.  The former Hill Country Woodworks location is getting ready to reopen as Somethin' Else, a gift store.  I've been peeking inside for the last few weeks and they've put a lot of work into the place; it looks great.I'm also looking forward to Sandwich's new location in the former Patio Loco.  (I assume that's public as you can see their name on the blueprints if you peek into the window.)

and still think that the sentiment for wanting to improve it isn't a bad one.  But it is important to recognize what we do have.And before we go any futher, I must make take a moment to make a fool of myself, by sharing some pics, mostly from Chapel Hill Comics website (since it is the focus business in discussion) of myself, my husband, and some friends:I'm Cyclops & she's Emma Frost aka the White X-men couples costume if you will =pAnd my husband was Wikipedia for halloween that year.And more recently: See the girl with the yellow coat, pink shirt, jean shorts, gold hoop earrings, and glasses on her head...  she was Emma Frost last time, this time she's Jubilee (another x-man... see a partern developing here?)  Also note the guy with the greenish shirt, you'll see him again... Right now! on the left, I'm 2nd from the left, and then my husband is beside me:And it's yet another x-man costume with Multiple Man! (X-Factor if you want to get technical) I really could go on, a lot, but I think I've done enough damage to my public reputation for moment =p But all this to say Chapel Hill Comics is a thriving part of Franklin St.

Someone actually mentioned the Madrox costumes to me recently when we were discussing possible Halloween costumes for this year.  He saw you guys on Franklin Street was happy to know that there were other comic fans in town.Thanks for the props!AN, CHC

I guess it can't hurt, I mean you can't really dig half of a hole... here are some more pics from the halloween before last (I got everyone I ran into with a comics costume to take a pic with me):   and one more from last halloween:Also in our group (not x-men related, but still a really cool costume):

Another part of the Indy's story that I found very interesting was this sidebar "Who owns Franklin Street?" which highlights the problem of neglectful/crazy property owners downtown.

But I also share Andrew's frustration at the constant lamenting over downtown, when it's really kicking ass in many ways. (With room for improvement in other ways.) Here's my rant on that topic from 4 years ago. It seems there are many definitions of success, and my idea of a thriving downtown might be the definition of failure to the Downtown Partnership, or vice versa.

I have as much claim to downtown as anyone - my parents owned a small store selling Earth Shoes on Franklin Street in the 70's, and I spent a good chunk of my childhood running around the alleys and shops of downtown Chapel Hill.  In some ways I miss the funkyness of those days, but much of it has migrated to Carrboro and blossomed there, so all we have to do is shift our attention about a mile to the west.

P.S., I'd like to declare a moratorium on use of the flower ladies as journalistic or photographic symbols of downtown.  Let's move on, shall we?

Also, that map showing "out of town" owners includes at least one owner whose mailing adress is Snow Camp (which is not so terribly far out of town).  Makes me wonder how they classified "out of town" as opposed to "local" owners.

So I'm in another local paper regarding this issue (sort of). the Daily Tar Heel: wouldn't say the reporter got it exactly right: I certainly didn't say that East Franklin was more densely populated; there are more open storefronts there than on my block of West Franklin, and probably more on East than West overall.  Not worth fighting about, though.Also, I didn't say that we weren't near any chain stores (I mentioned McDonalds), but hey.   My store's name is in the paper, so I win.Andrew

And whether it's what Greg actually said or not, he got this right:

“More students support East Franklin and West Franklin is supported
more by the town,” said Greg Overbeck, marketing director for the
Chapel Hill Restaurant Group.

Is there any word on how halloween events will be this year?  I went before, but not last year with the town's efforts to scale it back.


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