Come as you are to this laid-back town
by Elizabeth Shugg
Carrboro’s citizens can’t pin down their town. It’s funky, soulful and inspiring. Creative, vibrant and joyful. It’s also busy, in a slow-paced sort of way.
“Between 8 a.m. and midnight, you can count on finding something happening in Carrboro,” says Mayor Mark Chilton. “The rest of the time, we sleep.”
The town’s relaxed pace and eclectic harmony create warmth and affability. Authenticity is a state of mind in Carrboro, and preserved architecture, shop-lined streets, and historic homes accommodate progressive attitudes. A story unfurls the moment you set foot in town. Take a walk down Weaver or Greensboro Street, and you’ll become a part of it.
Carrboro’s story begins with its people. They proudly wear their interests, attitudes and preferences on their sleeves, opting for preservation over construction, open-mindedness over conventional wisdom, and local goods over imports. Some residents have lived here all their lives; others come from around the world.
“You’ll hear English, Spanish, Burmese, French and Russian being spoken on the streets of our downtown — and that’s on a slow day,” Chilton says. “Not bad for a town of less than 20,000 people.”
Residents flock to the Carrboro Farmers Market on West Main Street on Wednesday afternoons and Saturday mornings for locally grown foods, flowers, and handmade crafts.
“It has all the appeal of a typical market in a small village in France, without having to speak a word of French,” says local author Irma Tejada.
Not that she minds speaking French. “I quite enjoy it,” she says.
After all, Carrboro is known as “The Paris of the Piedmont,” and Tejada’s love for the town recently led her to write a children’s book, “A Weekend in the Paris of the Piedmont.” The story takes a “cultural and gastronomic stroll through Carrboro as make-believe residents Lizzie and her mother, Betsy, become tourists in their own town and discover why it is the ‘Paris of the Piedmont,’ ” Tejada says, adding that it takes “more than a weekend to savor it all.”
Weaver Street Market, a community-owned co-op grocery store in the center of town, is another favorite destination. An open park area just outside accommodates frequent outdoor concerts and festivals, and serves as a daily public gathering space.
“Every day, we experience walking to Weaver Street Market or Open Eye or Panzanella or Elmo’s Diner, and along the way we always meet people we know,” say Mariana Fiorentino, co-owner of Terra Nova Global Properties, a real estate company with office space downtown.
Donia Robinson, owner of Carrboro Yoga Company in Carr Mill Mall, calls Weaver Street Market “the sun to the universe of Carrboro,” and Tejada has monitored its progress for the past 20 years.
“I’ve been a member of the co-op since it opened in 1988, and have seen it grow and develop into what it is today: a gathering place for the community and a wonderful purveyor of top-quality food products, including a wide array of offerings for a healthy and balanced life,” Tejada says.
Carrboro’s dining options range from French to Japanese. Favorite restaurants include Elmo’s Diner, Panzanella, Southern Rail Restaurant, Carrburritos, Provence, Jade Palace, Akai Hana, Neal’s Deli, Acme, Open Eye Café, and the Spotted Dog Restaurant & Bar. Tom Robinson’s Carolina Seafood offers fresh fish from the coast — Robinson fetches it himself weekly — and Cliff’s Meat Market sells organic, antibiotic-free beef fresh from Montana ranges.
The town’s nightlife bows down to one master: Cat’s Cradle.
“It’s the best rock club in the country, period,” says Steve Balcom of The Splinter Group on West Main Street.
Southern Rail Restaurant offers a bar, outdoor seating and beer garden, while DSI Comedy Theater often draws a crowd, according to Chilton.
The ArtsCenter on East Main Street provides art, dance, writing and cooking classes for all ages. Concerts, theater productions, children’s programs and gallery exhibits are scheduled on a continual basis.
Shop owners stock their shelves with items reflective of the town’s eclectic population. Carr Mill Mall, a refurbished cotton mill that was built in 1898 and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, houses Townsend Bertram & Co., an outdoor clothing and accessories store; Ali Cat, a toy store; Miel Bon Bons, a French bakery; Fleet Feet for runners; Jewelworks; and various clothing stores and gift shops.
On East Main Street, Nested attracts customers from as far away as Wake Forest and Winston-Salem, with offerings such as antler candelabras and bamboo salad bowls. Owner Jenny McMillan opened the shop in 2004 and says its allure goes beyond what’s inside.
“I think having a storefront is so important to the street life of a town, and I feel like there’s an ongoing dialogue between the people walking by and what’s going on in the store,” she says.
“It makes the town more alive to have that kind of an atmosphere.”
A few blocks away on West Main Street, the N.C. Crafts Gallery offers a plentiful selection of crafts made by North Carolina artists. Employee Debbie Suchoff says current owner Sara Gress continues to run the gallery with the same “love and integrity” original owner Sherry Ontjes opened it with 18 years ago.
“We have many customers who come back time after time because they know they’ll find something here,” Suchoff says.
“People who travel and want to have something made in North Carolina know this is the place to come.”
Business owners set up shop in Carrboro as much for the town’s friendly atmosphere as for their prospects of success. Balcom had lived in Carrboro during the 1990s and hoped to open his marketing agency in town, but couldn’t find the right space and ended up in Durham. Now, he’s back.
“It was great to get back to this community after seven years,” says Balcom, who relocated to 605 West Main St. last year.
“You open a business here because there are office spaces with character, people with character, and it’s a great place to work.”
Kara Hart, co-owner of Terra Nova, cites the town’s unique identity and immediate access to almost everything as reasons for setting up shop in 1996. The company is located in Carrboro’s first four-story office building downtown.
“Office space is unique here, and gave us the opportunity to live where we work and work where we live,” she says.
“Carrboro is a true walkable town with a commitment to building community.”
Robinson ensures that Carrboro Yoga’s business philosophy matches well with the community.
“We’re a come-on-in-and-let-it-all-hang-out kind of business,” she says.
“We are all about demystifying yoga and making it accessible to everybody.”
McMillan points to an exposed brick wall in Nested and says the store’s location helps honor Carrboro’s history.
“This wall shows the history of the building, and it’s sort of recycling the use of that and making it a feature, instead of covering it up and making everything brand new,” she says.
“To begin to bring that back means a lot to me,” McMillan adds. “We’re living the history of being a small, vibrant community.”
Fitch Lumber & Hardware, Weaver Street Realty, Cliff’s Meat Market, and other iconic Carrboro businesses have weathered the town’s growth through the years and continue to thrive.
“There are more items available than there used to be, and traffic has changed tremendously,” says Cliff Collins, owner of Cliff’s Meat Market, which has been open for 35 years.
But as much as it’s progressed, it seems as though some things don’t change. That’s what makes Carrboro the carefree, anything-goes, come-as-you-are town its residents say they will never leave.
“In Carrboro, one can walk or bike, or take the bus,” Tejada says.
“A fresh French baguette or a pain au chocolat is always available. Lively music rocks the heart of the village Thursdays and Sundays, and wine tastings are now part of the norm.”
Elizabeth Shugg is a freelance writer and editor based in Apex.