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LIVE LOCAL, LIVE SMALL: Buying local leads to greater benefits on every front

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A look at local shopping from 100-year-old department store, Harrell’s.

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“So what is that?” Jock pointed at a white panel labeled “#70” leaning against the wall.

“I dunno,” I shook my head. “It wasn’t in the directions anywhere.”

MAIN STREET AMERICA: Burgaw’s Harrell’s Department Store is the small-town epitome of great prices on locally made products from small business owners who care. Photo courtesy of Vernon Harrell.

MAIN STREET AMERICA: Burgaw’s Harrell’s Department Store is the small-town epitome of great prices on locally made products from small business owners who care. Photo courtesy of Vernon Harrell.

We were at the end of the assembly of the Murphy Bed for the second-floor apartment above the bookstore. Regular readers of Live Local will recognize this as one of my reoccurring Live Local projects/resolutions: Finish the renovation, spend money with local tradesmen, and mark this off the to-do list. Six years into the project, it is starting to sound like a country-western song.

In December we finally got the final inspection from the county, and now we are moving forward with what I call “all the fiddly bits”: painting, trim work, furniture, etc. For a variety of design reasons and flexible sleeping arrangements, we hit upon the idea of a Murphy Bed.

“I hate particle board,” I lamented to Jock. “Hate it. But it looks like getting one built of solid, real wood is going to cost close to 10 grand plus delivery.” 

After much hemming and hawing, the decision was made to get a Murphy Bed kit and if after 10 years everybody was satisfied with it, we would talk about an upgrade to oak.

John Wolfe and I began assembling the bed in January with the understanding that Jock was going to anchor it to the wall. When I unpacked the material they sent to attach the bed to the wall, I stared in horror at the two zip ties.

“Do not breathe a word of this to Jock until after the project is finished,” I instructed. “The elves in his head will explode when he sees this.” 

John nodded in agreement and we hid the package behind some construction debris. In the meantime Jock battled the floors and walls that are not square anywhere and the 100-year-old masonry and gravity to anchor the Murphy Bed cupboard to the wall. 

“We’re aiming for frat-boy-idiot proof, right?” Jock clarified.

This is the guiding principle of most things that attach to walls at the bookstore: Can it withstand the antics of a dumb, strong college-age male showing off for his friends? If the answer is “yes,” we proceed to the next project. If not,  begin again.

“OK, so I know this has been frustrating, but, honestly, Austin [my cousin] and I spent about three hours on Thursday making mistakes so that today would go faster,” I said in an apology to Jock. 

The final day of assembly (getting the doors on and the mattress platform attached to the hinge mechanisms, etc.) was monumentally irritating. Austin and I lost an entire day of work by making the mistake of trying to follow the directions, which included installing a piece that made installing anything else after it geometrically impossible.

“It’s OK,” Jock assured me. “We’re done. Time for beer.” Once he had a cold one in his hand, he asked, “So what are you going to do for a mattress?”

Jock built the bed we sleep in at home and the mattress is the thickest piece of upholstery foam that can be purchased. It is basically a memory foam mattress without the label sewn on and at about half the price. It is the most comfortable bed I have ever slept in. But, when making things for the public, one has to make concessions to people’s expectations, so clearly the slab of upholstery foam isn’t really an option.

“Well, it needs a thinner-than-usual mattress to fit into the cupboard.  So I guess I’m going to call Vern.”

“Vern?” Jock stared at me in confusion. I could tell from his face that this had just cross-referenced in his head with Jim Varney’s “Know What I Mean, Vern?” routine.

“Your dear friend, Vern Harrell? Harrell’s carries made-in-Fayetteville mattresses,” I responded.

Harrell’s Department Store in Burgaw is over 100 years old, still run by the Harrell family and, as Jock describes it, is “Ground Zero of the Live Local Movement.” From school uniform clothing to prom clothes rental to shoes, handkerchiefs, washing machines and stoves, they really are an old-school department store. Included in their offerings are mattresses made by Riverside Mattress Company out of Fayetteville, NC. 

According to their press materials, Riverside was founded in 1933 by Charlie Cain. Cain’s son managed the business until 1996 when it was sold to the employees. So, it’s a local, employee-owned manufacturing company—what could be better? Well, competitive pricing and quality products would be the answer.

I did a little advance comparison shopping to see what was out there. Finding a thin mattress to fit in the Murphy Bed proved difficult. Because it would spend the majority of its time vertical in the cabinet, the foam wasn’t going to work; it would bunch at the bottom with gravity and eventually force the cabinet open. At the same time, I needed a queen size mattress set with box spring for a beautiful four-poster brass bed. Imagine my surprise when Vern called me back with some prices that beat Costco by $300 … for both beds!   

“Let’s do it! I’ll come up with a truck and pay cash!” I responded.

So, on a sunny Monday morning, my friend, Allison, and I wandered into Harrell’s to be greeted by Vern, having coffee in the small coffee shop he put in the front window area. We visited with a variety of regulars, including the mayor, chatted about the weather, the state of the local economy, the future of publishing and Dram Tree Shakespeare’s production of “The Tempest.” Then I had to confess to Vern I had come all this way without rope.

“Actually, it was one of the last things we talked about last night: I forgot to get rope, and Jock assured me you would make it safe,” I said.

Not only did Vern find rope, he taught me how to tie a trucker’s hitch knot and gave me very careful instructions about driving with three mattresses on a highway in high winds. I offered to mail the rope back. He smiled and said to make it a contribution to Jock’s latest invention.

Of course, since we had come all this way, we wanted to get milkshakes from Dee’s Drug Store on Wright Street in Burgaw. Imagine our shock to hear after 100 years Dee’s was closing the location and moving the prescription medication part of the business into a nearby Piggly Wiggly.

“We got a Walmart for the first time,” the lady at the Antique Mall on the corner of Wright Street commented. “I’d heard about it, of course, but until I saw it with my own eyes, I don’t think I really understood it: what Walmart does to business.”       

It is a sobering thought. Looking at Harrell’s—filled with charm, concern, kindness and genuine investment in the community—I couldn’t help but breathe a sigh of relief I had made this choice to come here for mattresses. The money spent was with a family-owned store on a product made up the road, at an employee-owned factory, and the prices were highly competitive. Which leaves the important question: Are the quality of the products up to snuff? I honestly was startled by just how lovely the mattresses are. Good quality materials, fine workmanship and a sense that someone has really taken pride in what they do just radiates.

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