“You grew up near Gastonia—how is the home of Mary Jo’s?”
“You mean the fabric store? How do you know about Mary Jo’s?”
“Are you kidding! It’s world famous! Everybody who sews or quilts knows about Mary Jo’s!”
“Really? Really! I can’t believe you know about Mary Jo’s…”
It’s a conversation I had about five years ago with Shea Carver, the encore editor, who grew up between Charlotte and Gastonia, NC, and spent numerous hours in the store during childhood thanks to a mother who always needed to redecorate the house. I was surprised Shea didn’t realize Mary Jo’s is as phenomenal a draw for the area as it is. Conversely, she was floored I had heard of it—let alone would ask about it. While it was commonplace in her family to go there, especially today for her sister’s interior-design business, it eluded her that folks outside a 50-mile radius would seek it out.
Founded in 1951 by Margaret Cloninger, in the back of her dad’s grocery store, Mary Jo’s has grown into icon status. Currently, it anchors Gaston Mall and is quite famous for its extensive collections of fabrics housed under one roof. Costumers, quilters and crafters from all over the southeast travel there to shop; even more use their website for ordering fabrics they just can’t find elsewhere. The store really has become as much a travel destination as a small business.
When we think of tourism, going to Disney World or New York leaps to mind. A trip to see friends or relatives naturally offers a different set of questions. Like if one’s traveling to Portland, Oregon, they may hear: “Are you going to Powell’s, the largest independent used and new bookstore in the world?”
Such scenarios have been rattling around in my head for a while. It has made me finally ask a question: Instead of the Disney’s of the world, why can’t small business be a tourist draw? If anything, Powell’s and Mary Jo’s both demonstrate it is possible to evolve into a tourist destination to draw visitors.
We have, to a certain extent, a tourist attraction that continues to bring people to visit Wilmington constantly: the film industry. People come to see filming in progress and to tour the locations used in past productions. We’re still reeling in “Dawson’s Creek” fans who just have to see the house Joey climbed into nightly through Dawson’s window. It continues to bring in revenue. And tourism revenue is especially sought after by communities because it spreads around so evenly: People need places to stay, food to eat, transportation and souvenirs. Bartenders and waitresses benefit. Taxes get collected on hotel rooms, gas and sales. Furthermore, these tourists don’t use services that are high cost to the municipalities, like trash pick-up or schooling for kids. It is a win-win.
Besides the film industry, we have several tourist draws to Wilmington, most notably the beaches. I also meet a lot of history buffs who come here to see the USS NC Battleship and tour through the history of downtown. Though, when visiting elsewhere I have never had the experience of someone asking about Wilmington’s Battleship. However, when shows like “One Tree Hill” were filming regularly, I would get asked about them during my travels—usually in the form of gushing: “Oh, my god! ‘One Tree Hill!’ Do you ever see Chad Michael Murray?”
[My reponse: “Forgive me, but if I didn’t recognize John Updike, I wouldn’t be able to pick out Mr. Murray, even if we were standing in line together at the grocery store. I’m just not good at that sort of thing.”]
But the film industry isn’t one business; it is an entire network of people, locations, and businesses that have grown together through this common bond. Perhaps what makes it the most interesting is that it isn’t one person’s vision, like Disney. It is rather an organic growth of mutually beneficial relationships.
But back to Mary Jo’s and Powell’s. We have an image of small business as just that: small—on the fringes, picking up the crumbs. According to Dun & Bradstreet reports, Mary Jo’s does over $7 million a year in sales and employs around 70 people. That’s a lot of fabric! Dun & Bradstreet put Powell’s at over $61 million a year in sales with over 400 employees. Do either of these scenarios sound like people picking up the crumbs? No. They are generating business not just for themselves but for everyone around them who benefit from their increased visibility and recognition.
Municipalities talk a lot about attracting new business, and we play lots of games with tax incentives on that score. Arguably, bringing the USS NC Battleship to the area has paid off long term, certainly more so than say, a cement plant will. But I keep wondering, if instead of attracting new business, we gave the same sorts of incentives to existing businesses here that would allow them to expand, hire new people and focus on raising a national reputation, what sort of long-term payoff we might have? They already are known quantities who are invested here—rather than, say, a call center that might come in for a few years and leave when they have used up the tax breaks, rendering people unemployed once again.
Gastonia is still a small town—even smaller than Wilmington with only 72,000 people living there. In many ways, it’s a bedroom community for Charlotte. But there’s a small fabric store in Gastonia which has grown to be a $7-million-a-year tourist attraction. With all the resources that we have, I think we should be able to produce something similar.
Yes, we need the film-incentive package to keep not only our film industry but also our tourism and hospitality industry alive and thriving. But that happens on a state level; we must lobby our representatives for that. Locally, we have enough innovation and brain power to do better. We should be able to promote the things that make Wilmington unique. In a time of social media, the populace has power like never before.
My advice: Go to Trip Advisor, Yelp, Fodors, and all other sites to help plug the local businesses that make life in Wilmington so special. Encourage people to come here and spend money here. It will cycle back through the economy and benefit everyone. The more people who talk about us, and the more people who visit as a result, will go home and spread the word.
Is there a restaurant in town offering a unique and life-changing experience? Would you drive an hour to eat there? For my parents, it was Robert’s in Charleston. They recommended it to every friend they had that it was the place for a romantic anniversary. Of course, that was 20 years ago, and my parent’s circle of influence was small compared to ours in today’s society. Take 10 minutes and wield your power while we wait for the powers that be to decide to come to the table.
Forgive me for saying this, but it must come from the populace. People who get paid to think long-term rarely do.
Gwenyfar Rohler is the author or ‘Promise of Peanuts,’ which can be bought at Old Books on Front Street, with all monies donated to local nonprofit Full Belly Project.