By Brady Tackett
Bruce Walker switched on an ancient box fan and waited as it sputtered to an uneven spin. The breeze blew through the dusty and yellowed wall posters of his dimly lit shop, Flying Possum Leather. Little has changed since Walker opened the Dickson Street shop 34 years ago, including the owner’s standard telephone greeting.
“Wanna buy some leather?” Walker asked when the phone rang one Thursday. His face fell, and then he interrupted the telemarketer on the other end. “No, no, I’ve dealt with the same guy for quite a while, and I’m happy with him.”
Walker hung up. “These guys keep trying to sell me a new credit card machine. Just leave me alone!” He motioned to his current machine, which was more than a decade past its prime.
Veteran business owners such as Walker are rare on Dickson Street, a row of restaurants and specialty stores that has undergone massive change in the past 10 years, leaving an uneasy climate for business.
The turnover of restaurants and bars is so high, even city officials can’t keep up — the city of Fayetteville doesn’t have a business registry, said Chung Tan, the manager for economic development at the Fayetteville Chamber of Commerce.
“With highly desired locations like Dickson, the lease is often very, very high,” Tang said. “If the owners don’t have a steady cash flow, they can’t keep up.”
Julie Sill is another one of the few merchants who has kept her doors open for many years. She owns two of Dickson Street’s most successful restaurants: Hog Haus Brewery and Common Grounds. The trick, Sill said, is wide appeal.
“We don’t cater to a single demographic in any of our businesses,” Sill said. “College students are a portion of my business, not my entire business.”
Both restaurants are stubbornly expensive — one might drop $7.50 for a mocha and another $9 for a breakfast pizza at Common Grounds — but Sill said customers pay for a more refined Dickson experience.
“Many of the bars around here have cheap drink promotions, and because people can get drunk off of $10, their clientele is a little less behaved. Before a trip to the Walton Arts Center to see ‘Grease’ on a Tuesday night, people don’t want that environment,” she said.
For the past 13 years, Common Grounds has survived competing restaurants, wave after wave of fickle students and dipping sales. A treacherous economy, ravaged by the recession, made the past two years “extremely difficult, even for us,” Sill said.
Another Dickson business, the women’s boutique Something Urban, survived by evasion — in a decade, the store has occupied three different locations on Dickson, said owner Amy White-Beard, who now has her business on the west end.
“I have more competition than ever,” she said. “I would never own a business in a mall. Dickson Street is where I’ve always wanted to be.”
An Impromptu History Lesson
In need of quarters, Walker took a trip to the bank under a hot afternoon sun. His dog Bugsy, a “beagle-German shepherd-chow-Dalmatian mix,” padded silently behind.
On Dickson, Walker is a pedestrian historian. He pointed to the Dickson Street Book Exchange and recalled when it was a Kinko’s. He passed Sidney’s Emporium, a hippie shop that was once a theater. The Bank of America on the corner of Dickson and Arkansas Avenue “has been passed down more times than a red-headed stepchild,” Walker said.
He’s seen a lot of businesses disappear from Dickson. He’s a small-town businessman in the overlap of Fayetteville commerce and community, and he knows this game has causalities.
“Restaurants can be a fleeting fad,” Walker said.
When On The Rocks and Gullet’s Gourmet and The Gypsy all shut down, when Smiling Jack’s Fresh Foods moved away, and when a new fleet of restaurants sprung up to take their place, it was all familiar to Walker.
“I’ve seen so many renaissances of Dickson Street,” Walker said.
He was here before the Downtown Dickson Street Enhancement Project, which preceded a slew of new bars in 2001. The parade of renovations was costly. It obscured storefronts and choked off the foot traffic so valuable to revenue, Walker said. Flying Possum took a series of big hits, and the rest of “Dickson has had its eye blackened,” too, he said.
During this period, the $7 million Walton Arts Center paid for itself, Walker said. It attracted big-spending customers who walked Dickson when it was blocked off from traffic, and it kept registers ringing, he said.
“When the Walton Arts Center was built, it really reinvigorated business,” said Charlie Alison, the founder of FayettevilleHistory.com. “It made owners repair their stores, and it filled a lot of vacant lots.”
The center’s effect on business spread to the west end, which has begun to thrive during the past three years, Alison said. Stores like Flying Possum, Something Urban and Monroe’s Boutique are enjoying the business of theater buffs and students alike.
That includes Orange Mango, a frozen yogurt shop that has been bustling since its March opening. With its windows as walls, bright pastels and futuristic furniture, it is the antithesis of Walker’s earthy leather shop. From across the street, it glowed orange and yellow.
As always, Walker trusted Dickson Street.
“That place is always packed,” Walker said. “I need to go try some of that yogurt.”