There was a time when a quaint college town was just a thing. Now it’s a destination.Count burgeoning downtown Davidson “in,” with its something-old-and-something-new feeling, its glass storefronts dotted with posters for public performances and lectures, its weekend farmers market where students, townies and people from all over the region mingle over fresh produce, coffee, confections, cooking demonstrations and live entertainment.
When Davidson College opened its doors in March 1837, entrepreneurs with Main St. aspirations had to lease land for their businesses from the college. Not so anymore. Today the Davidson College Store on Main Street sits next to recent arrival Kindred restaurant. Down the block past The Soda Shop, Main Street Books has had some work done under new ownership, right next door to Summit Coffeehouse, riding its funky wave.
There’s the Whistling Swan, where Nancy Waldron has sold early American home décor for 25 years, and the Pickled Peach, one of the first of a crop of new restaurants to hit town several years ago. There’s a Pilates studio, Ben & Jerry’s, Raeford’s Barber Shop, Millstone Bake House and Provisions, and the Upper Crust restaurant.
Farther south, Wooden Stone Gallery provides an end point for Davidson proper, in an arts district that boasts home décor, digital marketing, tutoring, yoga and violin businesses, as well as Davidson Brewing Co., Fuel Pizza, Campania, Restaurant X, Carrburrito’s and Whit’s Frozen Custard.
Take a downtown moment to sit on the Robert Whitton memorial bench in front of Summit, and you’ll witness Davidson’s rich pageant of old and new parade past the fork in the road. Granite markers in the brick sidewalk note the early-20th-century merchants and tradespeople who built and occupied buildings that now house professional offices, boutiques and eateries.
Across the street in a display window of CVS—a downtown upstart itself back at the turn of the 21st century—two posters sum up the ethos: “Our Team” and “Our Town.”
For all the change that alumni will notice when they come home to alma mater in 2016, Davidson is indeed still a college town. In these pages, we highlight some of the alumni who themselves call Main Street home.
Summit on Main has long been a home away from dorm for Davidson students. Now that Summit Outpost, also affectionately known as Nummit, is in its third successful year as a going concern on campus, the synergy is complete: house-made treats from the full Outpost kitchen complement the philanthropically entrepreneurial vision of the Helfrich brothers, Tim ’00 and Brian ’07: live music inside and out, road races for charity, a new bean roastery, even a “buy a bud a brew” board beside the microbrew cooler. Summit is an extended family of friends and alumni where everybody knows your name. Connections of blood, marriage, education and employment reach across generations for a whole greater than the sum of its parts.
Main Street Books
Adah Walker Fitzgerald ’01 and her mom jumped at the chance to purchase Main Street Books in 2015, to carry on the independent, iconoclastic and community-minded spirit of longtime owners Barbara Freund and Betty Reinke. Fitzgerald hired as assistant manager her classmate Catherine Hamilton-Genson ’01, who helps the shop live up to its poetic credo: “Main Street Books is the finest independent book store around…. Main Street Books brings the best literary adventures to town. We welcome readers of all kinds to stop in for a quiet browse, a thoughtful book recommendation, and a friendly chat.” Yes, that can still happen in 2016. The alumnae booksellers’ young families (Davidson Fire Chief Reuben “Bo” Fitzgerald ’99 is just down the hill) and student workers keep the spirit of the place lively in a town with more book clubs per capita than anywhere, ever.
The Davidson Village Inn
In 1993, Rebecca Clark ’82 got a call in California from developer Ed Harris about coming back east to manage the new Davidson Village Inn. Rebecca and husband Gordon jumped at the chance and never looked back. As Davidson and the Lake Norman region have grown, so has the inn’s clientele changed. Reservations for Commencement and Family Weekend command a year or more lead time, but the bulk of business for the inn’s 16 rooms has always been corporate: Lowe’s, Ingersoll-Rand, iQMetrix, for example. Bottom line: having Chambers Lawn as a front yard makes the Davidson Village Inn one of the hottest lodging spots in town. And that trademark Village Inn pedicab? Well, for a wedding anniversary some years back, Rebecca said she wanted a “green” vehicle, and Gordon took her at her word. Sadie and Ozzie don’t seem to mind….
“Joe and Katy [Kindred], with a deep-rooted passion for restauranteuring (and big-city-studded resumes), come back to his hometown to raise kids, sink savings into the community and offer respectful yet irresistibly tweaked Southern-esque fare,” Charlotte Observer restaurant critic Helen Schwab wrote in December. Bon Appétit magazine named Kindred a “Hot 10 Best New Restaurants 2015,” and Chef Joe was a Southeast 2016 James Beard Award Best Chef semifinalist. Chef Joe didn’t attend Davidson proper, but he is an alumnus of Davidson basketball camp. That and a shrimp roll recipe rates a mention!
Some alumni businesses are less visible but no less essential to a lively downtown. John Cock ’89 is a vice president and Heather Maloney Seagle ’03 is a planner with Alta Planning + Design, in the 1999 Keener Building, site of the old Mecklenburg Gazette offices.
John Rood Cunningham III ’79, grandson of the mid-century Davidson College president, practices law in the small brick building across Chairman Blake Lane from CVS. Nearly a century ago, the building was the medical office of the college physician, and later a student apartment for a returning G.I. after World War II.
Dave Stewart ’94, principal of The Stewart Group investment real estate, poured blood, sweat and tears into the deal that resulted in Stowe’s Corner. It’s the prominent “Flatiron” style building at the fork in the road where Stowe’s Exxon full-service station sat for years. The ground floor holds the restaurant named Flatiron Kitchen and Taphouse, a point of pride for Stewart, who has been joined in his business by Mike Orlando ’01.
Across Main Street, the J.J. Wade Agency of Jay Wade ’79 has grown from a two-person insurance outfit in the early 1990s to a 25-employee concern with an office in Wrightsville Beach. He takes the long view of the growth he’s seen, acknowledging the loss of some of what was, but still looking ahead more than back.
“Davidson is a vibrant college town, a destination that’s lit up with night life,” he said. “Are you going to grow or are you going to be stagnant? Today we have a movie theatre, drugstore, restaurants, groceries… Growth is inevitable, you’ve just got to manage it.
The town now has a median age of 35.7. According to the Town of Davidson website, “We are facing an explosion of growth in young families and families with school-aged children, retirees, and people of all ages. As we always have, we are still working to find ways to maintain the small-town character and values that make Davidson unique.” “Davidson’s not as it used to be,” Wade agrees, noting, “It’s still a great place to live.”