LeMond Hart ushers you into his tiny vintage men’s clothing shop, tucked into NoDa’s Area 15. He rushes behind the coffee bar and offers you a Café LeMond coffee confection, with whipped cream and caramel drizzle.
Racks of men’s clothes perch all about the place – pants and jackets, shirts and vests – and glass cases with lapel pins, cufflinks, shoes and belt buckles dot the shop. Little tables and chairs cluster near the coffee bar, old framed photos and eclectic art line the brightly colored walls, and on a bench snoozes an orange tabby named Garfield.
Even for the most unobservant shopper, it would be impossible not to feel that there’s a story within this space.
And so you ask. How did all this come about?
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Hart pauses, adjusting his barista apron.
“It all began,” he says, “with a teacher named Larry Victor Lane.”
Hart, 42, isn’t just being dramatic when he says he ought to be dead or in prison today.
His childhood was so riddled by violence and crime that growing into healthy, productive adulthood seemed an impossibility, a seed planted in dust.
Born poor in Charlotte’s west side, he was 12 when he came home to find his mother on the floor of their home, stabbed to death. Hart and his older sister moved in with his grandmother and her husband in one of the most crime-infested housing projects in Charlotte history, Fairview Homes on Oaklawn Avenue. Hart’s father, who was in and out of his children’s lives, died shortly after Hart’s mother.
As a child, Hart says, he watched three men shot to death in front of his grandparents’ house in broad daylight. Drug dealers peddled routinely and police sirens were so common, Hart stopped noticing them.
In his middle school classes, he spent hours devising ways he could kill his mother’s murderer when the man was released from prison.
“I wanted to die before my grandmother,” he says, “because I didn’t think I could endure that kind of loss again.”
He sees a chance
When he started at Albemarle Road Middle School in 1984, Larry Lane was a newly minted music teacher in his early 20s, a snappy dresser who took pride in coming to work in crisp dress shirts, tailored pants, braces and the occasional bow tie.
He remembers meeting Hart, then a sullen seventh-grader who stayed in the back row of the band room, leaning his chair back on two legs and pretending to play his trombone.
Those were my darkest days, and you were my angel.
LeMond Hart to Larry Lane
“Don’t waste your time with him,” the veteran band director told Lane, his new assistant.
But Lane heard something else.
“I felt like God was telling me: ‘This is something you need to get involved in,’ ” Lane, now 52, recalls. “There was a little spark in there that I wanted to ignite.”
And so one day, Lane, fed up with Hart’s bad attitude, called Hart into his small office and yelled at him to straighten up and fly right.
In that moment, something shifted in Hart.
“Just because he yelled at me,” Hart recalls, “it meant somebody cared.”
A bond is forged
It didn’t happen overnight, but over the next several months, Hart began to open up to his teacher, and to notice how Lane presented himself.
“He looked like happiness, and that was what I wanted. I wanted to be happy,” Hart recalls.
When Hart finished middle school he moved on to Independence High School, where Lane also served as assistant band director.
Hart’s grandparents were unable to drive him to marching band practice in the summer and after school, so Lane would pick him up and drop him off in his gold Honda Accord, teaching Hart barbershop quartet songs as they drove. At first, Hart wouldn’t allow Lane to drive to his house, insisting that he be picked up at Eastland Mall or several blocks away, because a white man in a nice car would be an easy target.
One day, Lane insisted that he drive Hart the entire way. He was shocked by what he saw.
“This was like in a movie set, set up to look like the worst neighborhood you could imagine,” Lane recalls. He still remembers what Hart said as he pulled up to Hart’s home to drop him off: “Lock your doors, turn left, and don’t stop for anything.”
The gift kicks in
When other students made fun of Hart’s tattered clothing, Lane pulled out his GQ magazines and gave LeMond pointers on how to find similar styles at thrift stores or Sims discount clothing store. He told him to go to Paul Simon men’s boutique in Myers Park and pick up a card explaining how to tie a bow tie.
Hart did everything his teacher said, and discovered he had a knack for choosing clothes. By his junior year, he was styling groups for yearbook photos and offering tips to friends who wanted to improve their look.
His grades improved, and he began making honor roll. He couldn’t practice his trombone at home because passers-by would throw rocks at his house when they heard him, but he practiced so faithfully at school that he moved from last chair to first.
The summer after his junior year, he convinced his grandmother to let him report for basic training in the Army’s Fort Jackson, figuring that paying for college would be impossible and the military was the best way to escape his neighborhood. He returned home in the fall to begin his senior year and showed up at marching band practice in camouflage pants, a white ribbed tank undershirt and combat boots.
Lane worried Hart would overheat, but it was in that moment, he says now, that he realized the scared and troubled boy he had befriended years ago was going to be OK.
After graduating from Independence, Hart says he served two years in Fort Sill, Okla. He returned to North Carolina and attended N.C. Central to study business management.
He grandmother fell ill, so he abandoned his studies to care for her while working retail and warehouse jobs, even selling tickets at the Blumenthal Performing Arts Center. He later enrolled at CPCC, where he earned his associate’s degree in 2012.
He and Lane never made plans to see one another, as busy lives and geography distanced them. (Hart lived near uptown, Lane with his wife and two children in a home near Providence High School on the city’s south side.) But they never lost touch, first keeping up with phone calls and emails, and later through Facebook.
Hart opened his own vintage store in NoDa in 2013, where he sells used clothing and styles clients. He plans to start a modeling agency in the coming year.
Recently, Lane visited Hart’s store for the first time. They hadn’t laid eyes on each other in more than two decades, and when they saw each other they embraced as a father and son would, Lane cradling Hart’s head in his hand.
You didn’t see color, you saw hope.
LeMond Hart to Larry Lane
“Those were my darkest days, and you were my angel,” Hart told Lane, unable to hold back tears.
“You didn’t see color, you saw hope. … The word says the Lord always provides a way to escape. You were my escape.”
Lane looked around the shop as Hart gave him a tour, pointing out a stack of suspender-type braces that Lane taught him how to wear and crocheted lapel pins Hart makes and sells. The two marveled over Hart’s letter jacket hanging against a wall and a hanger loaded with ties that Hart had kept from his high school days.
“God put us together for a reason,” Lane said.
“I thank God that I can look back and see that I made a difference. A teacher once told me, ‘You can’t get them all. You might get a few. You will get one.’ ”
A little lime green bungalow down the street from Hart’s shop houses the Vision Possible Free Store, founded by local attorney Robert Forquer to help the homeless. About every month and a half, Hart buys a Saturday lunch for 50 or 60 homeless men and women, often from Price’s Chicken Coop, and rounds up volunteers to help serve the crowd that gathers there to eat.
Forquer says Hart’s connection with the Free Store patrons seems effortless. “He’s easily engaging with people and makes them feel good about themselves.”
But Hart is serious when he says fashion is his ministry. So he routinely makes another offering.
When a homeless man gets a job interview scheduled, Hart helps him pick out appropriate clothing at the Free Store. If, together, they can’t find something Hart decides the man needs – the right tie, a pair of dress shoes – Hart often donates that item from his store.
“It allows me an opportunity to uplift and encourage people,” he says.
There was a little spark in there.
Larry Lane, about LeMond Hart
One morning last week, Hart was visited by Cindy Carlone, whose 16-year-old son McCain is an aspiring model who had seen a dip in his grades at the end of last school year.
Carlone and her son had been friends and customers of Hart’s since last spring, and on an earlier trip to the store, they had confided in Hart about McCain’s grades. Hart had been stern with the boy, explaining that schoolwork needed to come first.
I felt like God was telling me: ‘This is something you need to get involved in.’
So during last week’s visit, Carlone bought her son a Michael Kors watch, but asked Hart to keep it so that he could present it to McCain as a reward for his next A-B report card.
“I want you to be the person to give it to him,” Carlone said. “He looks up to you so much. It’s going to mean more to him coming from you.”
Hart wrapped up the watch and tucked it behind the sales counter. He told Carlone that he was glad he could help in some small way.
Then he hugged her, smiled, and shook his head as she walked out the door.