ShopTalk

How South End’s Modern Fabrics found a new home

When James Powell started his mail-order fabric business in 2007, little did he know that his part-time venture would lead to running his own brick-and-mortar store in South End.

Powell, who worked in the furniture industry, saw excess fabric headed for the dumpster and came up with the idea of selling it at discounted prices to businesses and homes. After the business grew steadily, he opened Modern Fabrics in South End at the height of the recession.

The store attracted many shoppers in the weak economy, who now saw a cheaper way to give a new look to grandma’s old couch with new upholstery, instead of buying a new couch. Eventually, the business gained attention from design magazines, saw its revenues grow slowly and became a popular shopping destination near the Common Market in South End.

Now, Powell and his wife, Ewa, are facing their biggest challenge yet: establishing the business at a new spot after their landlord sold their former location to a developer. The Powells have had to navigate rising rents, do-it-yourself renovations and marketing their new location to customers.

It’s an issue that other businesses, including the Common Market, have had to face in fast-growing South End, as developers buy up properties for new apartments and offices, forcing the current tenants to find new locations.

“It was devastating,” said Ewa Powell, of the feeling she had when she first heard of the move. “There were many sleepless nights and many tears.”

Expensive rents

The first obstacle for the Powells was money. Commercial rents have gone up substantially in many parts of South End.

“I paid about $18 per square feet for rent, (and) now developers were quoting about $38 to $40 per square feet,” said Powell. “Unless you’re a corporation it’s hard to be able to pay $40 per square feet. Only Starbucks and Quiznos can afford it.”

To find an affordable place, the Powells would get in their car and drive all around South End. “We’d stop at every shopping center and empty storefront and hope this one would work out,” said Ewa Powell.

The high commercial rents have not escaped the attention of the residents of South End.

Krissy Oechslin, of the South End Neighborhood Association, said developers who tear down older buildings often do put up new ones with retail space. “But the only ones who can afford them are the chain stores,” she said.

The prospect of ever finding a suitable location looked really bleak at one point, said Ewa. Several questions ran through their mind, she said: If they couldn’t find a place, how long could they stay closed? How would they afford to live?

The couple said they considered moving out of Charlotte to places like Lincolnton, Huntersville or Cornelius, where a lot of their customers were from.

The Powells did finally find a location after about six months of search, next to the Sleepy Poet Antique Mall on South Boulevard. The rent was comparable to the previous location, James Powell said, with good parking space and accessibility.

Relocation

The Powells’ next challenge was actually moving the business.

The couple said they couldn’t afford to hire professionals to help them renovate the new store because they were working on a small budget.

So they relied on family, friends and lots of hard work. James called on a friend and together they laid new flooring and installed the drywall. They tore down some older walls to make the place roomier.

Their loyal customers helped clear out the goods in the old store, said Ewa. “They spread the word among their friends that the store was closing, so lots of people came in,” said James. “May was our highest revenue month ever.”

The old location closed May 29, and the new store opened June 1.

All in all, James Powell estimated that loss of business, along with the moving and renovation costs, came to about $100,000.

“Even if you move across the street, it takes the regular clientele six months to come back to you in the same numbers,” said James.

Changing South End

Many other businesses based in and around South End are facing similar issues.

Josh Frazier, of Black Sheep Skate Shop, moved into South End when it was still transitioning from an industrial area to one with a residential and commercial character.

There was a good vibe all around with older architecture and interesting feel, he said. The skate shop would often host local artist and musicians.

Black Sheep is in the same block as Modern Fabrics and is soon moving to a location Frazier didn’t want to reveal.

Common Market, a well-known South End institution in the same space, is set to close July 30. It has yet to find a new location. The store’s difficulty has been finding an affordable spot that can accommodate a large retail space, according to Blake Barnes, co-owner of the store.

The old South End is pretty much gone, said David Walters, a professor emeritus at UNC Charlotte. The new South End is perfectly nice, he said, with decent jobs, good housing and good restaurants, he said. “But the artsy vibe isn’t there anymore.”

But Walters, who himself once ran an art studio with his wife in South End, said the upside of the relocation of these businesses is that they move to a new area and reinvent it. “Now they’ll make some other area cool,” he said.

Back at the new Modern Fabrics store on South Boulevard, customers recently walked around the large, airy space, touching and feeling the fabrics. The Powells chatted with regulars who had found their way to the new store and greeted new customers with enthusiasm. The new store had more parking and was actually in a better location, they said.

While they seemed happy and settled in their new spot, James and Ewa Powell still worry about having to move again. But they know they don’t have a choice. “We’ll have to move again,” said James, “but we’ll survive.”

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