The vibe at the 12-year-old Common Market, where patrons can order a “tree hugger wrap” and “build your own 6-pack,” is the same feeling that exudes from its owner, Blake Barnes.
Barnes calls it his “creative take” on a convenience store. The Plaza Midwood hangout is also a deli, café and wine shop where customers are treated to a laid-back environment coated with dim lights, the smell of something cooking and a copy of the Mona Lisa overlooking bar stools.
The market’s shelves are stocked with craft wines and off-brand sodas. Indie rock blares over loudspeakers. Shoppers make themselves at home on benches etched in graffiti.
The “eclectic” décor fits the character of Barnes himself, who sports tattoos along his right arm, covers his bald head with a tan hat and speaks with a youthful vigor blended with wisdom.
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During the first two years the store was open, people bought merchandise from him for one reason, he believes: “They felt sorry for me.”
Now, the market on Commonwealth Avenue and its second location, which opened in South End in 2008, generate about $3.7 million in sales each year.
Barnes gets his staying power from keeping the market open every day, he said.
“We’ve never shut down for a day,” he said. “Rain, sleet or snow; Christmas, Fourth of July, Easter, we are open every single day.”
Inspiration for the market harkens back to Barnes’ days as a traveling musician when he toured cities and sought “what was kind of unique to that area, almost indigenous.”
Tired of “living on people’s floors” and making no money, he ended his music career and went to work at Charlotte’s Laurel Market, a store and deli on Cherokee Road near Myers Park. There, he learned the tricks of the trade and decided to branch out on his own.
“I never got into it to make a million dollars,” he said. “I was like, ‘you know, I need to do something else.’ So, I said, I’m just going to jump out and do it myself.”
He started with $80,000, which included a $50,000 loan and $30,000 from the equity on his home and money he saved. Two would-be partners pulled out early on, and Barnes spent thousands on equipment and renovations.
“I was completely green,” he said. “By the time we finally got open, I literally had maybe a grand left.”
That, he used for his inventory. He purchased stock with his profits and barely pocketed a dime. He and his family survived on Ramen noodles and cans of soup. His children ate free lunch at school. Every morning, Barnes told himself “today’s the day” his business would crash.
“But I always made just enough to keep going,” he said. “As an old musician, I was used to rejection. I was used to working ... for nothing. I just kept on going and going.”
His persistence paid off amid a snowstorm in 2004. He lived a block from the market and decided to open during the storm “because I really needed that money to keep coming in.”
While their sons watched “Finding Nemo,” Barnes and his wife, Cress, made sandwiches and coffee. Eventually, police officers on patrol walked into the store. A TV news crew later drove by.
Because they saw the police cars in front of the store, Barnes said, reporters assumed the market had been robbed. When they walked inside, they found Barnes making sandwiches, Cress Barnes running the register and cops watching movies with his sons.
The news crew reported live from the store the rest of that snowy day, he said. Once the snow melted, business grew.
By flaunting Common Market’s edge, Barnes said he’s “cut against the grain of Banktown U.S.A.”
At night, the market turns into a bar. He advertises in neighborhood newsletters and donates to local schools and festivals.
The merchandise isn’t pricey. Sandwiches range from $2.50 to $5. Vegan items don’t exceed $7.
“There’s no highfalutin-ness here,” Barnes said. “I survived a recession, actually grew my business during a recession because I sell cheap stuff.”
None of the food is sold online.
“You call it in and come get it because I’d rather talk to you,” he said. “It makes all the difference to be personable. You’ve got to be able to shake hands, look people in the eye when you’re talking to them.”
Convenience and an affordable To-Furky sandwich draw Jennifer Busco to the Plaza Midwood location at least once a week.
She lives a block from the market, she said, making it easy to strap her toddler into a stroller and walk to the store for a cup of fair trade coffee. She and friend Dana Childs have been customers for at least a decade.
The atmosphere, Childs said, is “effortless.”
Barnes admits his business concept is not terribly original. But, for him, it works, even when he’s surrounded by stiff competition.
The Harris Teeter a few blocks from the market unveiled a major renovation last year. Several coffee shops are nearby.
Brown said he hasn’t felt the pinch from competitors. He employs 29 people and works 40 hours a week. Most of his duties now include paying bills, busing tables and keeping the store up and running, which costs him about $200,000 annually.
The market’s key to survival, he said, “is being in the right place at the right time ... being in this neighborhood before it grew, before it became so massive.”
“We’re not perfect,” Barnes said. “It’s funky in here. I don’t have everything laid out to perfection.
“That’s the charm.”