“You’re doing what?”
No matter how old you get, the upraised eyebrows, judgmental stare and all-too-familiar parental tone accompanying that phrase can strike fear in just about all of us.
Enough fear to make diving into a retail startup look easy in comparison.
And that’s exactly what Evelyn Murray, 54, did this fall, even after her all-knowing dad questioned her sanity.
Murray, born Evelina Briggs-Scruggs and sixth-generation member of Raleigh’s hallowed retail pioneer Briggs Hardware family, was furious with her father for shuttering their store on Atlantic Avenue early last summer. After more than 150 years in business, the only career she’d ever known vaporized as they closed their doors. She felt lost, adrift with the task of finding a job weighing heavily on her mind, and unsure how she could possibly find the right fit doing anything but what she’d made a living at for the last 40 years or so.
After enduring difficult questions from the press on the store going out of business — such as “What would you grandfather think?” — and more than a few sleepless nights, Murray decided to drop the job search and focus on returning to downtown Raleigh, as a retailer, as her own boss.
“Dad never stopped being a dad,” Murray explained over chai tea on a rainy morning. He was worried she was getting in over her head, but Murray felt a strong connection to coming back to downtown.
“As I set up the store he started peeping in the windows, and then he brought me two dozen red roses for the grand opening.” Murray was wrapped up in the whirlwind of a new business but her dad made sure she had breakfast before going in to work on several days, admonishing Murray with “A girl’s gotta eat.”
Her eyes glistened as we talked, and soon I knew the reason why: Just a few days after her adventure as a retailer on her own began, his life ended.
The last time Murray saw her dad, two weeks after her grand opening, was the back of his head as he walked out of her store. He died of a heart attack two days later.
“After Dad died I felt a stronger purpose than ever before,” Murray said, tears welling up in her eyes.1 “I’m going to let Dad live through the store.”
It’s bittersweet mission, similar in sentiment to her last memories of her mom. When Raleigh turned Fayetteville Street into a pedestrian mall Briggs Hardware was forced out of downtown to stay viable as a provider for contractors. Fayetteville Street reopened as a two-way street the day she died; in a symbolic gesture to the past, the family drove the funeral procession down Fayetteville Street and laid flowers at the store.
Like the Fayetteville Street renaissance, Murray knew she had to reinvent Briggs Hardware to be relevant in Raleigh’s “new” downtown. For starters, it’s a younger crowd. According to the Downtown Raleigh Alliance (DRA), 40.5% of downtown residents are between the ages of 25-44 compared to 30% for the city of Raleigh and 26% nationally.
Understanding that, “I wanted to be more creative,” she explained, as she struggled with the store’s focus. “Do I go modern and hip?” But after thinking it through she came to the conclusion that “vintage is ‘new’ again, so why fix something if it’s not broken?”
She didn’t do any market studies, or write a business plan, but Murray was smart enough to realize that to thrive she would need to fill a different niche than larger competitors.
Her competitive advantage boils down to three unique elements: an in-store handyman, $5 delivery by scooter,2 and listening to what her customers want to see in stock.
“People need to have a key cut, buy nuts and bolts, to fix a leak in a pipe over at the restaurant down the street,” Murray said. She talks to customers, and downtown businesses, genuinely interested in what they need to buy in an approach that feels much more like helping people than a business venture. Her initial observation is that downtown has a “greener” slant than customers at the Atlantic Avenue location; people are asking for LED light bulbs, so she’s altering her stock.
Truly harkening back to Briggs’ general store roots, she carries antacids and ibuprofen. It’s also the first time Briggs has carried diapers, an all-too-often necessity for families frustrated by CVS’s early weekend closing time.
When I asked about seeing country ham in a recent tweet Murray laughed, explaining it’s her best-selling product and adding “I had no idea how many tourists we have downtown! When some RDU to Seattle stewardesses came in and asked me what grits were I sent them back with some in their suitcase. I want people to know the culture of the South.”
It’s Murray’s dream to be both a tourist and resident destination, that “you need to have a Briggs t-shirt, like the Saxapahaw General Store.”
Her ideas, and strong history, convinced the committee tasked with awarding the DRA’s new retail up-fit grant program funds. Available to new retailers or those expanding by more than 30%, the money helps cover property improvements up to $5000.
“The return of Briggs Hardware to downtown is a major victory for retail in downtown and for the city, as a whole. Briggs fulfills some of the retail needs of our rapidly growing resident community and provides a unique shopping experience as a general store with a great history, which is so important for distinguishing downtown retail from other retailers who may have more surface parking or even online retail,” said Bill King, DRA’s planning and development manager.
“We’re proud to help cover the costs of Evelyn’s initial investment and free up some capital for her to invest in her business in ways that will help her get off to a faster start and reach viability sooner.”
Her onsite handyman services are part of that faster start. Murray understands that “a lot of newcomers moving here don’t know who they can allow in their house. With my name and insurance behind it they are safe.”
Her online presence, briggshardwarestore.com, is in the works. Her store, at 111 East Hargett Street, is less than two blocks from the four-story historic Briggs Hardware Building on 220 Fayetteville Street that founder Thomas Briggs built in 1874. That building is now home to the Raleigh City Museum.
The museum, and the Capitol Building, holds several Briggs historical artifacts. North Carolina is only state in the country that still has the tools that built its capitol; Raymond Beck, a family friend and Capitol historian, rescued the ones that rebuilt the building after the first one burned, as well as the store’s original typewriters.
She firmly believes history and nostalgia are important, and wants to spread that gospel. “Our kids don’t know what roller skates are; I have ones we bought in Salisbury with the key still in them. I hope to have a summer class where kids learn how to churn ice cream. Kids don’t know how to take off a Coke bottle top, they don’t know how to use a church key.”
They’ll have to learn since she’s on tap to get a vintage Coke machine to sit alongside candy meant to make adults flash back to their childhood. The stash is lazily guarded by the store’s mascot, a yellow lab.
Murray’s learned a lot about the “new” downtown Raleigh in the past few months, as well as some surprises about her own family. She recently found out from a close family friend that her grandfather served as the Raleigh Christmas Parade Santa for years. “You think you know a person,” she said, with a hearty laugh.
Murray certainly knows herself, and she belongs in a store, in downtown Raleigh.