A Village Within

Inside the City of Oaks dwells the South’s
original shopping and living community.

Text by Cheryl Capaldo Traylor  / Photos courtesy of Cameron Village 

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Lifelong Raleigh resident Abbe Townsend remembers  shopping at Cameron Village throughout her childhood. From visiting Santa at Sears to buying her first album at Record Bar, Townsend recalls the many roles the shopping center played in her youth. She tossed coins into the Boylan Pearce department store wishing well, ate at Balentine’s Cafeteria, and watched movies at Village Theatre. She was there when Steve Martin, Jimmy Buffet, and the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band performed in the Village Subway, the shopping center’s popular underground live music and entertainment venue. Townsend, who works in the children’s department at Quail Ridge Books, says Village Book and Stationery was one of her favorite shops and the first bookstore she remembers visiting. Visitors from all over the Triangle have similarly fond memories since, for 70 years, Cameron Village has held a special place in the heart of many North Carolinians.

A Landmark Is Born

From the beginning, developers J.W. York and R.A. Bryan wanted Cameron Village to be a true village—complete with a variety of residential options, office spaces, retail shops, and grocery stores—so residents would have an immediate sense of community and easy access to provisions. When the shopping center opened in 1949, it offered Raleigh residents an opportunity to live in an innovative retail-residential community, one of the first of its kind in North Carolina. Cameron Village was the first shopping center situated between Washington D.C. and Atlanta and, across its seven decades, has grown ever more popular and successful. 

Cameron Village earned its venerable spot on the map for experiencing many other firsts. The Village Post Office, which opened in 1952, was Raleigh’s first air-conditioned post office. And features we now take for granted, such as escalators and drive-through windows, were fascinating novelties in the early days of the shopping center, when Sears shoppers could take the “moving stairs” between floors and Wachovia Bank accommodated customers from the convenience of their car windows. 

Through the years the shopping center has undergone many renovations. Businesses have come and gone, and several— like those in the Village Subway—became local legends before fading into memory. Cameron Village has grown from its original three stores and one restaurant to more than 75 shops and numerous restaurants. Pat Boyle, executive director of Cameron Village Merchants’ Association, says the shopping center owes much of its success to management’s ability to adapt to the community’s changing needs and to the company’s intention to remain current. 

The Village Today 

Cameron Village has maintained York’s original vision of a place with strong community ties. “People still want to live, work, and shop in the same geographical area,” Boyle says. Shoppers appreciate the focus on independent, local merchants, who have a strong sense of customer service, and the diversity of stores is a strong attraction to visitors near and far, making Cameron Village a popular North Carolina shopping destination. Shoppers can choose from antiques, upscale clothiers, outdoor recreational equipment, or unique home furnishings. Eclectic boutiques abound throughout the shopping center, and friends can easily meet across a steaming cappuccino or a cold beer, or enjoy a savory meal at one of many exceptional restaurants.

More Food and Fun in the Future

Additional restaurants are being added for late-night dining, and plans are in the works for Cameron Village to become a lively entertainment and music venue once again. “It will be in the same location as the original Village Subway,” says Lynne Worth, senior vice president of retail leasing and property management for York Properties. Music might bring back a sense of nos-talgia to Townsend and others who spent their youth dancing in the Village Subway’s beloved nightclubs, listening to Barry Manilow, Tiny Tim, and local favorites like The Connells. 

Anniversary Celebration

A weeklong celebration, planned for October 11th–19th, boasts the theme “Come Play With Us!” For this anniversary shindig, Cameron Village will partner with the Community Music School of Raleigh, a nonprofit that provides free music lessons and instruments to underserved populations in the Raleigh community. “You can play some tunes or you can play some games,” Boyle says. Festivities will include dancing, music, and sidewalk games. Ten pianos will be placed around the shopping center, offering shoppers a chance to showcase their talent or listen to local professionals. And everyone is invited to join in Cameron Village’s attempt to beat the world record for number of kazoos played simultaneously. At ShopCameronVillage.com, you’ll find a collection of oral histories told by those who have special memories of the Village, and you can also share your story on the site’s Living History section.