Raleigh's Oldest Businesses Are Still Busy
One iconic establishment has survived for a century and a half.
By Ed Bristol
Banner photo by Sterling E. Stevens
A handful of businesses that helped build the City of Oaks are still thriving today. Four are retailers, with super-familiar names and walk-in storefronts where you can still pick up items like a box of 10-penny nails, a prescription medicine, a new pair of shoes, or a dozen roses. Established in the mid-19th century, one is still owned by its founding family. The youngest of the four retailers is 98 years old. These enduring enterprises have managed to weather the travails of time, reshaping business models to meet changing demand and—despite all the buzz about shiny new Apples and Amazons—holding their own against the online shopping revolution.
The great-great-granddaddy in the group is Briggs Hardware, which Thomas H. Briggs and partner James Dodd opened in 1865, in the first block of Fayetteville Street—Raleigh’s “Main Street.”
The partnership ended in 1868, and in 1874 Briggs moved it to a four-story, red brick building he’d erected a block away. It was Raleigh’s first ‘skyscraper’, and the hardware store would remain an anchor of downtown commerce for 130 years—but would then take twists and turns that a good socket wrench might envy.
Meanwhile, a half-century after Briggs’ founding, another time-tested establishment opened up just north of downtown. Begun in 1910, the Person Street Pharmacy still dispenses prescriptions at the corner of Pace and Person streets. It’s had a series of owners and for decades has enjoyed a dual personality as drugstore and ‘50s-era soda shop where you can meet friends and get a homemade orangeade, milkshake, sandwich, or fries.
In Businesses That Built Raleigh, one-time owner Mike James remembers how his business had served as a social center: “If you want to know what’s going on, you come to the drug store. … Every Saturday about 1:30 … you’ll see this whole crowd of people come in, and they’re all in their sixties, seventies, and eighties. And they’ve done this for years.”
Owner Trey Waters took over the place four years ago and, with a younger demographic in mind, he’s “updated the cafe to a top-quality breakfast and lunch spot,” adding an 18-foot communal table, sidewalk patio tables, an espresso machine, and beer and wine on tap. The pharmacy also has an expanded retail section, clinic, and compounding lab.
A few blocks east in the Oakwood section, Fallon’s Flowers—established in 1920 and the oldest florist in the state—once maintained a city block of greenhouses on Watauga Street where it had the distinction of growing most of the plants and flowers it sold.
Beginning in the 1930s, the florist operated out of a Haywood Building storefront on Fayetteville Street. It opened a second store at 700 St. Mary’s Street in 1973, and four years later closed the downtown store.
Over the years, it’s had branches in Cary, Garner, Crabtree Valley Mall, and the Quail Corners Shopping Center. This year, Fallons relocated its Wake Forest Road store to Capital Boulevard and it has plans to renovate the flagship St. Mary’s Street store.
In 2001, Brian and Erin McCarthy, third-generation florists from Scranton, Pennsylvania, acquired Fallon’s. Manager Frank Campisi says the McCarthys were impressed with the business’ nearly 100-year history, which includes, he notes, “many current employees who’ve spent their entire careers at the store on St. Mary’s Street and proudly talk of the good old days.”
More than a century ago, in 1915, Karl G. Hudson partnered with the Belk brothers of Monroe to start what would become Raleigh’s signature, home-grown department store. Starting out on East Martin Street, Hudson Belk initially placed itself in a more moderate price range compared with its more upscale competitor, the now-extinct Boylan Pearce.
In June 1940, a new half-million dollar store opened on Fayetteville Street. The News & Observer reported: “A new age in the rapid and substantial growth of the Hudson Belk Company … begins tomorrow with the opening of one of the largest and most beautiful stores on the mid-Atlantic seaboard.”
When his father died in 1953, Karl Hudson Jr. took over as company head. He oversaw steady physical improvements and added amenities like fur salons, fashion shows, hair salons, and a popular cafeteria where North Carolina Supreme Court justices could frequently be spotted at lunch. He also established locations in Cary, Durham, and Crabtree Valley Mall.
In 1995, with shoppers increasingly preferring the suburbs, the downtown store closed, leaving the popular Crabtree Valley location as the company’s sole Raleigh outlet until a second store opened in 2002 at Triangle Town Center.
In 1998, a new entity, Belk Inc., bought out local partners—like the Hudson family—across the Southeastern-based chain, acquiring their holdings in return for shares in the new organization. By 2010, all stores were re-branded “Belk,” and in 2015 the chain was acquired by the New York–based Sycamore Partners.
The 1977 conversion of Fayetteville Street into a pedestrian mall had been hailed as a trendy new beginning for a declining downtown. But by 1995, the deadening elimination of traffic became the last straw, not only for Hudson Belk—but also for another downtown anchor.
Briggs Hardware would move to the corner of Atlantic Avenue and Six Forks Road, where it remained for 20 years. But the effects of an economic downturn and dominance by big-box home improvement stores proved too much, and in July 2015 the 150-year-old hardware store closed its doors. But not for long.
The next month, Evelyn Davis, the great-great-granddaughter of founder Thomas H. Briggs, brought the store back to its historic home base in downtown Raleigh. The current East Hargett Street address is only a few blocks away from the original location.
Why re-open? “I did it for my ancestors,” says Davis. “My family has spent the last century and a half devoted to the development of Raleigh, and I didn’t want their work to be in vain.”
But Briggs Hardware “3.0” scarcely resembles the original, where high, rolling ladders reached materials that helped build a still-young city. The new version is as much a general store. You’ll still find the usual hardware items, but a growing influx of downtown residents can also pick up gourmet coffee (and gourmet toffee) or Bloody Mary mix on their walk home from work.
Davis wants to be a part of the downtown re-birth accelerated in 2006, when Fayetteville Street was reopened to traffic. Even though the original Briggs building is now occupied by the City of Raleigh Museum, she plans to stay firmly planted in downtown. In fact, she says, “I am not going to feel as if my mission is complete until I return to Fayetteville Street.”
HERE TO STAY
Briggs Hardware ~ 1865
Person Street Pharmacy ~ 1910
Belk ~ 1915
Fallon’s Flowers ~ 1920