A tough move for Betty Kenan brings a happy result

Jun. 28, 2014 @ 10:19 AM

Friends of Betty Kenan and her late husband, Frank, knew how much she treasured her upscale woman’s fashion shop, Fine Feathers, on Franklin Street, Chapel Hill, in the University Square shopping center, owned by Frank.

For many years, she left their Durham home on Dover Road almost every day to go to work at Fine Feathers. When plans for the demolition of University Square forced Fine Feathers to close its location recently, her friends worried how she would deal with giving up the only location the shop ever had.

They need not have worried. When her Durham friends visit Fine Feathers, at its new location on the Durham side of Chapel Hill, they will see a smile on the owner’s face.

The new location is University Mall where the shop moved on April 1. Not University Square where Kenan opened Fine Feathers almost 40 years ago and where it became a destination stop for customers throughout the region. Now, it is at University Mall.

How and why did an anticipated move that was so full of trepidation turn out to make the owner so happy?

First, a little history.

Fine Feathers got its start one day in 1976 when Frank Kenan made Betty an offer. Frank Kenan knew that his wife had been the successful manager of a Montaldo’s shop in Durham, one of a chain of stores famous for quality and style. He knew his wife would like to open her own store, and he owned University Square.

When he told her, “I have some space I could rent you,” her reply was immediate.

Betty Kenan said, “I'll take it.”

She didn't even know what the rent was, but she had an idea that Frank Kenan would be fair with her. It worked out to be a good arrangement for both of them.

Before Frank Kenan died in 1996, he told Betty, “If you ever want to sell University Square, offer it to the University.”

In 2008, Frank Kenan’s family sold University Square to a foundation arm of UNC-Chapel Hill.

“I began to think about moving when we sold the building,” Betty Kenan said. “The transition from being an owner to a tenant was hard. Even though Gordon Merklein at UNC-Chapel Hill and John McColl with the new developer did everything they could to accommodate us, I have never had any business anywhere that we did not own.”

“At the time of the sale, we thought that we would remain at University Square while it was renovated, or reconstructed in parts. But we learned that the plan had changed so that the entire project would be demolished.”

After 40 years, Fine Feathers would have to move.

“We came kicking and screaming.”

But she acknowledged that in recent years, “it was sad for me at University Square, especially since my husband Frank Kenan died. So often when I was working in my office Frank would tap on my window and say, ‘Let's play nine holes.’ Or ‘would you like to get a bite?’ So I hated being in the office sometimes, especially when I did not hear that knock. So I did not go to the office in the store as much.”

But once the move was made, things began to brighten. Maybe it was the new Cree LED lights that she insisted upon. “I think we get a truer test of color, although it cost more. And I believe in Cree, the firm that makes them.”

And, she says, “People at the University Mall have been lovely, and we are happy, as are our customers. For one thing it's easier for many of them to get here, especially those who live in Durham.”

One Durham customer told her she was glad not to have to deal with the traffic in downtown Chapel Hill saying, “I love Franklin Street, but I did not want to get run over by the college students.”

“I did not know how much I love this business,” Betty Kenan told me. “Maybe I am too old to work so hard, but it has been six days a week for me since the move. None of my friends believe I'm doing this.”

Nor can they believe how happy she is.

D.G. Martin’s regular weekly column appears on The Herald-Sun’s editorial pages on Wednesdays and on line at http://www.heraldsun.com/opinion/opinioncolumnists/martin.