Redevelopment is forcing a 102-year-old business to close in April — it's the last shop still open in the once-busy mini-mall at Village Plaza shopping center.
Thousands of customers have lingered in the comfortably worn chairs at Lacock's Shoe Store and Shoe Repair, chatting with master cobbler David Barnette while he mended shoes and other leather goods.
"Now the questions are as much about what's happening with the store as when customers can pick up their shoes," said Barnette, 63.
He's got to find a new location by April 30, or the fun will be over, he said.
Other mini-mall stores, including Yarns Etc. and Jim Clark's Barber and Style, have found new locations. Some, like Twig, have closed. Only the PTA Thrift Shop and a Farm Bureau insurance office will remain on the shopping center's southern end by May.
Village Plaza owner Regency Center hasn't announced its plans, but a leasing document shows three storefronts where the mini-mall is now. Regency also is planning a new restaurant CAVA for the former Grimball's Jeweler space on the other side of Whole Foods, which anchors the shopping center.
The town's goal in creating the surrounding Blue Hill District and its form-based code was to spur redevelopment of the aging strip malls and vacant lots. The code has specific requirements for new construction, streamlining the town's project approval process.
The first Blue Hill District project was the 90-foot-tall Berkshire Chapel Hill, which towers over the single-story Village Plaza next door.
Rent is a challenge
Matt L'Esperance, a Lacock's customer for over a decade, didn't seem surprised to hear about the changes. It seems like developers build a lot of projects on speculation now, he said, noting the vacant storefronts in high-rent downtown buildings.
Those businesses were promised that customers would live upstairs, he said; instead many apartments are empty, except when the owners come to town for UNC games.
"It's kind of silly that somebody made the investment to buy a building, they're going to try to probably do the same thing, it's going to be too expensive, and they're (going to close, too)," L'Esperance said.
Barnette admits rent is a challenge. It's a long shot, but he's looking for over 800 square feet at up to $1,000 a month, including utilities.
"Chapel Hill's been good, and I hate to see Lacock's — one of these entities that's been around 102 years — might be on the way out," he said. "We're hoping and praying that we can find something reasonable, about as big as this here."
A long history
Hardware store clerk Wilson O. Lacock opened Lacock's Shoe Shop on East Franklin Street in 1916. The shop survived the Depression, moving in 1942 to 143 E. Franklin St.
World War II was good for business, in part because it was repairing the boots of soldiers training at UNC, Barnette said. Lacock's sons Carl and Vernon worked for their father and took over before he died in 1974.
Barnette arrived in Chapel Hill that year — he had trained to be a welder in his native South Carolina but didn't enjoy the work — and started at Lacock's.
They worked six days a week back then, he said. Customers would drop by just to talk.
"People older than me come in and say, golly, when I was little, we used to hang out in the shoe shop, and just get the smell," Barnette said. "It still smells the same as 60 and 70 years ago."
By 1990, Lacock's and several other longtime businesses had left Franklin Street. The shop reopened at Village Plaza; it's owned now by Vernon Lacock's daughter Kimi and her husband Robert Dew, who live in Wilmington.
"They're great people," Barnette said. "They give me all the rope I can have. They just love me to life, and I love them to life."
Barnette waxed nostalgic about his craft, dipping an applicator into a volcano-shaped vat of contact cement to glue on a new sole. He sanded the edges, the acrid scent of burning rubber filling the room.
At the stitching machine, he manipulated the pedal and turned the shoe slowly, locking its seams into place.
"I've been pretty blessed," he said, adjusting the machine's settings for the last stitches. "God's been good to me."
Fitting the shoe to a metal, foot-shaped lass, he glued on a new heel and hammered it into place. The nail machine thonked loudly as it shot thick, silver nails into the heel. Women's heels take smaller, copper nails, he said.
The craft hasn't changed much since 1974, but shoes have, Barnette said. "They just throw them together now."
Between the shoes are the memories — old photos, newspaper clippings, a thank-you poster from students who visited the shop.
Hanging over the register is a special memento: a copy of President Barack Obama's birth certificate. Nearby are photos of Obama with former First Lady Michelle Obama and former Vice President Joe Biden. The former president sent it to him in a letter, he said.
Barnette saw Obama speak at UNC's Carmichael Arena in 2012. He was the last one to get in and almost left, he said.
"(Security) said you can go to the other end and wait to see what happens ... about an hour later, (Obama) came in the place where I was at, and I shook his hand. That was the best feeling," he said.
Barnette knows security, working UNC basketball games in his spare time. He doesn't get to watch when he's working, but he used to play basketball, football and baseball, and he loves watching sports at home and coaching local Little League baseball.
He and his wife Cathy attend First Baptist Church, where Barnette is Sunday school superintendent and sings in the male chorus. They don't have any children, he said.
But what makes him happy is making people smile, Barnette said. He doesn't know what he'll do if Lacock's closes.
"You say you'll cross those bridges when you get there, but hopefully, God has something in store for us, and we'll go from there," he said.
Tammy Grubb: 919-829-8926; @TammyGrubb