“On the road again!” Those lyrics have never been more accurate as I embark upon another road trip visiting independent hardware stores and other local businesses diversifying communities across the U.S.
My name is Renee Changnon and I’m the retail outreach coordinator with the North American Retail Hardware Association (NRHA). This is my fourth time joining Independent We Stand on their annual road trip. Each year, the journey highlights the importance of shopping local and I’m always excited to discover a new area of the country and the business owners who call it home. Last year, we visited businesses along the Mississippi River from Minneapolis all the way to New Orleans.
From March 4-8, I’m joining Independent We Stand on the Great American Red, White and Q Road Trip. We’ll travel over 1,000 miles, making stops at some of the country’s legendary barbecue destinations. During the trip, we will stay in independent hotels, eat food from local restaurants and shop independent businesses of all industries.
On Sunday, I flew from Indianapolis to Asheville, North Carolina, to reunite with the Independent We Stand group as we prepared to start our trip. First I made my way to our hotel, the Downtown Inn & Suites, which is located in bustling downtown Asheville.
After checking in, I reunited with Bill Brunelle, co-founder of Independent We Stand, and videographer Bennett Morrow. We were eager to talk about the trip ahead of us and grab some local grub.
Knowing we’d be enjoying a lot of barbecue during the week ahead, we went to Barley’s Taproom and Pizzeria and reviewed our itinerary. The restaurant featured live music and was a true local staple. After our delicious pizza, we went back to the hotel to rest up before our first full day visiting local establishments in Asheville.
Day 1: Asheville, North Carolina
Our first stop of the day was just outside Asheville at Town Hardware & General Store in Black Mountain, North Carolina. Hardware Retailing profiled the business in January 2017, but it was really great getting to visit and hear directly from store owners Peter and Beth Ballhaussen.
While the business has been around since 1928, the Ballhaussen’s took over the operation in 2013. Together, they have continued to provide many of the same products and old-time shopping experience for locals and visitors. The store carries everything from locally made jams to unique toys and books for children.
“One of our taglines is ‘Aisles of Smiles.’ We want to think we bring smiles to everybody because we have something for everybody in the family here,” Peter says.
Beth emphasized the importance of customers choosing local businesses whenever possible.
“Americans should support locally owned businesses because as a community retailer, we hire local people, we bank with a local bank and we hire people to do work for our store and business from a local setting,” Beth says. “We are putting money directly into our local institutions, which helps the community.”
Beyond the store and its offerings, the couple has fostered strong relationships within their community, even in the wake of an accident that took place right outside the store when a neighbor was struck by a car driving over 120 mph. The collision resulted in a local track coach becoming paralyzed.
“Our community rallied around him and his family and these efforts were led by a lot of the merchants in town,” Peter says. “We’ve raised hundreds of thousands of dollars and we still continue to do so. We have a close connection to the coach and his family.”
Our next stop of the day was at 4×4 Country, where we met owner Ron Moore and his son Zach Moore who run the family business together. The father and son talked about the struggles and rewards of operating a family business.
We couldn’t pass up the opportunity to try some delicious barbecue on the first day of the road trip, so we went to 12 Bones Smokehouse. The restaurant has gained fame since opening its doors, with former President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama visiting the local spot three times over the years. The shop is only open for lunch, but it serves close to a thousand customers a day. While new businesses have been popping up around the restaurant over the years, 12 Bones Smokehouse is still known for serving meals on metal plates and allowing customers to write notes on the walls.
After lunch, we went next door to Wedge Brewing Co., a local brewery that has been in operation for more than a decade. The brewery showcases Asheville’s artistic nature. Artwork featuring dolls hang from the rafters. The outdoor beer garden features graffiti art and has areas for people to play ping pong and gather at picnic tables to enjoy warmer weather.
We interviewed a few Asheville-based organizations at the brewery. We got to know Kimberly Hunter, the entrepreneurship program manager of Mountain BizWorks, a nonprofit that helps local small businesses establish themselves, grow through new opportunities and create jobs through loans, classes and individualized coaching. Hunter shared her story with us and how her role helps her fulfill her passion to serve the Asheville community.
“When I moved here, the only way I found my path and purpose in Asheville was by starting a business,” Hunter says. “I became a neighbor. I decided to open my doors and do something that forced me to get out of my own shell and anchor to the people, practices and ideas of what people call business here. It’s not different than anywhere else, but its special like everywhere else. Entrepreneurship did that for me and I’m passionate about helping others find that, too.”
We also spoke to Je’Wana Grier-McEachin, co-founder of co-op Everyday Details. According to Grier-McEachin, their developing co-op is similar to a cleaning company, but it serves people who are aging or those who just need additional help cleaning their home or picking up groceries. The co-op’s founders say it empowers its members to become business owners.
Franzi Charin, the founder and director of Asheville Grown, a business alliance in Asheville that is made up of 440 locally owned independent businesses, shared her perspective on why having a strong foundation of independent businesses is crucial for any community.
“Locally owned businesses make communities unique by mirroring the culture of the people who live in the community,” Charin says. “Cities that attracted me when I was traveling for a couple years were the ones that I could wake up in the morning and feel, hear, taste and smell things that let me know where I was. Those were the cities I fell in love with. That’s culture and it’s the local businesses that reflect that culture. All of this together creates an ecosystem that I believe is the culture of our towns.”
To close out our conversation with Charin, we asked her what makes the city of Asheville unique.
“Asheville is a fiercely independent mountain community with a very collaborative culture,” Charin says. “We’re independent in the sense that we’re very proud of who we are but we’re very different than other cities in North Carolina and that feels good. People come to us because of our diverse culture and that’s what makes Asheville special.”