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Merchant of the Quarter: Blake Barnes
July 21 @ 8:00 am - July 22 @ 5:00 pm
Merchant of the Quarter
Blake Barnes, Common Market
Back in 2002, Blake Barnes was a “semi-retired” musician, working in a deli. He’d grown tired of scraping by playing in a band, but when he’d been touring, he always made a point to find unique spots that appealed to diverse communities. When he took the deli job, he was surprised to find he was good at it, and all those cool spots he’d visited when touring gave him a few good ideas of his own.
So he found a spot in Plaza Midwood, and he named it Common Market — a place for the common man that, in actuality, was anything but common. The decor was eclectic, as was the crowd. The business model was something Barnes made up as he went, and planning for the future meant maybe a month or two down the road.
It was cheap, as most spots in Plaza Midwood were back in those days. Barnes used credit cards to secure a lease. He opened up with a hazy plan built around selling wine and sandwiches. He catered to a blue collar crowd of painters and construction workers and just hoped to survive to work another day.
“Every day I’d wake up and think, ‘This is probably the last day I’ll be able to do this,'” Barnes said.
But Common Market survived. In fact, it thrived. And 16 years on, Barnes is still churning out sandwiches and wine and lots more. He still serves the most eclectic crowd in the neighborhood and, even as imitators have cropped up all over Charlotte, the Common Market remains the least common place in town.
Who’d have thought?
“I’m just lucky I survived, man,” Barnes said. “Those first few years were rough. A lot of things have just worked out that I didn’t really plan on doing, but I listened to my customers.”
Looking back, Barnes can pinpoint his share of turning points.
There was the snow storm in — what was it, 2003, 2004? The city was buried, and Plaza Midwood essentially shut down for the better part of two weeks. Trees were down, power was out, but people still needed the essentials — beer, wine, food — and so they showed up at Common Market. Barnes never considered closing. In fact, since the day he opened in 2002, he’s never closed up shop.
Anyway, Barnes remembers a customer coming in to buy a six-pack.
“Can I drink one of these here?” the customer asked.
And with that, a new business model was born. The customer cracked open his beer, sat and chatted with other folks milling about the place, and Common Market went from wine shop to bottle shop.
“I kind of created a genre,” Barnes said.
When Trader Joe’s moved to town, Barnes knew his wine business would take a hit, so he installed a couple kegs. Then a few more. Then a few more. Now’s he got 10 beers on tap. When the brewery scene started to explode, he pivoted again, bringing in more West Coast beers and European options, a few sours and specialities you can’t get elsewhere. He’s seen the entire progression of craft beer though Charlotte.
“I can remember when we finally got Fat Tire on the East Coast,” Barnes said. “It was a big deal.”
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When the Harris-Teeter on Central Avenue closed for renovations, that’s when Common Market really took off. Suddenly Barnes was busier than he ever imagined — maybe too busy, he recalled — but plenty of people who’d never ventured inside before finally got a taste of the unique culture Common Market offered. And they got hooked.
Barnes remembers another day, maybe 2003, when he noticed a two women sitting alongside one another in his shop, one rubbing the other’s back.
“This was still the conservative South back then,” Barnes said, “and I realized I’d created something, a place where people could feel comfortable being themselves.”
After 16 years, a lot has changed, of course. The deli menu offers its share of options for vegans, the beer selection is a mishmash of esoteric brands, and the porch has guests in suits and ties. But the basics — the walls full of tacky eccentricities, the communal spirit, the diverse crowd and the welcoming atmosphere — have stayed the same.
“A lot of it is the easy going vibe in there,” Barnes said. “We don’t judge, and you just never know what’s going to happen.”
At the same time, Barnes recently ran into a customer who grew up in the neighborhood. She’s a 23-year-old teacher now, and she owns a home of her own. She gleefully told Barnes how, when she was a kid, her friends would love to have sleepovers at her house, so they could ride their bikes to Common Market for ice cream. Odds are, if you’ve been in Plaza Midwood for any length of time, you have your own fond memories of an afternoon on the porch or a night at the bar, too.
“We’re entwined in people’s lives, five minutes at a time,” Barnes said.
After 16 years, Barnes has eagerly embraced his role in the community, too. In April, he was one of the primary sponsors for the Student Entrepreneur Summit, providing drinks and snacks for students attending the event. In September, Common Market is sponsoring one of PMNA’s movies in Midwood Park, too. But it’s more than just donating some snacks or cash. It’s the sense of community that Common Market has created in Plaza Midwood.
Back when he first opened, Barnes set up shop here because it was all he could afford. Somewhere along the way, the realtors started talking about Common Market as a reason to move to Plaza Midwood. Now businessmen and slackers sip beers on the same porch, finding they’ve got something in common.
“You’ll see a hipster next to a guy who’s virtually homeless next to a power banker, and they all start talking,” Barnes said. “It makes me feel good.”