In 1977, Johnny Howard bought a small wooden house on Carrboro's Main Street to open his bait and tackle shop. Johnny's, his namesake, became a place where neighbors popped in to purchase buckets of worms and stayed for the chitchat. It's where Howard himself met more of his community, people who he says he just "started helping out with stuff."
That's what the handyman was doing last week, helping a friend sell Christmas trees at the very site where he began his business 34 years ago.
"It's kind of strange. Last Tuesday, I had two people ask me for my autograph," the 66-year-old Howard says, laughing. "I said, 'Are you serious?' And they said, 'Yeah, you're a legend around here.' I had no idea."
Carrboro, Chapel Hill and the surrounding community appreciate Johnny's with a fondness fit for a community center. Since the original shop closed in 2007, the small building and surrounding location was bought out by Jan Halle and Brian Plaster, a local artist who revamped the space as a Hispanic tienda turned corner store. You could go pick up a bag of onions and a cup of coffee and then sit outside listening to local band Mandolin Orange strum the banjo while you dodged the chickens scurrying about at your feet. On Saturday mornings, a few farmers sold produce, meats and eggs while citizens, young and old, gathered for a day outside, picking up breakfast from the Parlez-Vous Crpe truck.
When the shop unexpectedly closed in June—with no more notice than a last-minute, hand-scrawled paper sign on the front door—concerned citizens rallied around the idea of reopening the space. Halle, a retired oncologist, had bought Plaster's share; she teamed up with two friends who were longtime Johnny's patrons, and together they reopened the space last Saturday.
"There aren't that many places around here where you can sit down with older people. And there are kids running around, and dogs outside. It's just a total family place," says Erica Eisdorfer, the new store manager. "I think that's really good for a society. That's what I really liked about it."
Kevin Morgan, a retired veterinary pathologist, knew Eisdorfer remotely from run-ins at Johnny's, she being the retired manager of Bull's Head Bookshop on UNC-Chapel Hill's campus. They decided to reach out to Halle, and soon the trio formed the company Johnny's Gone Fishing (facebook.com/johnnysgonefishing), an LLC dedicated to reopening Johnny's.
It's a work in progress. The store will open at 7 a.m. with a few grocery items, Counter Culture drip coffee and pastries by Local Cookie. Small Potatoes farm will soon be stocking the shelves and coolers with their produce and meats (try the hot Italian sausage, aptly named Sophia Loren). They hope to add packaged lunches, like wrapped burritos and sandwiches, from local restaurants.
"It's important to have a storefront that's homegrown," Eisdorfer says. "We're hoping to have a blend. You know, you can come in and get Cheetos and local fancy teas."
Johnny Howard, the legend behind the space, is in talks with the owners about reopening his bait and tackle shop in the side shed, an addition he built himself in the 1980s.
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