Both his shirt pockets bulge with cigarette packs, but Johnny Howard smells like a Christmas tree. Howard has been here all morning, peddling Fraser firs at the market named for him on West Main Street, a mile from downtown Carrboro. Locals say the holiday tree business is good this year. That's about all the cheerful news right now at Johnny's, which, depending on whom you ask, is Carrboro's most beloved or loathed grocery store.
On Sunday, landowner Jan Halle rejected an offer from the business' new managers. Fronted by Meghan Truesdell, along with Kevin Morgan and his son, Duncan Morgan, the team planned to buy the property and the embattled business, which has struggled to make money. Now Truesdell and the Morgans say they will be out of Johnny's by Dec. 15.
It's another shift for Johnny's, whose management will change for the third time in 18 months. Former co-owner Brian Plaster parted with Halle last summer following well-publicized battles with neighbors over traffic and noise.
"I just want to see it grow," Howard says. These days, Howard has little to do with the small store he once owned, although he manages the Christmas tree sales in Johnny's back lot.
Local residents Erica Eisdorfer and Kevin Morgan relaunched the store last December before handing over the management to Truesdell and the Morgans, who believed the business could succeed.
After Halle's rejection, Truesdell now wants out, she says, because their work at Johnny's has provided long hours and no financial reward. "I'm really crushed," Truesdell says. "I care so much about this place, but we're working ourselves to the bone for nothing."
Halle, a retired Chapel Hill oncologist, plans to assume operation of the business within 15 days, Truesdell says.
A recent bank appraisal pegged the tract's value at $405,000.
Halle, who could not be reached by the INDY this week, wanted more cash to recoup her investment, Truesdell says, but Truesdell's finances were already stretched.
The Johnny's building, which hosted a small convenience mart before Howard opened a sporting goods store in the mid-1970s, became a popular hangout in 2007 when Halle bought the property.
Johnny's was bustling, drawing large crowds of young people seeking a local market, beer and live—and loud—music. But after angry neighbors protested, Johnny's closed in June 2011. Since it reopened in December 2011, it has operated without a permit for on-premises alcohol sales, a key demand from Johnny's neighbors.
These days, traffic at Johnny's is limited to a small but loyal stream of customers in search of locally roasted coffee, locally grown vegetables, food trucks, baked goods or a hard-to-find bottle of wine.
The property is zoned for residential use, although Johnny's operated in a legal, "non-conforming" way because the business was grandfathered under previous town land-use plans, according to Carrboro Planning Director Trish McGuire.
In recent months, Johnny's management has sought rezoning for general business uses or a conditional-use permit to host indoor acoustic music and a handful of monthly beer or wine tastings.
The Carrboro Board of Alderman is slated to consider the rezoning Jan. 29.
Tina Saldaña, who lives on nearby Westview Drive, says she opposes the rezoning, like a few other neighbors here, because she is worried the booze and the live music will return.
"Crowds are hard to control," Saldaña says. "When there's a good thing, people want to come."
Cynthia Davis, a 50-year Kay Street resident whose home abuts the Johnny's property, says the noise and traffic was too much for this community.
"I've seen a lot of changes in Carrboro," Davis says. "Some of them were good, some of them were bad. But this is probably the worst thing we have faced in this neighborhood."
Saldaña says neighbors should not be inconvenienced to further the owners' business model.
There is some small hope for compromise, Saldaña says, noting that Halle is negotiating terms with concerned neighbors. But Saldaña says any deal would exclude regular drinking on the property.
"We can't support five or six people on the back of our neighborhood," she says. "You can't ask us to do it, and the town should not be asking us to do it."
This article appeared in print with the headline "Go Johnny's, go."