CARY — By now it’s pretty obvious what people expect of a downtown. The new American city must be crowded with chefs and writers and seamstresses, working their craft in old buildings re-purposed beautifully by eager young business owners.
Coffee helps too.
Michelle Smith, then, is one of the first ambassadors of the area’s new downtown culture to plant her flag in Cary. Her new commercial venture, Gather, opened on Chatham Street in one of the town’s few properly metro storefronts.
From Raleigh she brings the language of the all-local economy – besides art and espresso, Gather hosts artisan entrepreneurs in a co-working space.
Weeks after its grand opening, Gather’s curated collection of people and wares seem poised to become a touchstone for Cary’s fledgling corps of young downtowners and merchants.
“I believe in community,” Smith said, sitting before shelves of her own prints and pillows, $33 teacups by a Graham artisan and $34 boxes of kitchen towels out of Raleigh. “I believe in sort of fostering that neighborliness. It doesn't necessarily matter who made my product, but I like knowing it was the guy I ran into at the coffee shop, and that he decided to follow his passion.”
Raised in Leesburg, Va., Smith seems almost born for the downtown life. Her vision in her early teens, walking around that historic town, was comically prescient of Gather: “I always envisioned a coffee/tea shop that had lots of plants, that had my studio in it and was a boutique, and had studio spaces for artists.”
At 17, she was quoted in the local newspaper complaining about the overabundance of lawyers and antiques downtown. That zest for the centralized life brought her to Raleigh in the early 2000s – where she ran headlong into the despair of the then-anemic city center.
“Tears are rolling from my eyes – it’s dead – there’s nothing there,” Smith recalled.
An outspoken advocate
She was a Web designer at the time, but the subsequent enlivening of Raleigh and Durham’s cores drew her into a new jack-of-several-trades creative life.
Her first merchant ventures were an online art store and The Rock & Shop Market, a pop-up gathering for artisans to sell and talk about their wares.
Later she teamed with the business incubator EntreDot to create Kindred, a downtown Raleigh business that quickly folded due to cash-flow problems.
Smith describes herself as an introvert, which few people believe. She’s obviously proud of what she’s doing, and doesn’t hesitate to say she has some natural aptitude toward leadership.
Basically, she’s an outspoken advocate of the stylized spaces and upscale craft trade that, to some, gives a city new life.
That’s why Gather isn’t so much a store as 1,500 square feet of working space for the creative upper and middle class.
A shared space
Its coffee shop, Grounds, is an independent business run by Casey Marburger. Come 2 p.m., the lounge shuts down to the public, instead becoming an office for dues-paying members. The space also hosts several tenant businesses in more-permanent offices, including quilters, a prop rental shop and a photography business, along with merchandise from various small businesses.
While many of these businesses operate from home or on the Internet, Gather aims to bring them together in one place where they can share their customers and their knowledge.
“Meeting people is really what furthers your business, so I wanted to create a space,” Smith said.
Then there are the classes, to help young makers make a business out of their assorted handicrafts, from canning to lettering by hand. Among Smith’s own advice for upstarts: Higher-priced goods make for a living wage.
Gather opened for business with a party in August, and it’s still sinking its roots into the ground. Smith joins a crop of savvy new business owners downtown – including the new cuisine of Cafe 121 and the spunky Lucky Pie Gallery – but Cary’s downtown revitalization remains in its very early phases.
In the coming weeks, Smith will add her final touches to the building that she’s been carefully piecing together for months – most importantly, a sign above the door.
Kenney: 919-460-2608; Twitter: @KenneyOnCary