APEX — Hidden in a cabinet amid merchandise at The Rusty Bucket is a paper bag labeled “Riley’s candy.”
Riley was 3 when she accompanied her mother on a shopping trip and couldn’t decide on just one piece of candy. So shopkeeper Pam Thorpe promised to save the rest for the next time she visited.
Now a first-grader, Riley knows just where to find her special stash.
That kind of personal connection has made the country store a staple in downtown Apex since Mack “MackDaddy” and Pam Thorpe opened it 10 years ago.
“I want people to feel good when they leave here,” said Pam, echoing the sentiment of the sign at the front door: “Enter as Strangers, Leave as Friends.”
The store was Pam’s idea. With corporate layoffs on the horizon, the couple knew it was time to make a change.
“I told him that I want to open a shop and call it The Rusty Bucket,” Pam said. “I came up with the name and when he was at the flea market, he found a rusty bucket. We used it to design our logo.”
Downtown Apex provided the ideal backdrop for their vision, and they set to work refurbishing the space with wood from an old tobacco barn. Now, the familiar floors creak and customers check out on a general store porch.
But keeping a small business going during tough economic times has not been easy.
“There were days I would come home in tears,” Pam said.
The Thorpes started feeling the pinch in late 2007, the same year The Rusty Bucket was named Country Business Magazine’s Retailer of the Year. They immediately began to trim expenses, but it was a struggle.
In 2011, the Thorpes faced an even bigger challenge when Mack became ill. That year, he spent 55 days in the hospital. By then, their customers – dubbed Bucket Heads by one – had become family.
“These relationships mean so much to us,” Mack Thorpe said. “We love these people. They were the motivation to stay in business.”
Mack recovered, but not before shedding 140 pounds.
Ninety percent of the merchandise at The Rusty Bucket is made in the United States. All the food and wine comes from North Carolina. One-of-a-kind items fill every nook and cranny.
The Thorpes buy handmade items from craftsmen and are themselves accomplished “pickers,” digging through old barns and abandoned homes or just knocking on doors if something catches their eye.
Candles and town signs are big sellers, as are furniture and reproduction appliances.
“And Yankees want moonshine jelly to ship back home,” Mack said.
Customers are often treated to fresh popcorn, and in the winter a fireplace in the “keeping room” warms the store.
The store is the setting for a television series, “The Rusty Bucket Kids,” created by customer and Hollywood veteran John Demers.
“I don’t feel like I come to work when I come here every day,” Mack said. “It’s like volunteering. I love it so much I’d do it for free.”