It was with little fanfare that Blake Barnes rang in the 20th birthday of his business, Common Market’s original Plaza Midwood location, on Dec. 8. Despite the low-key celebration that day — a new beer release from Petty Thieves Brewing, an updated beer vixen logo rendition from local artist Hayley Moran, a heartfelt Facebook post from the founder — there was much for Barnes to be proud of.
After all, Dec. 8 didn’t just mark 20 years in business, it marked 7,306 consecutive days that Common Market has been open for business, never closing for a day since Dec. 8, 2002, when Barnes decided he’d open up his new shop so as to escape the cold of his own home down the street.
Then just a couple weeks after the anniversary, on Christmas Eve 2022, Barnes’ streak came into jeopardy as Duke Energy’s rolling blackouts hit his store and the power was shut off. So what did he do? He saged the place, put up a “Cash Only” sign and opened up in the dark.
Queen City Nerve spoke with Barnes following the 20-year milestone to talk about how far he’s come and where he plans to go, as he remains one of the last remaining originals in a quickly changing neighborhood.
Queen City Nerve: What were you doing before you opened Common Market in Plaza Midwood 2002?
Blake Barnes: Well, I’m a retired musician. I always say semi-retired, but one thing that I used to do when I went to every town, I looked for something really true to that city, you know what I mean? Or something really indigenous to it. I worked at a place Laurel Market off of Cherokee [Road]. I just started working there at night, and I was like, “You know, this is kind of in my blood.”
When I first started [Common Market], it was more of just a deli, but then I was like, what if we start flipping in really weird chips and beers and stuff like that, which kind of changed that whole thing. But then I realized the flaw to it was you can’t drink on premise.
I was building out my own store, basically, and Ron Hardman, the guy that owns Laurel Market, he was supposed to be my partner, but he backed out kind of at the last minute, and I don’t blame him, but at the time it made me nervous because I had never run my own business before.
So then I just set up, did the best I could, and, you know, Plaza Midwood was way different 20 years ago. Way different. They called behind my building Hepatitis Alley because that’s where everybody went to shoot up, and I didn’t even know it.
I lived right down the street, and it just kind of started off really as a convenience store was more my thought process. But I got a by-the-glass [alcohol permit] because back in the days, you got a better price on wine and beer if you had an on-premise license. That’s the only reason why I did it.
But there was a snowstorm about 2003-2004 somewhere, I can’t remember exactly when, and this guy came walking up there because I’m open every day. I mean, I have been open every single day. And I walked up there because I really couldn’t drive, and he was like, “Man, do you mind if I just drink one of these beers while I’m here?” And I was like, yeah, I guess so. And then I was like, “Why don’t I do that more often?” That’s kind of how that whole thing started.
So I kind of had my feet in a little bit, and I was so under-capitalized, I mean, I had no idea what I was doing. But I just kept fledgling along, moved a little bit further, a little further. I also started realizing I needed to listen to my customers, because back in those days, I had a few hipsters, but it was mostly extremely working class, which got me started in the PBR world, and it just kind of grew from there. And then I was a spillover for the old Penguin. Like when they filled up, then people would come see me — that and Thomas Street [Tavern]. So that was back in the day, we [Plaza Midwood business owners] were all old musicians, everybody knew each other. It was much more like it was five years ago, if you will, and they all decided not to sell cigarettes because I was selling cigarettes, and that’s what really created that walk-in traffic. So oddly enough, it was beer and tobacco (laughs). I always say I built my empire on tallboy PBRs and loose cigarettes.
Is there anything specific that you remember from that first day, December 8, 2002, that sticks with you?
Yes, it was actually a huge ice storm that day. And my wife [Cress Barnes] was extremely pregnant with my second child. We didn’t have heat at our house, we were just four blocks down on Commonwealth Avenue, but we did have heat at the store. So we were like, “Well, I guess today is just as good as any day to open up.”
I had just a little bit of tobacco, some Pabst Blue Ribbon, just a little bit of inventory. I had some old wine that I bought from a distributor that went out of business, and I remember we opened up and people just trickled in. I think I had maybe 16 customers the first day. It was ridiculously slow, but we were warm. And I was also only paying $6 a square foot in rent. Because it was a much different time, nobody wanted to be over there. I was just a little behind The Penguin, Dish opened a little behind me, we all kind of opened at the same time. And I remember thinking, “What the hell was I thinking?” Every day I was like, “I don’t know if I can keep going with this mess.” But it just, each day got a little bigger, a little better, and we just moved on from there.
What were some of the earliest obstacles and lessons that you learned?
I got broken into nonstop. I was constantly getting broken into. I think we got broken into like eight times — luckily never robbed. So I finally broke down and put up metal things across the front so people couldn’t get in anymore. And I remember that was kind of where things started getting a little better.
Common Market is anything but what the name implies. From inventory to events to clientele, it’s an eccentric place. Would you say your past as a musician drives that creativity?
Yeah, I think it was that. I remember before I even worked at Laurel Market, I worked for a company putting up party rental tents and tables and chairs. And I remember this guy that I was working with, he was the owner, I remember him saying, “You know Blake, you can be creative with things other than music.” And I’m like 30 years old, making $50 a gig, thinking I’m a rock star, right? And I was just like, “Whatever, old man.” But then what this is, is almost like my creative take on what a neighborhood store should be.
And the big thing is I listened to my customers. They told me everything I needed to do. The biggest turning point other than just being open every day — once people grasp that I’m always there, that helped a lot — but when Trader Joe’s moved into Charlotte and wine was a big seller for me, I knew that was going to cut [into my sales]; there’s no way I could compete with 3 Buck Chuck. And I knew my customers were going to go there because a lot of them like the whole foods. So that’s when I decided, just like, well, you can drink on premise, and I put in a two-tap keg box, and it started there, and then it just grew all the way to where I got 20 taps going now. And I was willing to carry the more obscure beers, wines, products that people wanted.
I remember Stacey Leazer, he’s played in bands forever, he came in and he used to tour with his band in California. He was like, “Dude, I had this stuff in California called kombucha. It’s like a tea made out of a fermented mushroom.” And I was like, “I’ll try and bring it in.” And then one of our other customers was like, “Damn, I wish you had this flavor.” And the next thing you know, now I’ve got a whole door just dedicated to different kombuchas and stuff like that. And I constantly seem to be slightly ahead of the curve because someone from out of town would ask me for something and then I’d find it. And I think that was the biggest key is really, unlike a lot of businesses that come in with such a hardcore plan of action, because I didn’t really know what I was doing, I started listening to my customers, and that’s what made the biggest change.
As much as you have a reputation for all those other things you’ve mentioned, the sandwiches have always been a big draw. How did you ensure that Common Market remains consistent as one of the top sandwich shops in Charlotte?
Well, a lot of that is I’ve just stayed the course. I didn’t start getting flashy. I stayed in my lane, if that makes sense. And I was one of the few guys using Boar’s Head meat because it is more expensive. But my thinking was, it’s a higher quality product, it really wasn’t in Charlotte that much. That helped a lot. And then I’ve had a lot of creative people work in my kitchen where, I mean, I stay with the basic formula, but I’m like, “Go ahead and make some signature sandwiches. Let’s try some new stuff.” And it would just kind of evolve from there.
And again, customers were asking for vegan food and I didn’t even know what a vegan was, I’ll be honest with you. So, Bridgett Wyatt is the lady that was working with me in my kitchen at the time. She was a vegan. We jumped off into the vegan world and this would have been about 2004. So way before the curve. And so then we were like, “Well, what in the world is gluten-free?” Again, one of those things. So we offered that. Then that became a huge draw. There were not a lot of vegetarian restaurants in Charlotte — definitely not gluten-free. Everybody knew. But the consistency has stayed with us. We make them the same way every day, same formula, with a little divergence here and there, and then almost everyone who ran my kitchen would come up with a new sandwich and then we would try it out and then people would like it and we’d just slap it on the menu. But yeah, the chicken salad recipe we’re using now is the exact same we did in 2002.
How are you seeing and dealing with the current changes in Plaza Midwood, seeing how many of your old neighbors are leaving and new neighbors coming in and this and that? How has that been affecting your business and what are your thoughts on it?
I’ve seen it change over time. I started blue collar, then I moved into the gutter punk, then I moved into more of an artsy fartsy type thing, and then it moved back into the bicycle crowd, and now it’s definitely moved more millennial professionals.
But I knew in South End when I was there, that’s how that whole thing started moving. So I learned how to shift everything as far as I’ve become more of a convenience store again than I used to be. But that’s also because I haven’t been having events and stuff like that. So what I’ve done is I am cutting against the grain just by not moving into that higher end, super flashy stuff; I’ve just stayed true to what I’ve done throughout the whole time.
I do know that the more millennial crowd, it’s just like it’s always been, they kind of like to come and look at the weirdos, which I still have (laughs). We were in the Nerve’s Best in the Nest, we got Best Place to People Watch, and we beat Freedom Park. That’s saying something. Even though my neighborhood has changed, and there’s a lot of smack talking about Plaza Midwood and all this, but I have learned to evolve with the world and just play the hand that’s given me, you know what I mean? So who knows where it’s going to go.
What are your plans for 2023?
Well, I used to do big, heavy punk bands and all kinds of crazy stuff to where now as I’m moving into next year I’m going to do more kind of cultural type things. Like I’ve been working with the International House and each month we have a country that we kind of represent and then people from that country, or an Arabic Center or something like that, will come in, they bring a few little foods and stuff like that so customers can talk to them … and then I kick back and donate either to International House or to that specific organization. Because I’ve been blessed, things have really worked, so I love cutting stuff back into the neighborhood and whatnot.
I was working with the Charlotte Area Pagans about moving into more of a spiritual kind of night, which sounds really weird but I figured people wouldn’t copy that because you don’t make money on it (laughs). And then we’re moving into poetry slams and kind of veering back into the music world. I really want to do the singer-songwriters, which I’ve never done, but the big heavy punk bands, that was kind of difficult to handle that crowd, so just kind of veering out into a little bit more like abstract art performance things and almost like busking where I pull in a banjo player and just let them go at it and stuff like that.
Are you planning to go another 20 years?
We’ll see (laughs). I am 55 years old, you know what I mean? I’m getting a little older. I’ve got for sure five more years on my lease, which I went into with a lawyer. Once I got kicked out of South End, I knew exactly what to do; I got the first right to buy, I’ve got a huge buyout plan. If I get removed, I get salary. It makes it difficult for someone to come in [to displace me].
So if I can continue to move on, my endgame is going to try to make it employee-owned. Hand it off to these guys, but stay involved in it and all that. I’ve got three boys and right now none of them want anything to do with it (laughs) because they hear my phone ringing at 2 a.m. and they’re like, “Uh uh, we don’t want your mess.” So idealistically, I’d like for it to be employee-owned and just basically try to keep it going as long as we can. And if I get the chance to buy the building, unless it’s some ridiculous price, that would be something I definitely would be interested in doing.