Consumer Culture Critics’ Picks 2020

We had to say goodbye to too many of our cherished local businesses this year, and we hope everyone involved in those closures gets back on their feet moving forward. We also want to shout out the folks still standing in the community. Here’s to hoping we can do a little less online shopping and a little more perusing come 2021.

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Best Local Item:
Charlotte Skyscraper Chess Set

Joel Bonasera, founder of Making Things CLT, left his decade-long career in science and tech education to focus on digital fabrication, and he’s gotten pretty damn good at it. After spending two years obsessively working on a scale model of Uptown, Joel noticed that the buildings would translate well into a chess set. And that’s how legendary ideas are born.

(Photo courtesy of Making Things CLT)

Standing at heights ranging from 1.5 inches (the Odell building as pawns) to 3.65 inches (the Bank of America Corporate Center as kings), the set is designed for a small chessboard with squares between 1.5-1.85 inches. The set is completed by the Duke Energy Center (queen), One Wells Fargo Center (bishop), Hearst Tower (knight), and The Vue (rook). 


Best New Place:
The Corner

A corner for the culture in the north Charlotte suburbs. A haven for hip-hop heads and hypebeasts. The Corner is part bodega and part artists’ lounge. Here you can cop goodies like Rap Snacks, Linden’s Cookies, Funko Pops, artist tees and limited collections from indie designers. You can also catch pop-ups from performing and visual artists, or just catch them vibing.

Store owner Amy Goudy is known in the Charlotte hip-hop community for cultivating spaces that cater to collaboration among young artists. Now, she invites the public in to participate and gives them a curated collection of cool shit to shop while they’re at it. This is the one store in Charlotte I know I can go to and see, hear, and buy something I won’t find anywhere else.

The Corner. (Photo by Marc Prosper)

Best Strip Mall:
Eastway Crossing

This unassuming strip mall is no longer a secret kept by urban adventurers drawn to the shopping center’s growing list of diverse and exciting stores and eateries. In some ways, Eastway Crossing feels like a throwback to the Plaza Midwood of the past, — an artsy, eclectic bohemian enclave unsullied by cookie-cutter chain stores and restaurants.

The once-upon-a-Plaza Midwood vibe is reinforced by some of the older tenants in the mall. Many like Dairy Queen, Armada Skate Shop and Tommy’s Pub are refugees from Plaza Midwood’s wrecking ball and ridiculously skyrocketing rents. VisArt Video, a longtime anchor of the strip, relocated from nearby Elizabeth. EastSide Local, a cozy café and oasis for vegans and vegetarians is next to the video store. The café’s co-owner Gina Stewart, who also manages both businesses, is creating a synergy between EastSide Local and VisArt.

Eastway Crossing. (Photo by Grant Baldwin)

These businesses, plus Atlantic Farmers Market, Portofino’s Pizza and US Food Chef Store have been joined by independent restaurant Royal African Cuisine, essential oils shop Taj Essentials, bottle shop Bart’s Mart, a dog salon and more. Open Door Studios, which held ballet, jazz, and modern dance classes in Plaza Midwood for 15 years, will be coming to the crossing in the spring.

“There’s some really cool stuff here, and if it continues, it’s going to be great,” Stewart offers. “Plus, you can park here.”


Best Tattoo Shop:
Made To Last Tattoo

The pandemic has been all about survival for people and businesses, and once survival has been obtained, it’s all about giving back to the community. Made To Last Tattoo has been giving back to the community in large sums since opening in July 2016. At the beginning of the pandemic, shop co-owner Chris Stuart’s wife Maria was diagnosed with breast cancer just weeks after finding out she was pregnant with their second child. Shop employees started a GoFundMe, hosted art auctions on Instagram and even auctioned off a 1963 Oldsmobile to raise over $200,000 for the couple to move forward.

The shop is also big on backing Safe Alliance in their goal of supporting survivors of domestic violence. They regularly host flash tattoo events in support of the annual Still Not Asking For It fundraising initiatives. To date, Made To Last has raised nearly $40,000 in support of Safe Alliance, sometimes having tattooers from around the country come in and tattoo from noon to 3 a.m. In addition, this year they’ve also raised over $4,000 for The Pink House Charlotte and $5,000 for the beloved Lang Van, as well as sharing local business’ GoFundMe pages through their own social media.

Studio manager Brandon Swiderski, who heads up most of the shop’s charitable endeavors and has recently started his own 501c3, Derski Foundation, says, “We believe that we treat people super well and it creates a sense of community within our shop and emanates outward. It feels like a family honestly. That when somebody is in need, there are no questions asked and our whole community rallies and answers the call. A tattoo is meaningful and cool of course, but we are super grateful that we are able to take that platform and make a difference in our city.”


Best Collaborative Space:
Camp North End

Everyone is looking for the next best thing to collaborate on. We get requests all the time from people saying “Let’s work on something together!” Though those statements rarely come with a solid idea, it shows that collaboration is the best way to get your name, work or community engagement efforts out there for the world to see. Camp North End doesn’t just host that space, but actively works to collaborate with creatives, creators and innovators throughout the year to provide space for everyone to enjoy.

Art studios, small businesses, festivals, events, live-music bookings, food stalls, retail and office space, architecture design opportunities, goats, murals, culinary activations, pop-up markets and almost anything else you can think of has, or will eventually, take place within the 76-acre space just north of Uptown between North Graham Street and Statesville Road.

The space has been slowly built out over the past three years to become a daily destination for Charlotteans looking for walkable spaces to expand local experiences. Most recently they partnered with Blumenthal Performing Arts to bring a premiere of next year’s We Are Hip Hop festival that Blumenthal plans to activate quarterly. CNE collaborated with Free Range Brewing to brew Camp Beer, a Carolina light lager. They collaborated with culinary elites to showcase top quality food and bev through their Next Plate series.

The list goes on and will continue to go on well into the coming years. As long as the space continues to work as an incubator for Black-owned businesses and POC creatives, it can curb the potential that it may become its own gentrifying force in years to come. The CNE team works its ass off to create and showcase the things that make this city great.


Best Place at the Right Time:
Hound’s Drive-In

When we came rolling into 2020 with big stupid smiles on our faces, not a single one of us were thinking about a drive-in movie theater. However, come late spring, as that shutdown was starting to wear on our mentals, it turned out a live-music venue/movie theater where one can stay in the car with their quarantine family was the perfect prescription for stir craziness.

Hound’s Drive In. (Photo by Grant Baldwin)

Hounds’ Drive In owner Preston Brown and the rest of his team at the Belmont drive-in stepped up to the high demand, hosting regular movies and concerts, including big acts like Metallica!

OK, so Metallica was just a live-recorded concert that streamed to drive-in theaters around the country (Garth Brooks did the same) but the theater did host plenty of worthwhile shows and, let’s be honest, even the Top 40 cover band were good enough reason to get out of the house and do something.


Best Pet Rescue:
Humane Society of Charlotte

The wonder of bringing a four-legged companion into your home is exciting for you and whichever pet you end up adopting. The Humane Society of Charlotte has trained adoption counselors that match you with the animal that is best suited to your lifestyle and provide the resources necessary to create a loving home for your new friend.

Everything is so up in the air this year and it can be hard getting through it on your own. If you’re in the market for an apocalypse buddy make sure to adopt, don’t shop.


Best Plant Shop:
Shades of Moss

Hidden away in the upstairs of an unassuming white house on East 7th Street is Shades of Moss, a Black-owned plant shop. Every inch of the small room is covered with greenery of all shapes and sizes, along with local plant-themed artwork and gardening books.

Barry Greene, the shop’s owner, offers a helping hand to everyone from novices to the full-fledged plant aficionados. Greene recently tested positive for COVID-19 and took a step back, letting his mother take the reigns, all the while offering virtual guidance via appointment for shoppers. It’s this kind of accommodating service that sets Shades of Moss apart from the larger box stores.


Best Etsy:
Art By Monday

Charlotte-based artist Stacie Monday creates stunning paintings that, according to her Etsy bio, “seek to deconstruct the negative stereotypes of Black women with which we are bombarded on a daily basis.” 

Her Etsy is full of poster prints and gorgeous canvas prints that give a similar feel to buying an original piece at a more affordable price. Monday’s work has an unmistakable artistic signature, putting abstract twists on her subjects, which are almost exclusively Black women.

Painting by Stacie Monday.

Whatever piece you choose it is sure to include a colorful palette that will brighten up the space in which it hangs and be a statement-making piece you will treasure and love to show off. If you’ve gotta spend all day, every day in your home, you may as well pick up some local art as eye candy.


Best Designer:
J.Reid

The soft-spoken J. Reid lets his fashion do the talking for him. The king of the local pop-up, you can always catch J.Reid putting out new gear, you just don’t know where that might happen next. From the Lauryn Hill tee to his most recent falling man sweatshirt to the more simplistic J.Reid signature designs, his work is always on point. And that’s not even to mention his trademark-style sunglasses, which bring a whole new dynamic to his repertoire. Keep an eye on @j.reid_ on Insta for the next local pop-up, because there’s no telling what he might bring next.

J.Reid don’t play.

Best Stylist:
Erica Hanks

If you’re familiar with Charlotte fashion, or just fashion in general really, the name Erica Hanks has probably come up. Her passion for personal style is as contagious as her energy, and she embraces the notion that what we wear is an extension of who we are.

Erica knows that when we look good, we feel good, and her goal is to ensure each client she works with looks and feels like a million bucks. Highly sought after by the country’s top athletes, executives, and high profile personalities, it’s easy to see why Fox Sports East Coast hired Erica as their head of wardrobe. Even if you don’t recognize Erica by name, I’m willing to bet you recognize some of her clients, including Thomas Davis, Trai Turner, and Kyle Larson.

Erica Hanks (Photo by Darcy O’Hara)

Extremely versatile, Erica is a stylist that has conquered the industry offering her expertise in personal, commercial, and editorial styling and consulting for companies, agencies, personal clients and athletes alike. We love a woman that can do it all! This year alongside Sarah Ashley, Erica pivoted to meet demand and added a multi-brand digital e-commerce site to her extensive resume when her newest venture, Showroom, was born. Featured in both Women’s Wear Daily and The New York Times, you can check out Erica’s breathtaking portfolio on her website theericahanks.com or shop with Erica at shopshowroom.com.


Best Video Store:
VisArt Video

In this case, our category title is wholly inadequate for the winner of said category. Yes, VisArt is a video store — as far as we can tell the only independent one in Charlotte that isn’t adult-themed. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that.) Even better, it’s a cool and crazy brick and mortar store where you can pop into its warren of shelves lined with movies and merch including t-shirts, masks, stickers and the-fly-that-lived-on-Mike-Pence’s-head action figures, and get lost in movie nerd heaven.

Be forewarned: Even if you’ve entered the city’s most diverse cinema portal with a specific rental movie or series in mind, you’re bound to come out with something completely different. The joys of discovery awaiting patrons at VisArt cannot be overstated. You never know when the “WTF did I just see?” show you snapped up on a whim will become your next obsession.

Visart Video. (Photo by Grant Baldwin)

But in addition to being a video store, VisArt has become a nonprofit, with the mission of promoting filmmaking-and-watching in Charlotte. Plans for the future include providing a hub and meeting space for the city’s film community and curating a film library that includes classics and rarities.

Pre-COVID you could catch some of the latest finds from the Charlotte Film Society’s Back Alley Film Series in VisArt’s comfy, cool screening room, where several indie releases get their coveted theatrical run — crucial for cash-strapped auteurs’ marketing budgets.

But while we await the pandemic’s end, VisArt remains the go-to venue for classics, new releases and weird and wonderful mind-bending experiences. On a recent visit, we scored a copy of House, a perky upbeat supernatural mystery where high-spirited Japanese school girls gradually get devoured by a haunted house. Somehow this hallucinogenic, batshit crazy ensemble piece was the director’s attempt to emulate Jaws


Best Book Store:
Book Buyers

When we venture into Book Buyers with a hunter/gatherer gleam in our eyes, wait a full day before contacting air/sea rescue. Amid the used books, DVDs, CDs, vegan food and household products and adorable kittens up for adoption, it’s all too easy to get lost in Plaza Midwood’s funky and eclectic Mecca for bibliophiles.

The best damned used book store in Charlotte has a boundless selection of best sellers, classics and curios, but the store is also a multitude of other things. Lee Rathers sells vegan products from her store The Greener Apple, housed in the front. Cute and furry kittens, rescued by Virginia O’Riley, scamper down the aisles looking for you to give them a permanent home.

Book Buyers Used Books.

Need another point of interest? Owner Richard Rathers, who has been a coal miner, a school teacher and a pilot, is also building a full-sized airplane. You can see it hanging from the ceiling above the kittens’ sleeping quarters.

In recent years, the store has gone from a cherished semi-secret for the city’s book lovers to a bustling destination for young professionals that have moved into the neighborhood. It’s a heartwarming sight for anyone who has feared that the country is lapsing into illiteracy, or that Plaza Midwood is losing its cool. Take it from us, a trip to Book Buyers will restore your belief in the goodness of everything funky and bohemian.


Best Pop-Up Shop:
Oakhurst Mess Market

When the going got tough this year, the pop-up aficionados Esther & Elsa got tougher. As COVID hit the small-business community hard, the minds that brought you Front Porch Sunday and Nebel’s Alley Night Market dug in — knowing that their vendors and community needed them now more than ever. A result of hardship, uncertainty, and determination in the face of both those things, the Oakhurst Mess Market became a beacon in the night for local small-business owners.

Throughout the year the Oakhurst Mess Market, located in its namesake neighborhood, hosted a small outdoor market of local vendors across the street from Common Market Oakwold, which often provided the morning coffee while the market provided a variety of goods from fresh local produce, groceries, and plants, to soaps and home goods. The team worked diligently to prepare the community for shopping in the era of COVID by instituting firm regulations and effectively educating people about what to expect. At a time when we were all looking for a light at the end of the tunnel, in a lot of ways it wasn’t just small businesses who needed this lifeline – it was the community too.

Keep up with Jordan Dollard and the Esther & Elsa team to see what they’ve got up their sleeves next.


Best Head Shop:
Infinity’s End

Infinity’s End began as Charlotte’s first head shop over 50 years ago in 1969. Along with the typical items you’d find at a smoke shop, shoppers can find skateboarding equipment, metaphysical crystals and even cuckoo clocks. Before you get to the head shop in the back of whichever location you visit, you’ll pass by jewelry, clothing, gifts, crystals, disc-golf equipment and much more. The dynamic shop mainly caters to the counterculture and laid-back bohemian types — a staple for anyone that doesn’t fit into the financial and banking-centric parts of Charlotte’s community.

The Infinity’s End ownership team (left to right): Frank Pietras Jr., Becky Pietras, Chris Edwards and John Pietras Jr. (Photo courtesy of Infinity’s End)

Over the past half-century-plus, the loyal customers that Infinity’s End served have brought in generations of other customers; parents bring in their children, who in turn, bring in their children. It’s not just a head shop, but a family-friendly retail store.


Best Clothing Store:
Five 13 Studio

The first time we walked into Five 13 Studio we were not expecting to be met with every color, texture, and fabric known to man at such great prices. It’s hard not to walk out with the whole store in your bag. Customers are surrounded by chic everyday staples, paired alongside fringe, sequins, and patterns galore. Better yet? Owner Jekia Doss Benson, a local fashion stylist and wardrobe curator, is as vibrant as the clothing she lines the walls of her store with. She makes you feel like you just walked through the door at your own personal wardrobe fitting.

With such a diverse offering, Five 13 Studio has you covered whether you’re looking for something casual yet sassy, or a show-stopping piece for a special (socially distant) event. This year Five 13 Studio opened a physical retail space at The RailYard and is open 10 am – 6 pm Tuesday through Saturday. Stop by and say “Hi!” to Jekia and buy yourself something special for the holiday season.


Best Consignment:
Nouveaux Consignment Boutique

New to the neighborhood but not to Charlotte, Nouveaux Consignment Boutique brings its unique style to Plaza Midwood. Taking over the historic space that used to house local favorite Frock Shop, Nouveaux has embodied the energy of its predecessor and made it their own as they find their footing in their new neighborhood home.

The shop offers an array of items for women including Louis Vouitton handbags, funky Nine West boots, and vintage fur coats with price points anywhere from $20-$500. While traditionally catering to an upscale consignment demographic, we hope Nouveaux will also seize the opportunity to fill the thrifting gap that was left behind after the loss of Buffalo Exchange earlier this year in the same neighborhood. They strive to offer items that are on-trend, including vintage, rather than just labels and price points, and  we’re excited to see how their offerings and style continues to evolve.

While they offer a small selection of what you can find online (along with tips for consignors) you’ll want to drop in the store to really get a feel for everything they have.


Best Grocery Store:
Earl’s Grocery

When sisters Bonnie Warford and Tricia Maddrey closed their iconic Carpe Diem Restaurant and Caterers in the spring, they didn’t know it would be for the last time. By June, however, the sisters had to make the heartbreaking announcement that after 30 years, Carpe Diem was shutting its doors, making the Elizabeth staple one of the first restaurants in Charlotte to close permanently because of the pandemic.

The unshakable sisters weren’t giving up completely, however. In the same statement grieving the closing of Carpe Diem, they announced the planned reimagining of Earl’s Grocery, another local joint they own just a few doors down from the former Carpe Diem on Elizabeth Avenue.

With less than a month left on Earl’s lease, rather than riding out the remaining time and closing for good, Warford and Maddrey chose to take a leap of faith and extend it for another six, then revamp and reopen the popular shop. Balance and flexibility have been the key ingredients in curating the selection.

Sisters Bonnie Warford (right) and Tricia Maddrey (left), co-owners of Earl’s Grocery on Elizabeth Avenue. (Photo by Grant Baldwin)

Shoppers will find a variety of everyday cleaning products, cereal, canned goods and specialty items, including a handful of local favorites such as Homeland Creamery milk, Duke’s Bread, Chef Alyssa’s Spreads, Cannizzaro sauces, and Pure Intentions Coffee.

The recently closed Carpe Diem and reimagined Earl’s Grocery are testaments to the sisters’ drive, showing that no matter what, they have given their all throughout the entirety of their careers. With over six decades of service industry experience between them, Warford and Maddrey managed to stay flexible and true to their values even in the midst of a pandemic.


Best Record Store:
Lunchbox Records

Fourteen years ago, Lunchbox Records opened in a storefront in Plaza Midwood. It was a time before vinyl’s dramatic commercial resurgence when it seemed that physical media like records and CDs were on the wane. Instead, Lunchbox flourished, moving to bigger and better digs in the Belmont neighborhood.

Today, the bright blue building that was formerly a funeral home is a beacon to music lovers across the city. It’s clear that owner Scott Wishart, who plays drums in local indie rock band Late Bloomer, runs the store because he loves music.

Lunchbox Records. (Photo by Grant Baldwin)

You also have to hand it to Wishart for his response to COVID-19. When financial aid for small businesses beset by the pandemic’s economic fallout got gobbled up by big corporations pleading poor; when pressure mounted for merchants to open their doors to bring in enough people and money to keep the wolf at bay; Wishart stuck to his guns, ensuring the health and safety of his staff and customers.

Drive by the store any Saturday and you’ll see masked patrons lined up outside the front door. Wishart still strictly limits the amount of people allowed inside the store and judging by the line forming in his parking lot, it doesn’t seem to have hurt the shop’s popularity. Lunchbox won’t turn away business, but they don’t want anybody to die for it.


Best Bottle Shop:
Bloom & Bottle

Bloom & Bottle is more than just a bottle shop. In fact, they’ve taken two of Charlotte’s favorite things — booze and plants — and combined them into one funky package. While small in size, owner Doug Coty and beertender Ben Grimm have created a space that packs a powerful punch with an energy as spirited as the bouquets Doug designs. 

Featuring a rotating tap including a variety of beers from across the nation, a wide array of classic and unique wine offerings, and even some local snacks and provisions, there’s a little something for everyone (and it’s all delicious too). If you’re not sure what you’re looking for don’t be scared to give Ben a flavor profile and let him pick your next drink! You won’t be disappointed.

Bloom & Bottle. (Photo by Grant Baldwin)

There is no kitchen on the property, but most nights Carlos Dogs can be found on the patio slinging everything from tacos and empanadas to his famous Classic Carlos Dogs. Plus, food from other establishments is welcome as well, which is a huge perk considering Ace No. 3’s and Sweet Lew’s are right across the street.

This team has a penchant for supporting local and have already hosted local community vendors and charity events despite the pandemic and the restrictions they’ve had to accommodate to keep staff and patrons alike safe.

Whether you’re stopping in for a beautiful bouquet and a bottle of wine to go, or if you’re planning to drink a couple socially distant beers on the patio, Bloom & Bottle is a one-stop shop — just don’t forget your mask.

From the eclectic interior decor to the hand-painted mural to the heated outdoor patio space, the flowers aren’t the only beautiful thing about Bloom & Bottle.


Best Way To Stay in Touch:
Good Postage

This is the year of long-distance friendships made easier by technology in the form of Zoom parties and Facetime dates. It doesn’t hit you how much time you’re spending staring at screens big and small until that pesky screen-time data is staring you right in the face.

So, how are we supposed to stay in contact with socially distant friends without getting sucked into the seductive tech rabbit hole? Two words: write letters. The act of sitting down and writing a thoughtful note just because is unmatched. especially when you’ve got some adorable stationery to do it with.

Postcard by Good Postage.

Good Postage, which opened in Camp North End earlier this year, is a paper good store owned by mother-daughter duo Karen & Jane Manfredi. The stationary, greeting cards and stickers they carry are printed on recycling paper and covered in quirky, hand-drawn artwork. Jane Manfredi, School of the Art Institute graduate and the daughter of the duo, is responsible for all the designs. Jane captures animals, everyday objects, zodiac signs and memorable moments with color and charm.

Check them out at goodpostage.com.

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