Once the Dairy Queen went, Carolyn Barber knew everything was about to change in Plaza Midwood.
It was in September 2019 that the owners of the Dairy Queen located at the corner of Central and Pecan avenues announced they would be forced to close their doors for good the following month. The iconic ice cream shop had opened in 1950.
Brothers Sherman and Steven Walters, whose family had run the shop for nearly 40 years, could not come to terms on a new lease for the property.
Barber, whose shop Reggae Central opened in a storefront kitty-cornered from Dairy Queen in 1997, knew this was a bad omen for her future in Plaza Midwood. She only became more convinced later that month when her longtime friend Penny Craver, owner of nearby restaurant Dish, announced that she and her co-owners were selling their popular eatery.
Dish found new ownership in local restaurateur Lewis Donald, but Barber had built a strong kinship with Craver in the 20 years since Dish had opened, helping book reggae bands at Craver’s since-closed music venue Tremont Music Hall.
Then in January 2021, one of Barber’s closest friends and neighbors Hope Nichols announced that she and her husband would be forced to relocate their clothing boutique Boris & Natasha after 22 years in the neighborhood.
“Me and a few others built this neighborhood back up from being forgotten and it’s sad we are being priced out by the success our decades of work has created,” Nichols told Queen City Nerve before moving out of the space that January. “We have been gentrified and it happened to creative people as well as everyone else who can’t afford to buy into property in an area where we create, live and work.”
As one of the creatives and business owners whom Nichols was referring to having built Plaza Midwood up, Barber knew she wouldn’t be long for the neighborhood. Her lease on the Reggae Central location along Plaza Midwood’s main Central Avenue strip, squeezed between longtime neighborhood staple Mama’s Caribbean Grill and newcomer Emmy Squared Pizza, came to an end on New Year’s Eve 2021. She couldn’t afford to renew it.
Barber had seen the neighborhood change from an eccentric space to one where she didn’t feel like she fit. After decades of regular foot traffic, she wasn’t getting as much attention as she once had.
“It was more, what can I say, hippie,” she explained, laughing. “But it all kind of changed.”
Now she’s taken a page from some of the folks who were forced out of the neighborhood before her and gone east.
The Walter brothers have found a new home in the increasingly popular Eastway Crossing shopping center on the corner of Eastway Drive and Central Avenue. Nichols has settled into a small-but-thriving strip mall on The Plaza, joining Hattie’s Tap & Tavern and Tip Top Daily Market. As for Barber, she has moved into The Shoppes at Citiside, a large and diverse shopping center located at the corner of The Plaza and Eastway Drive.
Now as she celebrates 25 years in business for Reggae Central, a milestone that passed on May 31, she feels rejuvenated in her new location.
“Every day I’m getting new people here,” she told Queen City Nerve during a visit to the new space in March. “So I feel really good. Central Avenue, it was good when it was good, but then I could feel that it was kind of going not that way; instead of up, it was slowing down over there for me. And so now I came over here and I’m like energized again with people coming in. There [on Central Avenue], at the end I was like, ‘Oh, it’s slow.’ You just see people jogging and walking by, you know what I mean? But over here it’s a little more energized.”
An eye on diversity
Having grown up in Rock Hill, Barber originally began looking there for a new location. Yet the strong base of loyal customers she had built over the past 25 years wouldn’t have it.
Her Facebook page lit up with concerned followers after she mentioned where she was looking for new space.
“When I told them, ‘Well, it’s less expensive in Rock Hill to rent, and it’s not that far,’ but then I have customers that come from Virginia, Greensboro, Winston-Salem, and they were telling me, ‘Oh no, you can’t do that!’ They travel, and they don’t want to travel to South Carolina.”
It was one of these loyal customers that first brought Barber to the Shoppes at Citiside, where they knew space was available and she could fit right in. She quickly noticed the diversity of businesses at the shopping center — the large Asian Market that anchors it, Enat Ethiopian Restaurant, a Black-owned tattoo parlor, and a Vietnamese-owned nail salon.
“We have people here from Guatemala and Vietnam and China and Congo and Senegal, right in this shopping center,” Barber said. “There are all different nationalities. And that’s where I want to be, where it’s diverse.”
That passion for diversity is what drew Barber to reggae culture in the first place. She has noticed that her store is a tourist destination for people traveling from all over the world, not just the countries one might associate with reggae.
“It’s rooted, you know? So it’s culture. And what can I say? It’s just a part of who you are,” Barber said. “And it’s not just reggae. It’s Central and South America. It’s everything, really, a little bit of everything.”
For this reason, Barber tries to keep something in stock that serves as a nod to each and every country she can think of, be it a banner, a keychain, or a flag, so that anyone who walks in the door has a chance to find something that makes them feel at home.
Now with her new home in Shoppes at Citiside, she’s already noticed that the diversity of the new businesses around her has only made that point all the more relevant. Immigrants from around the world already regular the east Charlotte shopping center for their own reasons. She’s noticed that some of her old clientele overlaps with the regular traffic at the shopping center.
“My customers know this area because most of them eat at the Ethiopian restaurant or they go into the Asian Market for fresh seafood and it’s like, ‘Oh God, you moved up here? I only have to make one stop now.’ I get a lot of that. They know this area and they live not far from here,” she said.
Another 25 years
Reggae Central’s 25-year anniversary came and went without much fanfare on May 31, but that’s not because Barber doesn’t want to celebrate with her customers. Having decided on the new space a relatively short time before she had to be out of her original location, the last six months have been a whirlwind of a move for Barber, which started with throwing everything into boxes and placing them in the new space during the last few days of 2021, then figuring out a new layout from there.
Upon our visit in March, Barber had turned the space into something just as homey as the Central Avenue spot. The store is stocked fully with clothing, instruments, artifacts, decor and everything else her customers had come to expect.
Despite dealing with just half the space (around 1,000 square feet as compared to the nearly 2,000 she had), Barber found room to carve out a comfy lounge for kicking back and reflecting on her first 25 years in business.
“The support from the community is what has kept Reggae Central open all these years, the generations of people,” she said, before allowing for some self-congratulatory admittance despite her humble nature.
“And I guess me, too. It takes the right person, the right personality, the right heart to be able to communicate with people in a way where people feel at home when they come in your home — your store. When people feel that closeness, that’s what keeps it alive. It doesn’t really feel like you’re working, it doesn’t feel like a job, it just feels like I’m leaving home and going to my other home. So that’s a good feeling. I probably will be doing this until I can’t do it no more. My friends have said, ‘We’re going to be pushing you in here on a wheelchair.’”
Barber does plan to celebrate her 25th anniversary at some point this summer, but she wants to have some time to truly congregate with her neighbors and build a community.
She has a vision of hosting a series of events in the Shoppes at Citiside parking lot, all-day festivals that celebrate the heritage of each business owner within the center.
Her first step in that direction will occur on June 18 with Reggae Central’s Juneteenth celebration, featuring free drinks, food from the Authentic by Zee Jamaican food truck, a DJ on site and more. The event begins at noon.
“When you think back on generations and generations before me and what they went through and to have the freedom to do what I’m doing now, it means a lot and to pass it on to other generations to let them know what Juneteenth means,” she told Queen City Nerve during a recent talk in May. “It’s not just about shopping, it’s not about that. It’s togetherness, it’s a remembrance, it’s a meditation on what people went through back then and a celebration of how they got through it.”
She also hopes it can serve as a stepping stone for business owners at the Shoppes at Citiside to venture over and begin to build friendships.
While Barber has already connected with the neighboring nail salon and nearby tattoo parlor, she looks forward to making a more concerted effort in the lead-up to Juneteenth, introducing herself to all of the neighboring businesses and encouraging them to come out and be a part of the community.
After all, this is more than a place of business to her now.
“I didn’t know this area until one of my customers brought me over here,” she said. “I didn’t really know this area existed, but I’m at home now.”