Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Up and Coming City Hot Spots are big on Vintage & Handmade: New Marketplace Emerges in Downtown Raleigh

RALEIGH, N.C. -- Over on West Street, just one block from trendy Glenwood South and a stone’s throw from “West on North,” a 17-story residential condominium building scheduled to open in October, sits a large, old warehouse building with a big, purple armchair emblazoned on its façade. If owner Patrick Lawton has his way, this simple structure is going to change the way Raleigh thinks about shopping experiences in the downtown district.

Purple Armchair (there is no “the” before the name) opened for business at 600 West Street in February after the warehouse’s interior was extensive cleaning out and renovated. Billing itself as an “emerging marketplace in downtown Raleigh,” the wide-open store offers “art…vintage…everything,” according to its owner.

Purple Armchair is a membership-driven market and an association of artists, craftspeople and a lively assortment of vendors of unique merchandise. Membership pay fees on a month-by-month basis to have the store sell their wares. Mid-century modern furniture, pristine vintage and other handmade clothing, antiques, handmade jewelry, pottery, tableware and fine art are just a portion of the current inventory. But that’s going to change. Often.

“We carry just about everything, depending on what members we have at the time and what merchandise they offer,” he said. “We are actively pursuing members all the time so that our inventory will continue to expand and change. We want our customers to be pleasantly surprised every single time they come in so that they’ll keep coming in time after time.”

Lawton also intends to add a coffee bar and fresh flower and herb vendors in the near future. “I want to be the premier source for eclectic merchandise in downtown Raleigh. I want Purple Armchair to be the place where you find everything you couldn’t find at the last store you visited.”

A native of Northern Virginia and a software engineer by profession, Lawton said his parents have been antiques dealers for 40 years. But when he and his wife, Melissa, decided to enter the marketplace, “We didn’t want to pigeonhole ourselves into one product line. I had a sense of what the market needed and wanted, and it wasn’t just another antiques store.”

So Purple Armchair is not an antiques store, although it does carry antiques. And Lawton is quick to point out something else Purple Armchair is not.

“We are not a flea market,” he said emphatically. “We do not have booths or spaces for members to lease and to do with as they like.”

He explained how it works: “Once our staff approves the products – and we are very selective – our members pay a low monthly fee and deliver their products to our staging area. Then we get to work mixing and mingling and merchandising those products within the rest of the store,” he said. “Our professional interior decorator takes care of all displays in Purple Armchair -- displays that are carefully designed and arranged to complement each other and to draw customers from one area to another.”

In return for “letting us do our job, which is to move products,” Lawton said, members receive constant feedback, valuable data he collects for them, tax documents, and other benefits. But if a product isn’t selling, it has to go.

“We’re not a warehouse, and we don’t sit behind a counter and watch our products sink or swim,” he said. “We promote our merchandise, we make deals when the situation requires it, and we talk to customers all the time about what they like or don’t like, and what they’d like to see in our space.”

The store receives a percentage of the sales along with the monthly membership dues.

Where did the name come from? “Out of the blue,” Lawton admitted with a smile. “We just wanted a name that would make a great logo. And it does!”

Purple Armchair is a member of the Downtown Raleigh Alliance, DowntownRaleigh.com, and First Friday Art Walk. Closed on Mondays and Tuesdays, the store’s business hours are Wednesday-Saturday 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., and Sunday noon to 5 p.m. For more information, including membership opportunities, visit http://www.purplearmchair.com.

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