Ninth Street has endured decades of transformation, from its agricultural roots to its present-day status as a lively urban hub. Get to know the dedicated business owners who maintain the avenue’s unique character as well as the emerging entrepreneurs who are propelling it into the next era of growth and vibrancy.
By Leah Berry | Photography by John Michael Simpson
Once a sprawling expanse of 600 acres devoted to tobacco, corn and sweet potato fields, the area surrounding Ninth Street began a transformative journey in the 1890s. It evolved from a quiet mill village during the 103-year operation of the Erwin Cotton Mill to become the lively, humming heart of West Durham, teeming with independent businesses. Ninth Street, much like any main street in the nation, has witnessed the ebb and flow of shops and restaurants. Some have vanished into the annals of history, while others have stood the test of time. Today, chains like Starbucks and Harris Teeter have placed themselves among our independent storefronts, but this iconic Bull City avenue retains its historical charm thanks to the dedicated patrons and business owners who breathe life into its soul.
In the pantheon of Ninth Street’s enduring establishments, Barnes Supply Co. stands as one of the oldest. Owner Gary George has never left Durham, and he never dreamed of it. He worked at the American Tobacco Company for 13 years before losing his job and taking up lawn maintenance, eventually deciding to go to school for radiology. Gary and his father had frequented the dog, cat, feed and farm supply store for years, so when an opportunity presented itself to take over the business from Elyse Barnes and Lee Barnes – the owners who started the business in 1946 – Gary couldn’t help but believe it was fate. The store’s been his since 1991, although Gary’s sons, Jonathan George and Jason George, now manage its daily operations. Gary has nothing but positive affirmations of Ninth Street; he’s embraced the changing landscape. “The mail shops and appliance stores have turned into bars and restaurants and boutiques … but, it’s natural,” Gary says. “I like the current college feel of the street,” he adds, signaling to the Duke University students who frequent the district. Despite new stores, chains among them, opening along the street, “it’s still a more traditional shopping experience,” he says. “It’s the old-fashioned way.”
Wander Lorentz de Haas, co-owner of another Ninth Street stalwart, The Regulator Bookshop, also learned to welcome change. The independent bookstore opened in December 1976, and while Wander took over the reins six years ago, he’s been an employee for nearly 30 years. “The demographics of people who come here has changed … it used to be more family-oriented, and now there’s more young people … we’ve tried to cater the selection of books to a more youthful vibe,” Wander says. He describes the Ninth Street that The Regulator opened on as an “offbeat area with a lot of Independent stores.” While that essence remains, and Wander says he feels positive about the future, he laments the growing corporate presence and urges people to support local businesses, “even if you could find the same thing online.”
“Change is inevitable,” says Carol Anderson, owner of the eclectic accessory, clothing and gift store Vaguely Reminiscent, which has been on Ninth Street since 1982. She’s seen her business flourish, and maintains a practical outlook. “I love certain things and have been frustrated by other things, but I think it’s better to roll with the punches,” she says, adding that she’s thankful to the community for giving her dreams a home, recognizing that Ninth Street is a special place. “I like that it’s a walking street … you can walk down one street and go into so many different kinds of businesses,” she says. While Carol wishes retail stores had a larger presence on Ninth Street, she says her own keeps her content.
Blue Corn Cafe, nestled on Ninth Street since June 1997, embodies consistency and community. “I’ve had people coming here for 27 years,” says co-owner Danielle Martini-Rios. “I get to see their children, and I hope that I can still provide them with quality food service and comfort.” She says the street feels “a little more refreshed” from when Blue Corn first opened, and believes the transformation mirrors Durham’s diverse harmony – and that she’s proud to be a part of it. “Durhamites are every race, color and shape,” Danielle says. “The street has been here for a very long time – I want people to remember that. … It’s not perfect, but it’s progressing as it should.”
Bepi Pinner says she never imagined herself owning a dance studio, but that changed in 1993 when Ninth Street Dance became her pride and joy. “It suits me,” she says of her upstairs studio around the corner on Perry Street. “Being in a mall? No.” She sees it as a place to feed the soul, and as far as she’s concerned, that’s what the street’s about. “It still has an interesting mix of businesses and funky shops,” and as long as she’s around, she says, Ninth Street Dance will stay where it is. “It gives me so much joy to serve the community and to see happy faces coming out of dance classes,” Bepi says.
Wavelengths Salon celebrates its 30th anniversary next year, and its owner, Sherry Clayton, has worked in the area and lived on Ninth Street for most of her career. “There’s something kind of gritty about Ninth Street,” she says. “It’s like a little New York.” Sherry says there’s parts of the past she misses – the biggest being Ninth Street Coffee Shop – but she’s still just as pleased with the street now as she was when she opened her business. The salon has weathered ups and downs, but Sherry says the sense of camaraderie keeps clients returning. Ask Judy Fenton, Sherry’s very first client who still comes to get her hair colored at Wavelengths. One stylist who originally rented a booth before the business became employee-based has worked at the salon for 26 years. Sherry remains vigilant about preserving Ninth Street’s authenticity while also embracing the need for developments like Harris Teeter and nearby apartment buildings to maintain the flow of customer traffic.
The New(ish) Kids on the Block
“I can only say the best of Durham – we’re only here because of our amazing customers … it’s so wonderful how much love the community has,” says Jenn Devlin, co-owner of ever-evolving furniture and home decor store Vintage Home South. In the relatively short time since she opened her store on Ninth Street in July 2015, she’s seen a significant increase in foot traffic. “As people move [here], they’re excited about living somewhere that’s vibrant but laidback,” Jenn says. “It’s a very genuine city.” She values the convenience of being close to grocery stores and aims to be a convenient stop for folks on their way home. “The people who shop here really become like family,” Jenn says. She, like Carol, would love to see more retail nearby, but she also believes her little corner of Ninth Street is about as good as it gets.
Record store Hunky Dory owner Michael Bell also feels that they “have a good thing going.” He launched the business – which also now sells craft beer so you can sip while you shop! – in August 2010, recognizing a gap in the market that he could expertly fill. Michael believes that if he hadn’t found his spot on Ninth Street, he doesn’t know where he’d be. “It’s always been a good destination,” Michael says. “We’re gonna be in this place for a while.”
Flying Bull Beer Company also adds its own craft beer to the selection on Ninth Street. Co-owner Joel Miles says one thing he’s learned since opening in August 2020 is the contingency of students. “We have to renew those people every year if we don’t make relationships with them,” he says. The brewery prioritizes events that draw in this target demographic – karaoke nights largely are a crowd favorite. “We’ve adapted to Ninth Street, and we are 100% a community-based business,” Joel says.
Kathryn Smith, who opened Yoga Off East in April 2016, says for her, Ninth Street just made sense. “From the moment I had a vision of opening a yoga studio, I knew in my heart that I wanted the studio to be near Duke and in a neighborhood setting,” she says. As a former student-athlete at Duke, Kathryn says she “became part of a close-knit community, a lifelong network and was given countless opportunities to learn and grow.” Kathryn believes Ninth Street’s beauty endures, even amid the changing business climate. “Storefronts change and businesses evolve, but the vibrancy and neighborhood vibe remain,” Kathryn says. As students returned to in-person yoga sessions after COVID-19, it became clear to Kathryn that the studio “was a community gathering space as much as it [was] a space to practice yoga,” she says. Kathryn adds that she dreams about a pedestrian only stretch between Perry Street and Markham Street, envisioning bustling patios long into the future.
Ninth Street also made sense to Meghan Burr, who opened the “New Zealand-inspired gastro pub” Burger Bach in March 2015. “The converted building with diverse offerings while [also] being anchored by one of the busiest Harris Teeters in the Triangle was very attractive,” Meghan says of choosing the location of the restaurant, which also has locations near Charlottesville and Richmond, Virginia. The choice proved fruitful. “Business has remained great,” Meghan says. “The tenant mix on Ninth Street has changed, but the vibe has remained the same.”
Dain Phelan has seen his fair share of change in the nearly 17 years since he opened his bar, aptly named Dain’s Place. “When I opened Dain’s [in January 2007], the apartments [across the street] were a massive grassy field,” he says. “We would play football there, and there were trees, and I miss that a lot, but you can’t stay mad at young professionals now living within walking distance to your business.” Dain admits it’s a mixed bag of feelings – “I miss what it used to be, but I like what it is now.” He says the main customers of his neighborhood “pub and grub” are locals and Duke grad students, and though “it’s now harder to cross the street … other than that, not much has changed.”
Like so many of his fellow Ninth Street denizens, “The first time I came to Ninth Street, I knew it was my place,” Dain says. “It was the perfect fit.” He also notes that, while the business owners cultivate a sort of familial culture, there’s a lack of events for the community. “I’d love to see the street come together for something,” he says, whether that’s a street festival or an outdoor market. Dain believes the potential of this special street is “endless.”
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