"North Lex," its merchants proclaim proudly, is unlike any other street in town, both in its vibe and its diverse number of independent, locally owned businesses. From its head shop, tattoo-parlor and old-school record stores to the more upscale boutiques, restaurants and other enterprises, no other street so dramatically exemplifies the diverse town Asheville has become as this once sordid but now vibrant little strip of commerce and community.
That last word is key to what makes North Lex tick: Community, according to several business owners interviewed, is a significant driver of the success and revitalization of a street where menace, an illicit sex trade and any number of nefarious activities were the norm just a couple of decades ago. Today, even as businesses come and go, a strong sense of family has emerged among the merchants that has come to define the area, says Amber Arthur, owner of Izzy's Coffee Den (74 N. Lexington).
"I think the biggest advantage is that I'm a huge fan of all the other local business owners down here," says Arthur, echoing her colleagues up and down the street. "I'm friends with about everyone on this street that has a business. It's a great community of people. It's a street where we're trying to keep ... the feel of Asheville, the individuality, the funkiness. I think one of the reasons people still come to visit Asheville is its uniqueness. We definitely have our own vibe and camaraderie down here."
Arthur, an Austin, Texas, transplant who bought Izzy's little more than a year ago, says she's worked on Biltmore Avenue, Wall Street and Eagle Street, among other parts of downtown, "and it's just so different over here. It's a cooperative, really. If I ever need anything, I can go to any one of the stores and they are going to be there to help me out. There's one store where we know they have a big ladder if you need a ladder; there's another store that always has a surplus of cleaning supplies when you need them. I have been here alone late nights and have had someone who's made me extra nervous come in, and I immediately call Static Age [Records] and one of the dudes come over. We all have each other's back, which is really nice. It rocks."
But despite its many advantages -- and perhaps due in part to them -- North Lex is no more immune than other parts of downtown to changing demographics, higher rents, a lack of parking and the threat of massive redevelopment. To help protect as well as promote the neighborhood, local business owners formed the Lexington Avenue Merchants Association a couple of years ago, whose mission is to promote "Lexington Park's independent businesses, architecture and unique arts culture by preserving its historical character and encouraging progressive development. Our mission is to represent Lexington Park as a distinctive downtown subdistrict in the community and local government."
One of the more endangered businesses is Downtown Books & News (67 N. Lexington), a pioneer in the street's revitalization. The store only recently learned it will be able to stay put, at least for a while, says Manager Julian Vorus.
Earlier this year, it looked as though the business might be forced to move or shut down because of the city's desire to build a parking garage on adjacent Rankin Street. But the landlord, Vorus reports, has said that doesn't appear imminent, and the store now plans to remain at its present location for the foreseeable future. If the city did move on the garage plan, it would give the store 90 days notice, says Vorus, who fervently hopes the business can stay put.
Still, despite their best efforts, Vorus and company -- merchants and customers alike -- are fearful of the street losing its character due to factors beyond their control.
"I'd kind of like to see it stay the same," says Vorus. "But you know, when this store and a few others started opening up, I'm sure there were people down here that were concerned about the changes, and they didn't want to see their culture change either. There was probably hillbillies around here when Vanderbilt came that didn't want to lose their culture, too. ... I guess I'm just mainly worried about the street going too upscale and losing its oddness."
Meanwhile, the issues of crime, panhandlers and the plain unsavory haven't totally vanished. But even those occasional problems have diminished, merchants say, and the situation is getting better as business turnover lessens and they increasingly take a no-tolerance attitude toward those who seek either to disrupt or take advantage of the street's positive image.
Courtney Bloomfield, owner of Shady Grove Fine Flowers (65 N. Lexington), says the merchants are resolved to keep the good vibrations flowing as long as possible.
"The overall future direction of the street is to keep and maintain the community and represent it the way we are right now," she says. And LAAF, now in its seventh year, can only help maintain the vibe, she adds.
"I think exposure [through the festival] and people getting a taste of what this community is like, and getting a real Asheville picture, is really important [to our future]," says Bloomfield.
For more information on North Lexington Avenue businesses, go to www.historiclexingtonpark.com.