As Katie Gaddy was renovating the building she owns on Haywood Road in West Asheville, she kept running across remnants of other people's personal history -- bobby pins from the structure's former incarnation as a beauty parlor.
"It was great," Gaddy says happily, standing in her Deluxe Retro-Modern vintage shop, which easily betrays her penchant for past glories. The store (open now nearly three years) is filled with quirky finds (a flashy disco ball, a beaded macrame handbag, a collection of delicate Japanese parasols).
Gaddy is just one of a number of entrepreneurs and residents helping to fuel West Asheville's renaissance.
"There's more to Asheville than just downtown," insists Gaddy, who proudly calls West Asheville home. "It's the best community. I love it."
WestFest -- a daylong community festival on Saturday, May 17 -- aims to celebrate that ongoing revitalization. Centered around Haywood Road, the festival comes complete with a parade, a 5K run/walk, a street festival featuring more than 50 vendors and three stages of performers, and a children's play area. Other community-bonding events include a tree-planting ceremony at the West Asheville branch library, a library book sale, a hot-dog-eating contest and more.
Two Asheville City Council members (Carl Mumpower and Brian Peterson) have even pledged to do time in a dunking booth, with proceeds benefiting a local scholarship fund.
Even the festival itself is a revitalized version of an event from years gone by, notes Alice io Oglesby, the festival's general organizer and president of the West Asheville Business Association. (WABA is co-sponsoring the event with the Asheville Parks and Recreation Department.)
"We want to celebrate, but [also] let the rest of town know: West Asheville is cool now," Oglesby declares from her airy office overlooking Haywood Road and Vermont Avenue in the renovated Bledsoe Building.
A few years back, not much was happening along Haywood Road, West Asheville's traditional commercial corridor. Though some stalwart businesses steadfastly remained over the years -- including the timeless Meadow's Dry Goods & Shoes -- more than a few buildings appeared down at the proverbial heels. The street seemed anything but lively.
"It's been like a roller-coaster ride," offers Carroll Schultz, recalling a number of businesses that have moved in and out in the 35 years he's been proprietor of Schultz Shoe Repair.
Amid heaps of shoes and boots (some piled on an elderly Singer sewing machine), Schultz considers West Asheville's direction: "There's been a few changes through here -- hopefully this change we're going through now will be for the best. And I believe it is."
One attempt at revitalization began in the mid-'90s, but then languished after the resignation of then-Community Development Director Leslie Anderson. In 1999, however, West Asheville revitalization efforts got an official stamp of approval when the Asheville City Council adopted the Haywood Road Corridor Plan, a blueprint setting out a number of goals aimed at making the street more vibrant and beautiful.
And when Krista Stearns and Cathy Cleary opened the popular West End Bakery & Cafe in March 2001, it added a jolt of energy to the street -- and offered a gathering spot for residents.
Last year, the renovation of the neighboring Bledsoe Building -- through a development company involving the two women, their husbands and five others -- created a space for retail shops and offices. The Haywood Road Market (a community food co-op) housed in the 1927 building's downstairs now offers a healthy selection of organic and natural products. And the adjacent Westville Pub has infused the neighborhood with a chummy, pub-style nightlife.
Reasonable prices for rent and real estate (compared to other parts of town) have also drawn a younger generation to West Ashevillle to take part in the revival.
Some spots (the Lucky Otter restaurant comes to mind) seem to have become instantly popular in the past year. In fact, West Ashevilleans seem to take particular glee in keeping track of any number of budding projects -- from the progress of the Ideal Market Cafe (formerly a drugstore of the same name) to the renovation of a 1920s landmark building at Haywood Road and State Street.
Once known for the huge RC Cola sign painted on its west side, the building (now sporting copper accents) had sat sadly vacant for more than a quarter century.
While Oglesby waxes enthusiastic about West Asheville's changes, she's careful to note the contributions of longtime members of the community, including Larry Brookshire, a partner with brother, David in B&B Pharmacy, which was started in 1953 by their father, Balfour, and his business partner, Howard "Cotton" Bishop. For his part, Brookshire lauds West Asheville for its strong sense of community spirit.
"It's kind of hard to explain or a put a formula on that," he says.
From rifles to falafels
Strolling around on a rainy afternoon last week, I realized how much Haywood Road has become a microcosm of Asheville -- and of Western North Carolina.
At Southern Mountain Guns and Ammo, I pause to check out the mounted raccoon atop a glass display case, and to chat with owner Travis Reynolds. Sounding enthusiastic about the upcoming WestFest, Reynolds good-naturedly jokes that the event will likely draw vegetarians -- possibly even vegans. Another fellow grouses (more seriously) that other folks he deems undesirable might show up.
"I didn't work the whole way up the food chain to eat vegetables," joshes a customer.
Just around the corner (past Ms. Kasey's soul-food eatery), a likely gathering spot for vegans has already opened. Though The Relaxed Reader Used Books & Cafe does serve turkey sandwiches, you can also buy a glass of organic carrot juice while checking out a book selection that has a metaphysical tilt.
As the fragrant aroma of cinnamon and other spices wafts through the air (a special batch of chai tea is cooking down), owner Jonah Lipsky notes that he's been in business nearly six months.
"It's definitely a really good place to be," offers Simba, an affable man who sits perched at the counter, sporting a nose ring and a white work shirt emblazoned with a Sherwin Williams logo.
Farther down the street, Leticia and Armando Magana, the friendly proprietors of Tienda Hispana La Piedrita, are among the growing number of Latino business owners in West Asheville. The husband-and-wife team moved from Mexico to the United States eight years ago, coming to Asheville in 2002. They moved to town partly to be near Leticia's sister (who lives here), partly to live in the mountains and partly because it's a quiet community.
Plus, notes Armando, everyone smiles here.