Nada Shoreibah ‘23
The town of Davidson is known across the Charlotte metro area for its picturesque downtown district. Besides a noticeable trio of vacant properties between Mestizo and Kindred, Main Street is lined with the windowed storefronts of locally owned eateries, novelty shops, and boutiques. For students, this stretch is conveniently, but not coincidentally, nestled in the corner of college property. In fact, Davidson College once owned the business district.
When William Lee Davidson II purchased the land that would become the college and downtown district in 1837, Davidson was a scarcely-populated farming town. After the establishment of the college, new employment opportunities, along with natural expansion, led to community growth. New residents were primarily farming families, as well as college faculty, students, stewards, and enslaved people. As the population increased, so too did demand for new businesses.
“We had this huge tract of land in an area where there are lots of farms and farmers who need materials and supplies,” said Jan Blodgett, former college archivist and co-author of One Town, Many Voices: A History of Davidson, North Carolina. “As people came in, businesses flourished, roads got better[…], the college continued to lease off and then sell off land.”
Ever since an active business district materialized, the town government has implemented regulations to ensure it remains inviting. “We have done some intensive town planning,” said Blodgett. “The idea is that this is a pedestrian-friendly space; we called ourselves a village for a long time.” Perhaps the most influential regulation has been a ban on drive-throughs, aimed at preserving walkability. It also deters most corporate chains, which explains the abundance of independently-owned restaurants on Main Street.
While independent establishments offer a unique charm, these businesses are often subject to a high turnover rates. Starting and maintaining a privately owned business is no easy task, and without enough capital to support initial investments and pay rent, many close or relocate within a few years. “It’s […] very hard to earn a living in the private sector in America,” said former history professor and One Town, Many Voices co-author Ralph Levering.
As properties age and Davidson grows wealthier, these difficulties are exacerbated. According to a 2018 USA Today article, Davidson is one of only two towns in North Carolina where a majority of households have six-figure incomes. “We’re getting a more [middle class] population moving in, so the rents are going up,” said Blodgett. “And these are older buildings that need a lot of maintenance.”
Because of this high turnover rate, each of Main Street’s storefronts has seen a wide variety of owners and businesses. “There were always businesses that came and went,” recalled Blodgett. “The [Famous Toastery] has been a grocery store [and] a women’s dress shop.”
The overall character of downtown Davidson businesses also shifts over time. Like the Famous Toastery, most are now niche shops or food establishments rather than practical convenience stores. “You’ve got a lot more upscale restaurants,” said Levering. “There’s really a lot less diversity. Gift shops are the ones that seem to do well.” Blodgett agreed with his assessment. “At one time, there was a men’s shop, a women’s shop, a grocery store. You could go to downtown Davidson, and you would have a liveable, shoppable street,” she added.
One longtime business on Main Street is The Soda Shop, established in 1951. Originally named “The M&M Soda Shop,” the diner-style restaurant has resisted the high turnover rate and endured decades in downtown Davidson. Owner Misty Utech’s secret to longevity is consistency. “It’s the same recipes since we opened. We do the same milkshakes, the same orangeade, the same lemonade, the same limeade,” she said.
The Soda Shop’s aging Main Street property, built in 1906, creates difficulties. “Our biggest challenge is the old building and the fact that we don’t have a lot of space to be as modern,” said Utech. “We have to serve on paper plates and with disposable [cutlery] because there’s not enough room in here to have a dishwasher.” Despite the drawbacks, the Soda Shop has stayed put. “I try to keep it as up-to-date as possible without overstepping my bounds as […] a renter.”
Another business, the Spirited Cyclist, struggled being in a compact store on Main Street, and decided to move to a more accommodating space on Jetton Street. “It was just a much smaller building, and this is a larger location,” said manager Lou Gregori. “And then also the proximity to other cycling businesses. This space allowed us to check off a lot of our boxes.”
A stroll down Main Street will reveal that it lacks diversity not only in business services but also racially. When the college integrated in 1962, a survey by The Davidsonian found that many local businesses would refuse to serve black students. Levering recalled that the Soda Shop served only whites into the 1960s, as did other businesses. While businesses became less stringent over the next decade, most restaurants and barber shops remained segregated. “Davidson businesses were full Jim Crow,” said Blodgett. “African American students could not go in the front doors.”
The town now boasts tolerance and inclusivity, but this stain from its past continues to shape the current business district. Blodgett said, “what was available on Main Street was available primarily to whites, and […] you still see that legacy.”