[caption id="attachment_166585" align="alignright" width="300"] BL Makers Market owner Blythe Leonard.[/caption] It was made in America. The old building, that is. If few other things in Thomasville nowadays are made in
It was made in America. The old building, that is. If few other things in Thomasville nowadays are made in America, Blythe Leonard knew that the 125-year-old structure on East Guilford Street was. Every brick. Every beam. Every hardwood plank.
She’d always loved the familiar downtown building that once served as the business office for the former Lambeth Furniture factory next door. She liked the beautiful brick exterior. But now it was run-down, dilapidated. “And if there’s one thing that I don’t like seeing, it’s a building just sitting there, falling in,” she says. “I cannot stand it. I just want to get in there and repurpose it, put a modern-day use on it.”
Which is exactly what she did. In October 2020, at one of the worst times possible to start a new business, Blythe, a local leather artist and businesswoman, purchased the 3,000-square-foot building. Within seven months, she’d transformed it into BL Maker’s Market, a hub for handcrafted goods made wholly and exclusively in the USA. The market serves multiple purposes: It highlights the works of American artists and craftspeople, mostly from North Carolina; it provides opportunities for Blythe to partner with other small businesses; and it has rescued a local landmark from ruin.
When Blythe opened the market, almost everything else in Thomasville was closing: local shops, restaurants, gyms, even some places of worship. The downtown streets and narrow alleyways, the green space surrounding the historic furniture city’s iconic giant Duncan Phyfe chair next to the railroad tracks — quiet. To Blythe, it was eerie, reminiscent of her childhood in the ’90s and 2000s, when outsourcing forced the downsizing — and, in some cases, the permanent closures — of her family’s textile mills. For Blythe, 2020 felt like déjà vu, only this time, the closings were the result of the pandemic.
She wasn’t having it. It’s not in the 30-year-old entrepreneur’s nature to idly sit by and watch local businesses fail. Something needed to be done to bring her community back to life, and that something was going to be done by her.
Step inside the old brick building now, and a small foyer opens to a sunny room with white walls, dark trim, exposed ductwork, and aged hardwood floors. An upright piano painted in blues, reds, and yellows sits in a nook with a Methodist hymnal open to “Christ the Lord Is Risen Today.” Antique tables and shelves overflow with handmade baskets and wood-carved ornaments. Lining one wall are pictures of some of the makers; hanging on another are framed vintage photographs of Thomasville’s manufacturing past. BL Maker’s Market is not just a shop — it’s a lovingly curated living museum of traditional arts and crafts, including pottery, ironwork, and stained glass; hand-poured soaps and candles; hand-sewn children’s clothing; and homemade jams and jellies.
On a weekday morning, Blythe, dressed in a smart, all-black outfit, shows a customer around the main floor. She points to a stairway leading to the second level. Scrawled onto one of the steps about halfway up is the word “dream.”
“If you dream, you can do anything,” Blythe says. “If you put your mind to wanting something, you can make it happen.”
• • •
Blythe has been making things — and making things happen — since she was in elementary school. A creative child with an empathetic heart, she grew up around the factories established by her great-grandparents Cleveland Cletus and China Elizabeth Hill: Hill Spinning Mill, Hill Hosiery Mill, and Celand Yarn Dyers, all in Thomasville. As a little girl, Blythe was affected personally when the worker populations in those mills began to decline. “I saw the impact on the community and on the country,” she says. “And that’s why ‘Made in the USA’ is so important to me.” She was just 10 years old when she started her first business, selling handmade jewelry at craft shows all over the state. “I had that business until I was 19, and that’s where it all started for me,” she says. “I got to create things that people liked, and they kept coming back.”
About a mile west of BL Maker’s Market, in the former Celand Yarn Dyers building, Blythe’s mother, Jane Leonard, is tending her daughter’s other business, Blythe Leonard LLC, a leather goods company. It’s here that Blythe designs, patterns, and carefully cuts and sews the luxury handbags that she sells not just at her makers market but also to customers worldwide. On the walls are clippings of stories about Blythe from magazines like Elle, Esquire, and Harper’s Bazaar, and photos of her posing with well-known fashion designers.
Jane never expected Blythe to return home to Thomasville after she graduated from the prestigious Savannah College of Art and Design in Georgia. She figured that her daughter would go to work for a top designer, maybe even move overseas to Milan or London. But during an internship with Abercrombie & Fitch, Blythe grew disenchanted with the world of mainstream fashion. What she ended up doing at the company was sitting in front of a computer screen for 12 hours a day, altering minor details in unremarkable clothing. “Nothing was original,” she says. What’s worse: Everything was manufactured abroad.
Blythe called her mom one day and said that she had decided what she wanted to do with her life. Jane braced herself, hoping that her daughter would at least be staying in the United States. “And she said, ‘No, Mom, I’m coming home,’” Jane says, the edges of her eyes misting slightly. “I cried for two days. I was so excited!” It was perfect timing. Jane had recently retired from the work that she loved more than anything: teaching. Having her daughter back at home would help ease the transition. “I was miserable, and Blythe knew that I was miserable,” Jane says. “Because I’m not a homebody — I have to be doing something. And so she said, ‘Mom, you can come help me.’”
• • •
While her mother holds down the fort at the leather goods shop, Blythe is at BL Maker’s Market, accompanying a customer into a small side room with exposed brick walls and trim painted sunshine yellow. Hanging from the ceiling are metal garden buckets and hand-forged tools, and on a low table next to a window are flowerpots made by North Carolina potters. “This is my favorite room,” she says. “And I think that’s because it’s so bright and so creative. When you enter this room, it’s like you’re entering a different world.”
A world of Blythe’s creation. A world teeming with a renewed sense of imagination and resourcefulness that, just over three years ago, seemed unattainable in this little downtown business district. Nowadays, thanks to Blythe’s determination and support of other local small businesses, Thomasville’s future is looking brighter again: new shops, new restaurants, downtown festivals.
Blythe Leonard had a dream, and with her artistic talent, her business acumen, and her deep love of the Thomasville community and all things American-made, she transformed an old, run-down factory building in a struggling former furniture town into a place of unlimited hope.
One of Blythe Leonard’s main goals at BL Maker’s Market is to connect her community of artisans with the community at large. In that spirit, BL Maker’s Market will host an outdoor festival to celebrate the 125th birthday of the building that houses the shop. There will be artisan booths and classes hosted by many of the makers who sell their goods in the market — plus make-and-take craft stations, food trucks, Thomasville authors and historians, a farmers market, and live music. “We want our customers to come and actually see these artists doing what they do,” Blythe says. “We want to bring these two groups of people together.”
BL Maker’s Market Festival, April 1, 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Purchase tickets for classes at blmakersmarket.com.