Don't miss these pit stops off I-95: Roanoke Rapids, Weldon, Benson, Rocky Mount, Smithfield, Fayetteville, Lumberton, and a few extra! If only the notion of consignment stores
If only the notion of consignment stores had been familiar to me four decades ago, when I was a newlywed desperate for furniture. Choices were limited to hand-me-downs (my physician father-in-law’s examining table, which we sawed the legs off to use as a coffee table) and used furniture stores, where we bought a fake-wood Formica-topped table for, uh, fine dining. But a consignment store might sell you a silver pitcher hammered out by Paul Revere himself. These days, the concept is ever-evolving. Just ask Ed Williams and Tony Hall of Roanoke Rapids, longtime friends who took an exit, if you will, from longtime careers into the consignment business.
Maybe less an exit than a hard right. Because it’s not like 27 years as an OB/GYN and health-care administrator (Ed) and several decades of teaching and newspaper writing (Tony) lend themselves to antiques, objets, and fine furnishings. But Tony had always had an itch to own a store, and with three storage units, a shed, and an attic full of furniture purchased at estate sales and auctions — “I was a bit of a hoarder,” he admits — a consignment shop was the obvious choice. For Ed, not so much. “I was ready for retirement, not retail,” he says. “And I thought Roanoke Rapids was a town in Virginia.” (Close: The state line is about 10 miles away.)
Then, the perfect building in the perfect location became available, and the duo took another metaphorical exit, onto “The Avenue.” In Roanoke Rapids, “The Avenue” refers to Roanoke Avenue, the town’s main-street heart and historic pulse since its beginnings. Ed was in.
The men’s differing personalities merged into a shared goal. Determined and philosophical, Ed says, “Life is about assuming some sort of calculated risk, and we took a deep dive.” Tony, optimistic and lively, took on the role of educating himself with market research. The town of Roanoke Rapids did its part, too: Economic development organizations got involved; red tape was shortened. “The wonder of a small town is that people bend over backward to help you,” Tony says. Rivertown Consignments opened for business on October 12, 2017.
Within six months, Tony and Ed were looking for another exit ramp. Young buyers exclaimed, “Oh, my grandmother had this!” about a Wedgwood serving dish or mahogany chest, but they had no interest in owning it. So much for porcelain and antiques. Tony and Ed began phasing out consignment vendors and phasing in interior design assistance and staging for real-estate agents. Simultaneously, they organized gatherings and philanthropic events up and down The Avenue: progressive dinners, a Shamrock Supper Stroll, Sip ’n’ Shop Saturdays. Book clubs and church groups held meetings at Rivertown, embracing its stylish vignettes and industrial chic vibe, never mind Tony’s homemade truffles. And if a customer was looking for a particular item, Ed and Tony made it their business to find it.
Rivertown Consignments became Rivertown, and now, 95 percent of its inventory is new, from leather and upholstered furniture to twisted-branch coffee and end tables, rope benches, lamps, candleholders, and mirrors, plus jewelry, quilts, and food products handmade by North Carolina artisans. Tony can’t be denied his love for vintage, though, which explains the lunch boxes from earlier eras, old-fashioned valentines, and traditional Easter bunnies-and-baskets centerpieces.
All of which, as a classic example of a small retail business, placed Rivertown right in the bullseye for failure when the pandemic hit. With government shutdown decrees and frightened customers, Ed and Tony panicked — and then, just as before, steered in another direction. Social media was a lifesaver: Tony held virtual cooking classes and wine tastings featuring products in the store, and left baskets of the same on eager clients’ porches. When a customer needed anything, from a diffuser to a light fixture, everything from product photography to payment was handled online. When too much art inventory became a problem, the pair staged an online auction in conjunction with the Roanoke Valley Chamber of Commerce and others.
And sometimes, the store was simply a haven from the confusion and anxiety created by the pandemic. “One client came and said, ‘I just wanted to sit here for a couple of hours, somewhere beautiful where I feel safe,’” Tony says. Ed adds, “Even in regular times, there are so many barriers to social engagement, and now this. People were so appreciative of the approach we took.” That attitude extended to the 50,000 Santa Clauses they bought for the Christmas season. People needed joy, they figured, and “we decided to just …” Ed hesitates. “Unleash jubilation.” Nearly every Santa sold.
And still, the pair continue to think outside the box. They helped out with a food pantry at their church, decided now was the time for an inspirational gift line, and, when Halloween rolled around, returned half of their profits from the handblown glass pumpkins created by artists at STARworks studio back to the nonprofit teaching facility in Montgomery County.
Ed describes the four years of Rivertown’s existence as a journey of redefining and reinventing. “Anyone who can figure out retail should get a Nobel Prize,” he muses. Indeed. Yet for an establishment that began with local consignment vendors and antique breakfronts and has transformed into one carrying sophisticated sofa tables alongside simple Amish furniture (Ed hails from Lancaster County, Pennsylvania), Rivertown is thriving. For Ed, “Life is about creating a legacy and giving back in a whole different capacity. I never wanted to only be remembered as the guy who delivered babies.” And though Rivertown draws customers from Richmond, Greensboro, and Raleigh, what makes Tony happiest is how Roanoke Rapids has embraced and supported Rivertown. “At least once a week, someone walks in the door and says, ‘I can’t believe we have a store like this,’” he says, grinning.
Quite the compliment for both Rivertown and Roanoke Rapids. And quite the accomplishment for a couple of fellows who detoured from their midlife trajectories, took a turn on The Avenue of a small town, and delivered a dream for both.