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An uncommon market 

A crazy idea celebrates 10 years as a Plaza Midwood icon

"I took her to a supermarket / I don't know why, but I had to start it somewhere, so it started there..." — "Common People," Pulp

Outside, guys with skateboards convene around graffitied benches, laughing and bobbing their heads to tunes made fresh from the DJ booth. Inside, banker types swirl snifters of IPAs and unwind. At the Common Market in Plaza Midwood, Charlotte's extremes live harmoniously.

Part convenience store, part deli and then some, the eclectic neighborhood hangout celebrates its 10th anniversary this month with a fitting list of events, including a local-food tasting, breakdance competition and concert.

Owner Blake Barnes considers himself a lucky man these days. He should, because the first few years running Common Market were difficult.

Barnes was looking for a change in his life in 2001. He was worn out from a career in the music business and had just lost his father. So, he decided to go down a new path. Little did he know that a vacant building near the corner of Commonwealth and Thomas avenues would become his savior.

When numerous bankers and property owners shot down Barnes' idea for the Common Market, he found himself in a predicament — he couldn't secure a loan until he had a space, but he couldn't afford to buy or lease a space without a loan.

"I remember sitting on my front porch, looking at the ground, wondering if I should even keep trying," Barnes says. "But there was a raging voice inside me that said, 'Yes, you can!' So I put my head down like a fullback and just fucking went for it."

In the past 10 years, Common Market has become part of the fabric of the ever-growing Plaza Midwood community — something that isn't lost on Barnes. He credits his location and the Plaza Midwood community for a large part of his success. "I definitely chose the right neighborhood, although I didn't even know it at the time," he says.

In the beginning, he just needed a place — any place. He took liens on his house and eventually was able to borrow capital from a friend to purchase the building on Commonwealth. Another generous friend offered to help him with construction.

"I had four people helping me," Barnes says. "Four people I barely knew, but they believed in my dream. I can't tell you why. Maybe they saw how hard I was trying and figured if I believed this much in myself, maybe they should too."

In December 2002, just as Barnes was about to open Common Market, an ice storm nearly paralyzed Charlotte, shutting down schools and businesses. But he soldiered on. After all, the power was out at his house. He had nowhere else to go. Barnes walked to his new store and turned on the "Open" sign for first time. Ready with a small inventory of beer, coffee, several cases of wine and cigarettes, mostly purchased from the convenience store up the street, he began his business on that frigid, icy morning.

"I remember the look on people's faces when they would walk in and not see anything to buy, but they'd feel guilty and at least try to buy something," he says. "I sold a ton of 10-cent candy in those days. I also wrote down what people asked for so it would be there the next time they came in."

But with a growing family to support and daily sales dipping, the hardships continued for the first few years.

"I had never known such a struggle in my life, and what was worse — it was all my idea," he says. "I remember waking up every morning thinking, 'Today is the day I will fail.' But somehow, I always had just enough to keep going. I would have just enough business to keep the store afloat."

Not only has he been able to keep Common Market afloat, but in April 2008, Barnes was able to open a second location in South End.

Bob Smithwick, president of Plaza Midwood Merchants, a member-based organization of businesses located in and around the neighborhood, says Common Market's offerings as well as its reputation as a community meeting place have made it a unique Charlotte staple.

"What makes the Common Market an integral part of our Plaza Midwood community is that it doesn't fit neatly into the standard categories of market, beer store or deli," Smithwick says. "Who in their right mind would set up the cash registers in the middle of the store unless the goal were to get customers to rub shoulders and get to know each other? What Blake and company have created is a vital social center, and the fact that commerce is taking place might be a by-product."

Musician and Common Market regular Mark Lynch considers Barnes, his wife Cress and other CM regulars family.

"It's the real heart — the hub — of Plaza Midwood," Lynch says.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Common Market owner Blake Barnes' wife's name was misspelled in the print edition of this article. We apologize for the error.

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