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Signs of Life in Gastonia 

A vibrant cultural scene is taking shape in Charlotte's misunderstood neighbor. No, seriously.

Page 5 of 6

As a teen, Stafford worked at the family stationery concern that her aunt, Jeanne Marie Torrence, launched from her home in 1955. Upon her return, unsure of her next move, Stafford fell back in the fold. While she hadn't planned to make a career out of the gift and stationery biz, it wasn't long before she realized she'd found her niche. As the business expanded, it eventually outgrew its home-based quarters. In 1996, Torrence Stationery & Gifts moved into its current location. "It's a wonderful re-use of an old high school gymnasium," notes Stafford, who says what is now the store was the once the team locker room, complete with concrete floors and drains for the showers.

Offering an eclectic selection of cards, gifts, jewelry and writing instruments, the shop is one of the few places that still puts an emphasis on old-fashioned customer service above anything else. While she could have set up in one of the many high-traffic malls, Stafford instead chose a location that would offer generous parking and an atmosphere that allows for a genteel and pleasurable shopping experience. Although her merchandise is cutting edge and unique, Stafford has made a conscious decision to keep the concern from becoming overly commercial. "We are a boutique shop, not a chain," she says. "We offer personal service and knowledge of product. True customer service is a rare commodity, and it's what sets us apart from the average retailer." Another point of pride for Stafford is that the business is woman-owned and women-run. "It's coming down through the female side of the family," she says, "from my aunt to me. My sister works here, and both of my nieces have worked here. Katie Clark has been my right-hand woman for over 10 years. Marie Alexander just started as a clerk, and her older sister, Julie, also worked here."

In Like Skin: Jeff Mauney, owner/artist, Ink Link Tattoos & Piercings

914 E. Franklin Blvd.

Gastonia, N.C. 28052

704-869-9264

Jeff Mauney has been tattooing for a quarter of a century. He owns nine shops in the Gaston/Charlotte area, and boasts a stable of between 70 to 80 different artists who work for him. Ink Link Tattoos, Tattoo Warehouse and Tattooing-U, are open seven days a week, Monday through Saturday from 9 a.m. to 1 a.m., and Sundays from noon to 11 p.m.

Mauney says he was fascinated by tattoos from the time he was a child and always knew that the art of skin would someday become his career. "It started when I was about 8," he says "I don't know if it was the actual pictures or the feeling of mystery. When I was a kid, there wasn't a lot out there about tattoos. I got any information that I could from every source that was available."

The shop has been open in this location since January 1999. In addition to tattoos, Ink Link also offers body piercing and cosmetic work, such as permanent makeup and nipple reconstruction. "We have several dermatologists and plastic surgeons who send us those referrals," Mauney says. One of his proudest accomplishments is his apprentice program. "We've trained 90 percent of the artists who work for us," he says, "about 140 people over the last 15 years. Some stay with us, some move on to open their own shops."

When Mauney first opened his doors in Gastonia, he met with some disapproval. "We were right next to a church," he admits. "There was some protest. People would try to tell me what God would have to say about tattoos, and yet they were standing there with their pierced ears smoking their cigarettes. It wasn't a big deal." But times have changed. "Twenty or 30 years ago, tattooing was much less socially acceptable," he says, "but now folks bring their kids along. We have a mix of people from every lifestyle here. I think some people are surprised to see that it's not a rough, tough type of environment at all. Most are surprised by how relaxing it is. Coming here blows away a lot of preconceived ideas."

Good Eats: Richard Hall, chef/owner of Main Street Bistro

173 W. Main Ave.

Gastonia, N.C. 28052

704-853-3335

For great New South cooking -- and one of the few places you can get a decent Rueben anywhere in the area -- stop in for lunch at the Main Street Bistro, where Chef Rich Hall will tempt you with culinary delights that can stand toe-to-to with any high-end restaurant in Charlotte, New York -- or anywhere where good cuisine is king.

Hall, a Tampa native, says he is mostly "self-taught," although he is a graduate of Sodexho Marriott's culinary program at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y. "I really learned to cook in my grandmother's kitchen," he says. "I've been lucky enough to work with some talented people. I think that's the basis of what makes a really good chef." Hall apprenticed with Ralph Love at a restaurant in Cocoa Beach called The Mango Tree. "That's where I grew from being a line cook from to being a chef," he explains. "When I took over as executive chef, we were rated one of the '30 Best Places to Eat in America' by American Express. It was just a little bungalow on [Florida state road] A1A, but it was amazing."

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