Writers Crystal Wilkinston, Ronald Davis reopen Wild Fig Books

September 8, 2015
Writers Crystal Wilkinson and Ronald Davis are reopening their Wild Fig Books in a renovated turn-of-the-century house on North Limestone after closing an earlier store in Meadowthorpe. Photo by Tom Eblen | teblen@herald-leader.com

Writers Crystal Wilkinson and Ronald Davis are reopening Wild Fig Books on North Limestone after closing an earlier store in Meadowthorpe. Photos by Tom Eblen

 

Writers, partners and book-lovers Crystal Wilkinson and Ronald Davis struggled to run Wild Fig Books in the Meadowthorpe Shopping Center for nearly four years before they shut the doors for good in February.

“There was such an outpouring when we closed,” said Wilkinson, who also is Appalachian Writer in Residence at Berea College. “People were so upset.”

But those people were thrilled when they heard Wild Fig Books & Coffee was opening this week in a renovated turn-of-the-century cottage at 726 North Limestone.

Still, some friends wonder if Wilkinson and Davis have lost their minds. In a retail landscape dominated by Amazon.com, e-readers and chain stores, few business niches are tougher these days than the independent bookstore.

“We get these earnest looks,” Wilkinson said. “People cup our hands and say, ‘You are so brave!’ We just roll our eyes.”

Wilkinson and Davis hope things will be different this time, thanks to a new business format and location.

150901WildFig-TE023The first Wild Fig was a reincarnation of Morgan Adams Books, a used bookstore Mary Morgan ran for more than 20 years on Leestown Road. The couple bought her store in June 2011 as other shops and websites were becoming competitors. The big blow came when the chain Half-Price Books opened a second Lexington location.

The old Wild Fig had a stock of about 20,000 mostly used books, which it bought from customers. Davis said the new store, a much smaller space, will have maybe 4,000 books, most of them new literary titles.

The new store also will have a coffee bar run by their daughter, Delainia Wilkinson, who has worked four years for Pat Gerhard at Third Street Stuff & Coffee.

“We’re going to be a very niche market here,” Wilkinson said, more along the lines of the successful Morris Book Shop in Chevy Chase. “We’re going to have what I call a literary boutique — books, clothing items or bags that have literary themes. We’re not going to try to compete with the big-box stores.”

Davis said that while the Leestown Road location was convenient to their home in Meadowthorpe, many customers told them they lived in the redeveloping neighborhoods along North Limestone.

“So, after about three years of that, we said, apparently we need to be somewhere near Limestone,” he said.

Soon after the first Wild Fig closed, they began talking with entrepreneur and marketing executive Griffin VanMeter about an old house he had just bought to renovate and lease at the corner of North Limestone and Eddie Street.

150901WildFig-TE007The couple thinks the neighborhood is a good fit for their ambitions. For the past seven years, Al’s Bar down the street has been home to Holler Poets, a popular monthly series of readings organized by poet Eric Sutherland.

“There’s already sort of a literary community,” Wilkinson said. “So many of our art and literary friends are either over here or clamoring to get over here. There’s a happening.”

Wilkinson is already planning readings, literary classes and public discussions that could be held at various places in the neighborhood. “We know we won’t necessarily have the space, so we’ll have to collaborate, which is also exciting,” she said.

Davis just published a book of poetry and art, Caul & Response (Argus House Press, $18). Wilkinson is a widely published poet and short-story writer who was among the founders of the Affrilachian Poets group. In March, the University Press of Kentucky will publish her first novel, The Birds of Opulence.

One decision the couple faced when resurrecting Wild Fig was whether to change the name, which is taken from a 1983 poem, “Wild Figs and Secret Places,” by the reclusive Lexington writer Gayl Jones, one of Wilkinson’s favorites.

Because the old store and new one will be so different, they considered other names. Playing off the North Limestone area’s new moniker, NoLi, Davis suggested calling it NoLiBrary. But, after much debate, they stuck with Wild Fig.

“We’re artists who own a business, and we’re trying to figure out how to make that work,” Wilkinson said, noting that writers have a natural affection for bookstores. “We couldn’t imagine ourselves, as much as we like ice cream, having the same passion for owning an ice cream parlor or a tire-changing place or a laundromat, although we probably would make more money.”


Can North Lexington revival avoid the pitfalls of gentrification?

April 24, 2015

Rand Avenue. Rock Daniels   Photo by Tom Eblen | teblen@herald-leader.comRecently renovated houses on Rand Avenue off North Limestone Street. Photo by Tom Eblen

 

My column last Monday about the quickening pace of renovations in the North Limestone corridor generated some heated discussions on social media about “gentrification.”

In case you aren’t familiar with the term, it was coined in the 1960s to describe the displacement of poor residents when people with more money move into a neighborhood, leading to higher property values, rents and taxes.

It is a politically charged word sometimes used to try to shame people interested in historic preservation, or who want to improve property in neighborhoods where they wish to live or invest.

As urban living has regained popularity in Lexington after decades of suburban sprawl, re-investment in old neighborhoods has led to worries about gentrification.

It is a legitimate issue, because business practices and trickle-down economic policies have created a widening gap between rich and poor. Many hard-working people struggle to make ends meet after years of stagnant wages.

But gentrification can be subjective and complicated, because it involves touchy issues of class, race and capitalism. There are no easy solutions.

Two thoughtful essays about gentrification in Lexington were written by Bianca Spriggs in Ace Weekly last June and Joe Anthony in North of Center in May 2012. Both are worth reading online.

Here’s my view:

Neighborhoods are not static. They are constantly changing for many reasons. Some of those changes are good and others are bad, depending on your perspective. I see a lot more good than bad happening in North Lexington these days.

Many of these neighborhoods were created a century or two ago for wealthy and middle-class homeowners. Suburban flight led to disinvestment, deterioration and crime. A lot of owner-occupied homes became low-income rentals owned by people who didn’t take care of their property.

There are many good houses and commercial buildings there worth preserving and reusing. There also is a lot of community fabric and culture worth respecting and nurturing.

The return of more owner-occupied housing in these neighborhoods is a good thing. It is a fact of life that homeowners have more political clout than renters. That often results in more investment, better policing and less crime in neighborhoods with a significant share of owner-occupied homes.

That doesn’t mean rental property is undesirable. In many neighborhoods, such as mine, renters contribute a lot to community life.

Thanks to investment by new residents, businesses, non-profit groups such as the North Limestone Community Development Corporation and some professional renovators, many of North Lexington neighborhoods are becoming safer and more economically diverse places to live.

That doesn’t mean I like every house-flipper’s craftsmanship or tactics. But some of them are doing good work.

It is inevitable that some renters will be displaced. But I think renovators and re-sellers have a moral obligation to treat people fairly and, when possible, help longtime residents stay in the neighborhood.

Lexington is still small enough that business people’s reputations precede them. Quality work and good ethics will pay off for those who practice it, especially if others in the community speak out about bad actors.

Some absentee landlords will be displaced, too, and that is a good thing. Poor people often pay high rents and utility costs for substandard housing — and then get kicked out if they complain to Code Enforcement.

There are better solutions to affordable housing than steadily deteriorating homes owned by absentee landlords. The Urban League, Community Ventures, Habitat for Humanity, AU Associates, churches and others have done a lot of good work on affordable housing over the past two decades.

This wave of private investment in North Lexington, and the city’s new affordable housing trust fund, provide a good opportunity to address some of these gentrification issues in new and creative ways.

For one thing, people who choose to live in urban neighborhoods rather than more homogenous suburbs are seeking cultural diversity. That’s because diverse neighborhoods are more interesting places to live.

How can the city, non-profit groups and developers work together to keep low-income people in these neighborhoods, while at the same time improving the quality of housing they can afford? How can neighborhood revitalization work for everyone?

Neighborhoods are like any natural environment: The more diverse they are, the more healthy they are and the more sustainable they will be over time.


Rand Avenue renovations add to North Limestone renaissance

April 19, 2015

150416RandAve0008Real estate entrepreneur Rock Daniels has been buying, renovating and reselling former rental houses in the first block of Rand Avenue. His contractors are basically rebuilding many of the century-old bungalows, which were structurally sound and have nice architectural detals, but had badly deteriorated after years as rental units.   Photo by Tom Eblen

 

First it was downtown mansions. Then East Lexington bungalows. Now, North Lexington cottages. The popularity of in-town living has brought another wave to Lexington’s home renovation market.

With most of the antebellum houses and Victorian mansions redone and selling for more than $500,000, a good business has developed in complete renovations of homes built a century ago for working-class families.

The wave that started in neighborhoods such as Hollywood, Kenwick and Mentelle has washed up North Limestone.

150408RandAve0022Rock Daniels, a real estate agent who twice ran unsuccessfully for the Urban County Council, is buying and virtually rebuilding early 1900s houses in the first block of Rand Avenue, just north of Duncan Park, as well as some houses on nearby streets.

Laurella Lederer was doing the same thing before him. Having redone much of Johnson Avenue, she is now working on the second block of Rand.

Broken Fork Design has redone several houses and multi-family units, including the Fifth and Lime Flats. It was a much-needed renovation of an apartment complex built after the 1963 demolition of Thorn Hill, a circa 1812 mansion where Vice President John C. Breckinridge was born.

Chad Needham, who redid the old Spalding’s Bakery at East Sixth and North Limestone and the building that now houses North Lime Coffee & Donuts across from it, has done several other houses and commercial buildings in the area.

Needham’s most recent project is especially impressive: an early 1800s house at the corner of North Limestone and West Fifth Street that became commercial space long ago and had fallen into terrible shape. Beautifully renovated, it now houses Fleet Street Hair Shoppe.

Rand Avenue, created in 1892, still has most of its original houses. A notable exception is No. 264, a vacant lot since about 2001. It was the childhood home of Elizabeth Hardwick (1916-2007), whose father was a plumbing contractor.

Hardwick left Lexington for New York in 1939 and became a famous fiction writer, essayist and critic, a founder of the New York Review of Books and wife of poet Robert Lowell. She was recently inducted into the Kentucky Writers Hall of Fame.

Since the 1980s, though, Rand Avenue has largely been rental property. Broken Fork did one of the first renovations there — the house where the Spalding family started frying their famous donuts in 1929.

Daniels, who lives in the Hollywood neighborhood, saw Rand Avenue as a promising area for young professionals who wanted to live near downtown, wanted a house and yard rather than a condo, but couldn’t afford larger renovated houses.

The first house he renovated sold in November for $182,500. He is now doing nine more on Rand, three of which are already under contract, two to medical school residents and one to a physical therapist, he said.

Daniels showed me through one of them, a circa 1910 frame cottage with about 1,200 square feet. It had been a rental house for years. He bought it for $36,000, is investing about $80,000 in renovation and hopes to sell it for about $165,000. His nearby renovated houses are priced around $145,000.

With each house, his contractors install a new roof, take the house down to the studs and make any needed structural improvements. They preserve what historic fabric they can. But except for restored heart-pine floors, most things will be new: windows, wiring, plumbing, heating and air, insulation, kitchens and siding on the non-brick houses.

Many houses have small interior coal chimneys that can’t be reused. They are removed for a more open floor plan, but the bricks are reused for walks.

“We try to save and repurpose as much as possible,” said Daniels, who grew up in a National Register historic house in Bristol, Tenn.

Daniels wants to buy all of the rental houses he can on the street, he said, but none that are owner-occupied. In fact, he said, he has offered to make improvements on those houses at cost.

He will soon be building a new porch for homeowner Janice Hamilton and her husband. She has lived there since 1981 and likes what is happening on her street.

“When I first moved here it was a lot of older people, most of them homeowners,” Hamilton said. “And then a lot of them died out and it became rental property. So it became a little this and that.

“Now I’m glad to see it coming back to the way it used to be,” she said. “A lot of people give Rand Avenue a bad rap. We had some bad tenants years ago. But it’s quiet, it’s close to town. Everybody looks out for each other. I’m looking forward to new homeowners.”

Daniels sees a lot more potential for restoring North Lexington neighborhoods.

“Of course, we’re looking for what the next Rand Avenue is going to be,” he said. “There are so many people who want to move downtown.”

Click on each image to see larger photo and read caption:


NoLi CDC gets $550,000 grant to turn bus station into public market

March 31, 2015

NoLiRichard Young, left, and Kris Nonn of the North Limestone Community Development Corp. stand in front of the former bus station near the corner of North Limestone Street and West Loudon Avenue that the NoLiCDC hopes to acquire from LexTran and turn into a community market.  Photo by Tom Eblen

 

The nonprofit North Limestone Community Development Corp. will get a $550,000 grant to help turn a former Greyhound bus station into a public market and local food hub focused on the surrounding neighborhood.

The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation is announcing the grant Tuesday as part of its first Knight Cities Challenge.

The foundation split $5 million among 32 projects it thinks can attract talent, improve economic opportunity and increase civic engagement in 12 of the 26 cities where the Knight ­brothers once owned newspapers, ­including the Lexington Herald-Leader. Winners were chosen from 125 finalists culled from 7,000 proposals.

The goal of the NoLi CDC project is to make locally grown food more available in the low-income neighborhood, which has been experiencing a renaissance in recent years with an influx of young, entrepreneurial and community-minded residents.

The market also would provide stalls and shared ­infrastructure for “makers” and other entrepreneurs in the neighborhood who want to start businesses, said Richard Young and Kris Nonn, the NoLi CDC’s two staff members.

The NoLi CDC has shown the potential for a public market in the neighborhood by sponsoring a monthly Night Market on the lower block of Bryan Avenue, between West Loudon and North Limestone.

Several thousand people came out to each of the festival-like markets last year, and about half the merchants and vendors were from the neighborhood. The first Night Market of 2015 will be 7 to 10 p.m. Friday.

Bahia Ramos, a program director with the Miami-based Knight Foundation, said she “really had a blast” when she attended a Night Market last year.

“There was such a diverse cross-section of people, and a genuine outpouring of good energy and creativity,” she said. “We wanted to be a catalyst to help grow that out.”

The NoLi CDC’s focus has been creating entrepreneurial opportunities for people to live and work in the North Limestone corridor.

Another of its projects is the York Street “makers spaces” — renovated 1920s shotgun houses where makers can live and work. That project, which is applying for a new type of city zoning, received a major grant last year from ArtPlace America, which focuses on encouraging “creative placemaking” in communities.

NoLi CDC hopes to put its public market and food hub in a huge Art Deco building on West Loudon Avenue, a block from the Night Market site. The only problem is that it doesn’t own the vacant building, which has nearly 104,000 square feet on 2.4 acres.

Built in 1928, it was the headquarters of Southeast Greyhound Lines until 1960. The building is now owned by the Lexington Transit Authority, which wanted to demolish it for a new headquarters. Lextran later decided to build a facility nearby, and the old building has been added to the National Register of Historic Places.

Lextran officials wrote a letter supporting the NoLi CDC’s grant application. Lextran plans to solicit sealed bids for the building within six months, spokeswoman Jill Barnett said

Acquiring and then renovating the building, which will cost several million dollars, are some of the challenges to be overcome, Young and Nonn said. But the Knight grant will give them working capital to get the project started.

Multi-tenant public markets have been very successful in many cities, Young said, noting such examples as Findlay Market in Cincinnati and Mercado La Paloma in Los Angeles.

“A lot of times you hear people talk about starting a business as ‘taking the plunge,'” Nonn said. “This would mitigate the risk associated with that” by providing shared facilities, a shopper base and other support services.

Theoretically, these projects would allow a neighborhood resident to start a business in his or her home, graduate to a market stall and eventually grow enough to have a shop in the neighborhood.

Young and Nonn worked closely with Ashton Potter, the city’s new local food coordinator, to make plans for the public market to also serve as an aggregation, processing and sales point for Central Kentucky farmers. It would include a commercial kitchen that entrepreneurs could rent to test or produce food products.

“This building that is going to be coming up for sale can go to a use that is incredibly beneficial for the neighborhood,” Young said. “Lifting the access barrier to entrepreneurial activity is something that’s really important.”