By Alicia Banks
Molly Arnold sat at a table in Rude Awakening coffee house on a Tuesday afternoon. It was a change of scenery for the owner of the downtown business. She’s usually in a back room working on day-to-day tasks. The sounds of whirring coffee machines filled the store. Customers chatted with each other as steam rose from their coffee mugs. All were sounds that Arnold likes to hear.
“Friends are very important in my life and in this technology age, the convos can be a little lacking,” she said. “When people come here, I want them to have an interaction with a person who cares, not just a good cup of coffee.”
Cell phones aren’t usually part of Arnold’s ideal vision but on this afternoon she pulled hers out to show a collage of pictures of some customers.
“There’s a police officer, a homeless man, a politician and a mom with her newborn child,” Arnold said while smiling. “On that day, I just happened to come out of my office and saw them. Some I knew and others I didn’t know.”
The collage shows some of what Arnold envisioned when she first started out in downtown Fayetteville, nearly 20 years ago.
“Honestly, I wanted a place where people could have a seat and not feel rushed,” she said. “This shop is successfully the third place in some people’s lives. For most, the first is home. Second is work and the third is what you’re drawn to outside of home and work. I wanted an ‘after place’ where you could go after work or school.”
Myra Johnson works in Arnold’s second downtown business, a gift shop on Franklin Street called White Trash & colorful accessories. Johnson’s love for the store as a customer turned into a full-time job.
“I might be a little bit biased, but she’s a great woman, a phenomenal woman,” she said of Arnold. “What I love is that she is very hands-on with everything. The other day, I had two ladies in here and right off, Molly spoke to them. She has no problem connecting to people and finding out their interest.”
Arnold purchased the building that houses the coffee shop in 1998. At the time, boards covered many storefront windows in downtown. It’s what Arnold remembers seeing when she walked along Hay Street on her lunch breaks while working for an architectural firm. The city had condemned 227 Hay Street. No walls. Bird droppings layered the floor. Then one day, it rained while she was walking past with her husband of now nearly 33 years, Bruce.
“We tucked up underneath of what’s now ‘Rude,’” she recalled. “I said, ‘I wish downtown would do something about the buildings.’ He said I should, and boy, does he regret it.”
Arnold laughed at the memory and looked around her coffee shop. The walls are now coated in pastel paint and colorful memorabilia, including concert posters for Stevie Nicks, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers and Rod Stewart. There’s a roof. And there are neighboring businesses in the once sprawling, dilapidated building – the Cameo Art House Theatre and the Rainbow Room, whose owners purchased their locations from the Arnolds in 1999 and rehabilitated them.
Molly Arnold’s efforts to help downtown find its image haven’t gone unnoticed.
Last fall, Methodist University’s School of Business named her its Outstanding Woman Entrepreneur of the Year. In 2013, she won the NAACP Nelson Mandela Award and, in 2011, the Fayetteville Organization for Women’s Susan B. Anthony Award. Her efforts to revitalize downtown lie not only in the awards, but in her coffee shop’s name.
“Back then, Fayetteville was talked about so badly,” she said. “To me, that we can have a fabulous coffee house downtown is a ‘rude awakening.’ I chose the name as an in-your-face to the naysayers about nothing good can come out of Fayetteville.”
Arnold wasn’t alone or first in yearning to reshape downtown. Before Rude opened, she found inspiration in architect Eric Lindstrom’s purchase and rehabilitation of a two-story downtown building; he made the first floor into retail space and the upper floor his apartment.
Then there’s artist Greg Hathaway. “He’s a huge part of why I’m downtown,” Arnold said. Shops like his gave her hope that downtown Fayetteville would see growth.
Hathaway opened Greg’s Art Pottery & Gifts on Maxwell Street, which he later sold to his daughter. He came up with Fourth Fridays, a monthly event celebrating art and downtown. The event grew from just four businesses to roughly four blocks of businesses. Arnold has had a hand in the event’s growth.
“Downtown is loaded with mom and pop shops, and we survive by helping each other survive,” Hathaway said. “We cross-promote each other. She’s promoted my artwork and had my business cards in her shop and vice versa.”
Arnold’s downtown footprint is larger than that of her two shops. She’s a board member of the City of Fayetteville Linear Park Corporation, which has been key in creating Linear Park, the downtown greenway. She’s secretary for the Cool Spring Downtown District, which promotes downtown. And she is a former member of the city’s chamber of commerce. Arnold is also a familiar face at Fayetteville City Council meetings. Hathaway said there’s no one in downtown who hasn’t heard Molly’s voice through the years.
He described Molly as a “worker” out of three types of people.
“You have the tiniest group, those who do all the work; ‘shirkers’ that sit around and ‘jerkers,’ the ones that say they’re going to do it and bail in the last minute and take the credit to make them look good,” he said. “There have been so many baby steps, and it’s through people like Molly. She’s a valuable asset to this community.”
Hathaway recalled nominating Arnold for the chamber of commerce’s Athena Award in 2003. The prestigious honor recognizes someone who demonstrates the greatest support for the goals of professional women. Naturally, Arnold won the award – a surprise to her. She learned of Hathaway’s involvement later.
“When she won the award, she just said ‘thank you’ and didn’t like the attention,” Hathaway said while laughing during a phone interview. “She told me she would get me back.”
Arnold got her revenge in 2014. Hathaway earned the governor’s North Carolina’s Order of the Long Leaf Pine award.
“I told her we were even, she got even with me slowly,” he said. “If you do something for Molly, you’ll get a thank-you note. She’s old school. She takes care of people who take care of her.”
Back inside Rude Awakening, a little girl nearly leapt into Arnold’s arms. She showed Arnold her favorite Christmas present – a silver necklace with a butterfly charm. Arnold quickly glanced at the picture collage on her phone. It’s in those moments that she remembers why her shops are still open.
“I thought I would sell and collect rent, but I haven’t,” she said. “And I’m OK with that. For some, this has been the first place they’ve gone after getting married, after a funeral or burying a child. And giving people an opportunity to work here even when they don’t have the best backgrounds. It would affect people if we closed.”
Johnson said her work schedule at White Trash has allowed her to spend more time with her blended family – a husband and six children. She, too, finds inspiration from Arnold.
“I want to do whatever I can to be a success for her, and it makes me want to do all I can to help in the business,” she said. “And Molly being a woman makes it even better. I feel like it’s a ‘man’s world’ when it comes to business. But she has done this since 1999. There’s a reason why both of her businesses have been downtown for as long as they have.”
Arnold glanced at the picture collage on her phone again. Her eyes scanned the smiling faces of the police officer, the mother and her newborn child and the homeless man. They were faces she knew she would see again soon, all because of a decision she made on Hay Street in the late 1990s. During slow periods that might make another business owner wonder if she did the right thing, Arnold wastes no second thoughts.
“You only regret the things you didn’t try or do,” she said. “And if you fail, it’s not necessarily a bad thing. I try not to have regrets.”
She added, “Pursue your dreams, whether if it’s to be a homemaker raising six wonderful children or working for someone. Pursue that and be the best employee you can be. Pursue your dreams. Just because it’s different doesn’t mean it’s wrong.”
Molly waved to a few customers she knew as she walked to the back of the coffee shop to continue work. She remembered one customer she wouldn’t see again. He died around Christmas. He visited the shop nearly every morning to help her set up the chairs and tables in the front patio.
“He was the reason we opened at 7:30 a.m.,” she recalled. “He wanted to have a coffee and read the newspaper before work.”
As she stood up, she straightened her gray sweater. The sweater bore a crown made out of jewels that flickered in the light.