Small Town Girls Living Their Dream
John Evelyn, 17th-century English writer and diarist, once said, “Friendship is the golden thread that ties the heart of all the world.” For Petra Keith and Jessica Harrelson, co-owners of Swank Coffee Shoppe and Handmade Market in Southern Pines, this is true.
However, their thread may just be a bit more, well, swanky. Keith and Harrelson met as college students 13 years ago while waiting tables together at a chain restaurant in Durham. Now they are the kind of friends that can finish each other’s sentences — and they do.
At about the time that their paths crossed, Keith had just begun to explore the art of stained glass, and Harrelson had recently reacquainted herself with the “lost art” of knitting. Each inspired by the other’s passion to create and interest in learning new trades, the pair began to master new mediums and to travel around participating in art shows together.
“People would ask us, ‘Where is your store?’” Keith says.
Create Your Own
For years after college, Keith and Harrelson worked at their respective desk jobs, keeping their creativity and contentment on reserve for the evenings and weekends that they could dedicate to their crafts.
“Then we realized that sometimes you have to create your own opportunity,” says Harrelson. “We both had business, service, and food and beverage backgrounds. It was all sort of leading up. We decided that we were going to collaborate and do what we love.”
Hence, in 2007, the duo left their desks to follow their hearts. With the support of their families and friends, at a small location in downtown Southern Pines, Keith and Harrelson opened Swank and began to serve locally roasted coffee from Cactus Creek, and to make and sell chic, unique gifts and gadgets inspired by what Harrelson defines as the “handmade movement.”
“The idea is getting away from mass marketing,” she says. “It’s about remembering that you don’t have to go to Target for everything.”
In July, Swank relocated to its current location on Broad Street, where its bubbly owners beam friendly greetings to loyal customers and curious passersby alike. Its quirky drink menu includes various inside jokes and reflections of Keith and Harrelson’s friendship, such as house favorites “Banana Rumba,” their least favorite dessert to make when they waited tables together in college, and “Paddy and Bill,” one of their favorite bands in Fayetteville.
With almost 30 contributing local artists (including Keith and Harrelson), the women of Swank claim there is no telling what could be found in their shop next. From T-shirts featuring emblems quintessential of Southern Pines (such as bicycles and horses), to a mishmash of jewelry, magnets, greeting cards, stained glass, photography, fiber art, soaps, lip balms and “modern mommy” accessories, everything is handmade, homemade and Swank suitable.
“Swank is about shopping locally. We’re going for chic, cool and untraditional,” says Harrelson, who explains that even their furniture and light fixtures — thrift store treasures — add to the store’s overall synergy and ambience.
Keith adds that Swank appeals to an interesting spectrum of customers, and that it’s not just women who are doing their shopping there. She shares an anecdote from a day she was working at the store’s old location.
“There was a guy who had been sitting in there, drinking coffee. Another man walked in and picked up a pink apron we had for sale and said he’d like to buy it for his wife. Then the man who had been sitting there said he’d had his eye on it the entire time and was going to buy it for his own wife,” she says with laugh, “so I got to watch this discussion over which man was going to get the pink apron.”
It’s About People
The girls attribute much of Swank’s success and their personal happiness to the inspiring, soulful town of Southern Pines, which also happens to be where Keith grew up.
“Southern Pines is about people,” Keith says, “and I definitely feel like I have more quality in my life than I ever experienced in some of the bigger cities I’ve lived in, and there’s just as much to do.”
“There is a lot of culture here, and I think that really adds to its charm,” Harrelson adds.
Since Swank’s move to its current location, the extra space has allowed them to provide private laptop stations for customers and a place for intimate groups to meet up for coffee and conversation. They have also begun to host a range of art classes within the shop during weekend hours.
“We are not planning on getting stale,” Keith says. “We are always trying to learn more about our craft, expand what we do…” Harrelson eases in, as if on cue, to complete Keith’s sentence, “…and to learn more about the drinks that we serve.”
“We love coffee, and we love art,” Keith says, “and I think that shows because we try to aim for quality in both areas.”
Ashley Wahl is a local freelance writer.
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