“C’mere Juno,” calls Mike Coble, owner of J. Gabriel and three other Main Street stores. To me, he says, “I’ll be right with you, sir. We just hired a new employee today, we’re training her up. It’s crazy man. Crazy Monday! But hey — that’s what it’s like here.”
With that, he turns on his heel and resumes leading the new employee around the shop at breakneck speed, expounding on various products with unbridled enthusiasm. This all takes about 30 seconds.
Perhaps the shop’s high energy stands out especially in contrast to the slower pace so many of us have grown accustomed to in the time of Covid-19. For months after the pandemic first hit, public life ground down to a narcotized slur, forcing many vendors to close their doors forever. Not so with Coble, however. Rather than cut back and hunker down, he’s managed to expand into two new businesses — Georgia Colt, a children’s boutique, and J. Gabriel Embroidery — this summer alone. When asked why he chose this bolder path, he responded, “Why not?” and laughed.
“It’s go-time, now. I’ve got 12 employees depending on me — you can’t be timid with that. This is the time to grow. I mean, we could just give up, curl up and die like so many other places, or say ‘why not?’ and get after it. What else are you gonna do? Our whole philosophy here is ‘why not?’”
Coble and his wife, Brooke, have taken advantage of unfilled niches in the downtown community.
They opened Georgia Colt just a month after the U.S. pandemic’s April peak.
“Remember that baby store we had years ago, Just Ducky?” he said. “That was a cool place. With that gone there’s really not a kids’ store here in town. That’s why we opened Georgia Colt — it’s named after my kids, Georgia, Colt and Daisy. When you visit a town, you want there to be a lot of different kinds of businesses. You don’t want every shop to be a copy. I want to fill those holes so there’s something here for everybody.”
Coble also sought creative solutions to a customer base now used to shopping from home.
J. Gabriel recently expanded into online-shopping and 10-mile delivery for customers reticent to leave home — options usually unheard of in connection with small-town merchants. This creativity is vital in a time when traditional markets are so uncertain.
“It’s a big blow with the Church Street Festival being shut down. And we’re all still hoping the Apple Festival is still a go. But, this time just goes to show that you’ve gotta make your own luck,” he said.
Just last month, he opened J. Gabriel Embroidery. His excitement about this newest endeavor offers key insight into his broader motivation and philosophy.
“I don’t usually do interviews. I’m not for my own publicity, but I’m doing this for my people,” he said. “I’ve got this one employee who went to school for graphic design, and her dream was always to open a shop kinda like this one. Now she basically runs it and I’m like, ‘Here’s your shop!’ That’s what I love. It’s all for my people.”
Though Coble has been successful personally, he cares more about fostering growth in the downtown community at large.
“It’s not just about me and my business,” he said. “I want the whole town to grow. Our goal is to have a town with no off-season. Usually that’s like January through March, but it doesn’t have to be. I want people to see we’re not a Pigeon Forge or Cashiers that’s just open six months out of a year, but that this is a place you can invest in. A home to grow and be safe in.”
Coble hopes to inspire other Wall Street and Main Street merchants to bounce back from their pandemic losses. In keeping with this goal, all of his stores offer a 10 percent discount for any customers who brings an item in that they purchased anywhere in the downtown area.
Using J. Gabriel Embroidery’s parking lot as a Wall Street platform, he also recently started hosting special embroidery days. He kicked it off with “Pamper Your Pet Day,” on Aug. 22, where pet-owners could come have their pets’ favorite items monogramed at a discounted rate. On Aug. 28, he held a back-to-school monogramming event. While these events are small, they play into his larger dream of transforming Wall Street into a second Main Street.
“We’re trying to open up a whole new area on Wall Street,” said Coble. “That’s like a hidden gem back there. There’s a ton of parking. The buildings are beautiful, if you work on them a bit like we have and Boojum has. It’s like a second Main Street we need to invest in. And it’s not like we don’t have investors in town — we do. We just need them to focus in on downtown.”
These hopes and projects are a different vision for Waynesville after months of economic and mental depression. Growth, not decay. Restoration, not stagnation. In uncertain times that have left many just wishing for normalcy, Coble’s mantra of “Why not grow? Why not move forward?” may be just what we need.