A new business in High Point’s Uptowne district aims to bring people together while doing good by selling wares made by international artisans.
The chain of events that led up to Wendy Fuscoe and Julia Luce opening a combined wine shop and boutique with a focus on promoting social good has a serendipitous past.
Fuscoe, then employed by the city of High Point as executive director of City Project, had persuaded the Vino Shoppe to rent the left bay of a 1917-vintage office duplex in the heart of the city’s Uptowne district. The arrangement didn’t work out, and the wine store closed its Uptowne location while maintaining its original store in the Palladium area. But before the wine store relocated, Luce took of a job there. She was working a shift when Bill Muckridge, a residential contractor who specializes in custom kitchen and baths, stopped in to visit the store. Muckridge, who would become Luce’s boyfriend, decided he liked the building and ended up buying it.
Fuscoe and Luce opened Public House in the space formerly occupied by the Vino Shoppe in March. Focusing on wine and handcrafted products — many of them made by international artisans or refugees — everything in the shop is there because it has a social benefit. They sell baskets made by a Rwandan women’s collective. Jewelry made of repurposed bullet casings and vintage coins is produced by HIV-positive artisans in Ethiopia and benefits a home for abandoned children there. Sales of pottery by Jennifer Foy, office director at World Relief High Point, benefit her agency. And refugee clients at World Relief earn money from the sale of their jewelry. All the wine sales benefit two nonprofits, Wine to Water and Treasure Hunter. A portion of the proceeds from sales of Wine to Water wines — founded by Jamestown native Doc Hendley — support development of clean water around the world, while Treasure Hunter supports underprivileged children with debilitating diseases.
Fuscoe left her job with the city of High Point at the end of June, landing a position as a commercial realtor at Ed Price & Associates just up the street from Public House. Fuscoe’s soft exit from the city followed a tumultuous saga in 2014, when city council rejected many of the new urbanism ideas championed by Fuscoe’s project that focused on creating an urban center in Uptowne. At city council’s prompting, the former city manager reassigned her to a new role supporting core city revitalization while withdrawing support from City Project. The new council elected in November 2014 and the new city manager hired around the same time took a friendlier stance towards new urbanism ideas, but city leaders opted for a fresh start rather than rebooting City Project. Many of the revitalization functions previous handled by Fuscoe have shifted to Assistant City Manager Randy Hemann, who was hired last year.
As co-proprietor of Public House, Fuscoe has the opportunity to directly implement the kind of project that she previously tried to facilitate as a city employee.
“To be surrounded by people who are so inspired is really great,” she said. “It’s fun to be on that side to not worry about the restrictions of what you can and cannot do.
“I really think change is gonna come from people on the ground, not imposed from above by the city,” Fuscoe added.
“I would imagine that First Friday didn’t happen in Greensboro because the city said, ‘This needs to happen,’” she said. “It was some arts people saying, ‘Let’s throw some wine out and see what happens.’”
Luce said they were fortunate to be able to consult with Muckridge, who gave them a realistic sense of what it would cost to renovate the space to meet the code requirements for the business. But they’ve run into some realities that confront all first-time business owners, even those who prioritize financial profit over social benefit instead of the other way around.
“I thought we’d be making more money,” Fuscoe said. “I thought we’d be able to pay our bills. And we’re not.”
It helps that both partners have other full-time jobs, Fuscoe as a realtor and Luce as Muckridge’s showroom manager. Considering that an inside door connects the store to the showroom, Luce is able to do both jobs at the same time.
In the meantime, Luce and Fuscoe recognize that getting the word out about Public House will be essential to making it a viable business. The brisk pace of traffic on North Main Street is a challenge, and Fuscoe said she suspects few of the passing motorists have noticed the store.
“The challenge is marketing,” Fuscoe said. “If we can have 10 seconds to tell the Wine to Water story, nine times out of 10 we make a sale.”
Programming is part of the partners’ strategy to get people in the door. They host regular dinners by Steve Hollingsworth, a budding chef who formerly owned Green Door Wheel Works. There’s a women-only gathering held on the full moon once a month called “Goddess Night.” And the store collaborates with Sunrise Books on a regular wine and books night.
“We don’t expect people to just walk in,” Luce said, “although that would be nice.”
The name Public House aligns with Fuscoe and Luce’s interest in bringing people together, but also serves a more practical purpose. Peter Freeman, an architect whose firm leases space on the second floor of the building, suggested the name as a way to avoid the more stringent regulations placed on retail space by the city’s building code, Fuscoe said. Freeman worked on the Ignite High Point master plan with new urbanist planner Andrés Duany, and designed the library plaza project, which is currently under construction.
“Peter’s idea was, ‘Don’t pick a name like ‘shop’ or ‘store’ — choose something like a gathering space,’” Fuscoe said. “We are a gathering space, so it’s not just circumventing the regulations. If we do retail as an accessory use, it would be fine.”
Along those lines, Luce and Fuscoe are organizing a “Back Alley Market” with neighbors JH Adams Inn and Brown Truck Brewery that will feature an outdoor screening of Ghostbusters and free space for vendors in the alley that runs behind the businesses on Aug. 24. And on the retail side of their efforts, the two have talked about inviting refugees in to a spare room one day of the week to sew, and hiring ex-offenders to make lanterns out of salvaged tin cans.
“Both of us have lived in developing countries, places where they don’t have internet and electricity — things we take for granted,” Luce said. “Anything we can do to change that, we want to.”
“And bring people together,” Fuscoe added.
“We’re a like a mini UN,” Luce said.