Story by Sandra Davidson Photographs by Baxter Miller
Presented by the Johnston County Visitor's Bureau
It was uncomfortably muggy Friday morning in downtown Selma. The sun blazed and beat down on the sidewalks and pavement, and the few wisps of clouds suspended in the brilliantly blue sky did little to temper its unrelenting rise. On any other scorching day, the downtown would likely be still. People would flit between shops, offices and restaurants ducking into shade and seeking the closest distance between them and the next air conditioned space. But not last Friday, for it was the beginning of the 301 Endless Yard Sale.
The 301 Endless Yard Sale is an annual two-day thrift, antique and consignment bonanza that takes place along the North Carolina portion of U.S. Route 301. Local shops, civic groups, churches and ordinary folks set up tables and booths along the highway selling goods.
By 10:30 AM, tents and tables sat assembled along the highway, and visitors ambled through aisles and stacks of things that ranged from pocket knives and old magazines to classic records and antique furniture.
The yard sale is the brainchild of Selma Mayor Cheryl Oliver, the Johnston County Visitors Bureau and other locals. Cheryl says, “It’s what a lot of small business really need. They may make more that day than what they make in months during the year.” Its first iteration happened in 2012 and ran 30 miles through Johnston County; this year’s sale stretched 100 miles, from Roanoke Rapids to north of Fayetteville.
Modeled after the 127 Yard Sale, a 690-mile yard sale from Michigan to Alabama, dubbed the “World’s Longest Yard Sale,” the event generates income and funds for businesses, locals and nonprofits alike. The 301 Endless Yard Sale runs through small towns like Selma, Wilson, Micro, Dunn and Rocky Mount, communities that continue to reimagine what a vibrant rural downtown looks like.
This reimagining is something Selma has been working on for years. Antiques, like the ones you’d see at the endless yard sale, are at the heart of its reimagining.
Bruce Radford was the town manager of Selma from 1992-2001. Back then, Bruce says, “Selma was not dead, but it was in intensive care.” Once a vibrant small town built along a railroad line and on textiles and agriculture, Selma suffered, like many rural communities, as its mills closed and big box stores forced small businesses to close up shop. By the time Bruce arrived, over 25 buildings in Selma’s downtown were vacant.
The question of what could bring Selma back from the brink kept Bruce up at night. One Sunday morning in 1997 somewhere between the seventh and eighth hole of a golf course the word antiques came to mind. Bruce likes to say the shot flopped, but the idea stayed.
Antique districts had brought life and new business back to North Carolina communities like Waxhaw and Cameron, and Bruce believed they could do the same for Selma. He designed a plan to entice antique shops: the town would pay one year of rent for all antique or art store owners who set up shop in downtown Selma. The town and building owners went for it, as did the antiquers. Bruce gave over 250 tours of downtown buildings. By the end of this effort, two shop owners took the city up on the free rent and over 20 of the buildings downtown were sold.
“Antiques brought people down to Selma who would never have gone there,” says Bruce who believes the industry also fit the small town culture of Selma. “To be welcoming to people is in their DNA. They form an instant relationship with customers.”
Since, Selma has become a destination for antiques. Billboards along major interstates draw people into its shops. Folks from the movie industry in Wilmington make the trip up I-40 to find unique props for sets. Today, 12 antique or thrift stores presently call Selma home.
Reid’s Country Sampler, a 14,000-square-foot shop established in 1999 is one of them. “We are the type of business where one [shop] is good, two is much better, three is much better, and four is even better," says owner Donna Reid. A group of antique shops draws in customers who will be more likely spend a day hopping from shop to shop, not just an hour. Donna explains, "We aren’t competitors. We are comrades.”
One week she may sell a collector’s art deco kitchen sink, another she may sell a vintage coffin. “We have everything from the sublime to the ridiculous,” says Donna. “You can’t walk through without remembering something from your childhood.”
That’s part of the draw.
I encountered the sublime and the ridiculous in many of the stores I wandered through: glassware, a life-sized poster of Justin Beiber, vintage wedding dresses, firearms, children’s toys, thousands of records, retro tobacco ads from Bright leaf's heyday and enough silverware to service all the brides and grooms in the tri-state area.
A talking bust of Elvis called to me as I browsed through A Matter of Record, a store that specializes in the sale of vintage record players, vinyl albums and jukeboxes. While Elvis rambled, store owner Jim Beaston procured his prized copy of the Beatles’ “Butcher” cover--an item so rare that one copy sold for a whopping $15,300 on eBay in 2013.
Selma’s antique shops have something for everyone and some things that are hard to imagine anyone wanting, but as Donna Reid told me, I’d be surprised at the things people collect.
I also encountered things that evoked my childhood. A breadbowl, like the one that once sat in storage at my grandfather’s house in Lillington; an old, butter-yellow Sunbeam mixer like the one my grandmother in New Bern once used to whip up her legendary chocolate chip cookies. For a moment, these objects took me to a different place. Such is the magic and mystery of old things.
In her book On Longing, scholar Susan Stewart argues that stories about objects help us relate our possessions to broader experiences that transcend time and space. The bread bowl and the old Sunbeam mixer connect me to places I no longer live and people I can no longer see. In Selma, antiques--objects filled with stories and history invisible to the naked eye--are used to bring a once vibrant small town to a healthy present and hopeful future.
Here, out with the old in with the new doesn’t apply.
Johnston County Visitors Bureau invites you to discover and explore destinations along the I-95 and I-40 corridors in Johnston County, North Carolina, which are often characterized with phrases such as "small-town charm", "friendly", or "a taste of Americana." For more information on the area go to johnstoncountync.org. You can also learn about the latest events, festivals, performances, and exhibits in Johnston County by visiting johnstoncountyevents.com.