Published 12:00 am Sunday, August 11, 2013
SPENCER — Decades ago, Hartford Raper asked a guy for two seats from a conversion van and he set them up, side-by-side, facing the sales counter.
The comfy seats came to be known as the “husband chairs.” While wives spent whole mornings or afternoons strolling through the aisles of Raper’s unique store of pottery dishes, glassware, silk flowers, ribbons, baskets, holiday ornaments, candles, figurines and other knickknacks, the husbands were content to sit, read the newspaper and converse with each other.
Hartford, who died in 2006, liked to stand behind the counter with one leg propped up, making sure his customers were finding everything they needed. Raper’s of Spencer has so much stuff on its shelves, it’s hard to keep everything dusted at once.
Hartford Raper liked to say it was “the only place you get free real estate with a purchase,” granddaughter Lynette Yates says.
Hartford passed away on his 66th wedding anniversary. His bride, Rachel, still lives close by and helps with the store’s bookwork, keeping the spreadsheets in order for tax purposes. She’s only 88.
The Rapers’ children — Judy, Daryl, John and Lynne — grew up with the store as their playground and work-study program, and the latter three siblings are now the owners.
Daryl remembers riding down the aisles on the hand truck or being able to climb inside a 15-gallon pickle jar to hide from everyone.
Rachel kept her playpen in the store when the kids were infants. It worked until Judy figured out how to lift the bottom to escape. She showed the other kids, too.
Lynette’s children, 11-year-old Hunter and 6-year-old Tyler, are the newest generation to have run of the store.
Today, Raper’s of Spencer remains a retail wonderland. From the outside, it’s a low-key, low-slung brick building at 1109 N. Salisbury Ave. with only a handmade sign in the window to confirm you’ve arrived at the right place.
Back in its heyday, the outside parking lot was filled with concrete yard ornaments, pots for plants and other weather-tolerant items stacked 10 to 12 feet high.
“We didn’t have a warehouse to store the stuff we had back then,” Daryl explains.
It always was, and remains to a degree, a destination spot for most of its customers. A group of women from Winston-Salem used to travel here regularly, packing a picnic lunch with them to eat at a table outside.
Lynette Yates says people still come sometimes just to visit, bringing homemade cakes and cookies for the staff. For added refreshment, there’s a monstrous Cheerwine drink machine in the corner that would attract the eye of any collector.
Raper’s has its roots in the Depression.
Hartford’s sister, Bess, had set up a gift store in Charlotte, and she wrote the Hull Pottery company in Ohio, asking if she could buy direct from its plant in Crooksville.
Bess had such a good response for the ceramic dishes that John, the father, and his sons Clyde and Hartford latched onto the idea, too. They drove a truck to Ohio, picked up loads of Hull dinnerware and brought it back to North Carolina.
At first they set up on a vacant lot and sold pottery dishes out of the back of their truck. Items that didn’t sell immediately went into “Grandma’s front yard” for sale, Daryl says.
At age 14, Hartford Raper was driving back and forth to Ohio for loads of pottery. In 1938, John Raper bought a gas station along busy U.S. 29, and the father and sons started selling their dishes out of the service station, which sat next to the road in front of today’s building.
It also became the neighborhood’s grocery of sorts, selling bread, cheese crackers, candy and soft drinks.
Men liked to come in and sit around the station’s pot-bellied stove, long before the “husband chairs” were around.
Rachel, who lived a couple of doors down from the Rapers’ combination service station-pottery store first met Hartford when she walked in to buy a loaf of bread.
He “snow-balled” her home — literally throwing snowballs at her as a way of gaining her attention — and the rest is romance history. They married in 1940, a couple of years before Hartford went off to World War II.
After the war, the store kept growing, far overshadowing the gas and candy business. The Rapers, who had first traveled to the Hull plant, added other Ohio pottery companies to their circuit and became a well-known wholesaler for many retailers.
Once, after a 1950 flood and resulting fire destroyed much of the Hull plant, the Rapers arranged to buy all of the warehouse stock that could be salvaged. Over one month, Hartford and others brought back 50 truckloads of dishware from Ohio.
The Rapers then hired all the women in the neighborhood to wash the items in 10 No. 2 washtubs bought from Bernhardt Hardware in Salisbury. The washing line was set up in back of the store.
Those pre-fire Hull pottery pieces are considered collectibles now, Daryl Raper says, and out of 50 truckloads, “We don’t have a piece of it.”
Daryl says the family also didn’t keep the very first dollar earned, like other businesses sometimes do. It was the Depression, and “Grandpa would have thought we were totally out of our minds,” Daryl notes.
The store’s inventory gradually expanded from dishes to clay pots, bird baths, jars for pickling and canning, other glassware, ribbons, artificial plants, baskets and more. Lots more. In 1958, the Rapers constructed the building that stands today, with a few rooms added on later.
It covers about 17,000 square feet.
“It just kind of grew,” Rachel says. “… When we opened here, there was nothing like it in North Carolina.”
Raper’s became a distributor for Ransbottom pottery in eight different states. It sold pickling jars by the truckloads and was known as the go-to place for all kinds of glassware. More and more, the store also moved into florist supplies.
Parents always went to Raper’s to buy different-sized Styrofoam balls so their children could make models of the solar system for science projects.
Several different branches of the family were in the business. The various interests were split in 1962. Hartford and Rachel’s branch stayed in Spencer and later expanded to Winston-Salem in 1986.
But there also was a line of Raper stores in China Grove, Belmont and Charlotte and two others in Spartanburg.
“It’s very complicated, “ Daryl says of the family’s retail tree.
Only the store in Spencer remains. Through the years, it has been known as Raper & Sons, Raper Brothers, Raper’s China Market and now Raper’s of Spencer.
For several years, the store in Winston-Salem flourished. It offered 27,000 square feet of display area and overall gave the Rapers 36,000 square feet of space.
They decided on Winston-Salem by looking at the checks of customers to determine where most of the people doing business in Spencer were coming from.
But the same factors now affecting business in Spencer led to the closing of the Winston-Salem store in 2007. Competition comes from everywhere today — from Walmart and Lowe’s to groceries, convenience stores, flea markets and the Internet. Gift shops are buying directly from companies now, not using Raper’s as their wholesaler.
The pottery china — so much the rage in the past — is not quite as popular now.
“The way this business has changed is just mind-boggling,” Daryl says.
But few family businesses last this long — 75 years and running. It becomes your life, of course.
Rachel remembers reprimanding Hartford one night when he rolled over in bed. It was 3 a.m., going into the Christmas season, and Rachel had the light on for sorting.
“Stay still,” she scolded. “I’ve got all my bows laid out here.”
The store used to be open from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Now the hours are 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., Monday-Saturday.
Through the years, items from Raper’s have been shipped all over the world, and customers continue to drop in from as far away as Virginia and Florida, Rachel says, also recalling a woman from Michigan who used to make an annual trip to the Spencer store.
A couple from Lexington came in one day. While the wife shopped, her preacher spouse sat in one of the husband chairs.
“I could be preparing my sermon now if I had a Bible,” the pastor said.
Rachel, who still teaches Sunday School at Oakdale Baptist Church, walked out the back door to her house and retrieved her Bible for the preacher.
Those kinds of things don’t happen as much any longer, but they could. The Rapers are still here, waiting to serve.
“Yes, things have really changed,” Rachel says.
Contact Mark Wineka at 704-797-4263, or firstname.lastname@example.org.