Friends call out to each other on Main Street. The local cinema advertises $3 tickets. The same man owns the theater, the soda shop and the hardware store. The small town feel is unmistakable and the residents know it. Each light post wears a deep red banner reading: “Preserving our heritage, promoting our future.”
The city of Graham is doing just that, despite the economic climate. Small towns are becoming a novelty, which encourages passersby to stop for a milkshake and hear about the area’s history.
“People love small towns,” said Tim Matthews, previous owner of the Graham Cinema. “The evidence of that is ‘The Andy Griffith Show.’ Everyone is laid-back, there’s no traffic jams. Graham’s got a little hustle and bustle, but it’s still small.”
Matthews owned and operated the cinema from 1984 to 2006. He recorded jokes on the theater’s answering machine, giving him national acclaim from figures like Howard Stern and Jay Leno. Matthews said the famous joke line has drawn people to Graham.
“People used to come get their photos taken out in front of the theatre,” he said. “Radio stations picked it up and we’d have folks coming from out of the state to see Graham and the cinema.”
The small town feel extends past the movie theater. Graham has enacted laws to keep the city atmosphere quaint.
Matthews said the city prohibits playing billiards on Sundays, spitting on the sidewalk and singing. Storefronts are not allowed to use neon signage if they did not already have it and all building exteriors must remain the same.
“There’s a law that says you can’t live with someone of the opposite sex,” Matthews said. “They don’t enforce most of them, but they’re there to keep the town feeling small.”
Business in Graham has been thriving under the established charm. Most stores were established many years ago and continue to operate successfully.
Dale Johnson, manager of the 51-year-old Colonial Hardware Company on Elm Street, has seen steady business since he began working there. He attributes Graham’s growth to an active community.
“Christmas and summer are the busiest times,” Johnson said. “The city has barbecue cook offs, a Sept. 11 memorial, car shows and a Christmas festival. Graham likes to shut down for special events, and that brings people from out of town.”
The hardware store’s charm is unmatched around the area. Johnson said every other independent hardware store in Alamance County has closed. Upgrading technology is not the solution, according to Johnson.
“We make our keys by hand,” he said. “Sometimes other stores send folks over here to get them done since their machines don’t work.”
Johnson said it’s not just their service that keeps their doors open. Being in a small town builds relationships that last.
“We’re good people with excellent personalities,” he said. “Graham will remain that way.”
Although businesspeople, tourists and residents alike are proud of the area’s historic charm, some feel Graham is not all it appears to be.
“I’m here because it’s a central area,” said Brian Haran, owner of Fret Sounds, a guitar repair shop downtown. “I’d say it’s a Catch-22. A lot of the small town charm is infiltrated by accessibility to cheap and not handmade goods.”
Haran said some restaurants appear to be making home-cooked food with a smile, but not much around Graham is local.
“You can’t throw a rock around here without hitting a cow, but why isn’t there local beef? Same with produce,” he said. “I think maybe Graham could go that way, but it’s not there yet.”
Despite the city’s possible divergence from local, authentic, old-fashioned charm, people continue to flock to its shops and restaurants.
“People come out, take a ride to escape the traffic and grab a bite to eat,” Haran said. “Other areas are more forward thinking, but it doesn’t seem to be stopping anyone.”