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Now that college students are gone, a Chapel Hill institution fights to stay

Now that college students are gone, a Chapel Hill institution fights to stay

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CHAPEL HILL — When he was a young boy in the early 1970s, Don Pinney often walked from his grandparents' house to Sutton's, the pharmacy on Franklin Street in downtown Chapel Hill, across from the university campus. It was about a mile walk up a gently rising hill, an arduous journey, but one that came with an enviable reward.

Almost 50 years later, Pinney can still taste the payoff of those pilgrimages. Long after he grew into a man, the boy inside of him has never forgotten what it felt like to walk into Sutton's and order a milkshake at the lunch counter. Those walks, and what awaited at the end of them, comprise some of Pinney's earliest memories.

In one way or another, Sutton's has been a part of his life since birth. His parents worked there, and met there. He spent part of his childhood there. Sutton's gave him his first job, when he was 13. He washed dishes, cleaned shelves and emptied the trash. Most of whatever money he earned, he said recently, sitting in a booth along the wall, "I spent it right here, anyways."

"I'd get a grilled cheese or something," he said. "I mean, we didn't have a whole lot growing up, you know. Didn't come from any money. ... I always wanted to work."

Most days since, Pinney has gone to work at Sutton's. He has worked there long enough to become a part of its history. Long enough to go from sweeping the floor to becoming the owner. Long enough to be there 42 years.

Now the job is more difficult than ever, he said, as the coronavirus rocks one of the country's most idyllic college towns.

• • •

Sutton's has been around for 97 years, a constant presence on Franklin Street since it opened in the spring of 1923. In its earliest years, it survived the Great Depression. More recently it survived losing the pharmacy and drugstore side of its business in 2014, when CVS bought it out. It has survived the changes along Franklin Street, where businesses come and go more often than college students cycle through town.

Now, Pinney wonders if Sutton's can withstand this, if it can make it to the other side of the pandemic, whenever that other side might arrive and however it might look.

"All I need is my business to survive," said Pinney, with the kind of easy smile that has helped him win loyal customers over the years. "I want to make it 100 years, at least."

For decades, Sutton's Drug Store, as it's officially known, offered a pharmacy in the back and a lunch counter on one side of a long wall, with circular padded stools bolted to the floor. Locals could pick up their prescriptions and then catch up on the town gossip while they stopped for a bite, squeezing their knees between the stool and the counter.

Over the years, the grill became the main attraction. Greasy-spoon breakfasts. Burgers and hot dogs at lunch. Now Sutton's is primarily a diner, with the kind of charm befitting its surroundings and place in the Chapel Hill and university community.

UNC sports memorabilia lines the windows and walls. Light blue and white football and basketball jerseys are everywhere, most of them signed by players with notes of appreciation. Photos near the back, all the same rectangular size, arranged in grids, show customers crowded into booths alongside friends or family or teammates who became both.

There are photos of tables full of Tar Heel basketball and football players. Of Chapel Hill dignitaries. There are photos of anonymous college kids and everyday people Pinney came to know by their faces and their orders. He looked to his right, at the scenes hanging over the booth where he now sat, and immediately recognized the faces looking back at him.

There was Holden Thorp, the former chancellor. There was Kevin Foy, the former mayor of Chapel Hill. There was Woody Durham, the longtime radio voice of the Tar Heels. He died in 2018, but in the photo he's smiling at a table with two little kids.

Now, the school is closed, and Sutton's is trying to stay open.

• • •

The departures, Pinney said, have turned Chapel Hill into "a ghost town." Business at Sutton's, already down about 80% since March, only made it back to 50% for one week after students returned in August, he said.

But then came the additional coronavirus spread and, in essence, the closing of the nation's oldest public university. And so now Sutton's has become part of a cruel experiment, and a question: What happens to a college town institution when there's no college?

"My landlord has been very generous to help me," Pinney said. "If not, we probably wouldn't be here now. ... The rents on Franklin Street are expensive — they're high. But you know, when the students are here, you can probably justify that rent, because of the amount of foot traffic. With students not here, probably not so."

Some customers, Pinney said, have offered to help cover costs. Others have purchased thousands of dollars worth of gift cards they'll use later.

Pinney received some small business loans from the government, but said he hasn't used them given his lack of confidence in how long the pandemic might last, and whether Sutton's can survive. If the business can't, he fears having to repay those loans.

Most years, by late August, business would be starting to thrive again. And now, Pinney said, "it's been like a six-month long summer break."

Outside, the two tables he'd moved to the sidewalk baked empty in the sun on a recent 90-degree day.

"I've just got my fingers crossed that things will work out," Pinney said. "I just want to see it the way it was."

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