Written by Claudia Stack
Carolyn and Johnny L. Westbrook, II, welcome visitors to Burgaw Antiqueplace (101 South Wright Street, Burgaw, NC) with her legendary fudge and his gift for sharing stories behind some of the many objects on display. From Art Deco lamps to taxidermy, Johnny and the dealers who rent space at Burgaw Antiqueplace offer an incredible array of antiques, art, and collectibles. The Westbrooks’ journey from architectural design firm owners in Maryland to proprietors of an antique mall in the town where Johnny grew up has been long and full of challenges, but they feel blessed. As Johnny says about a business setback his father had in Florida that led him to Burgaw, “When bad things happen, put it in God’s hands.”
Johnny and Carolyn felt drawn to return to his birthplace in 1999. after 40 years in Maryland. Johnny had inherited the building that his father, Hubert Westbrook, had constructed in 1948 to house the Westbrook Five & Dime. Originally located in another building, Westbrook Five & Dime grew to fill its spacious new home on a corner lot opposite Burgaw’s courthouse square. The elder Westbrooks worked long hours in the store, and Johnny recalls with a twinkle in his eye that on Saturdays “Rowe Theater was my babysitter… for twenty cents I could stay at the movies all day.”
On Saturdays in the 1950s, Johnny says that everyone in the surrounding area would come to downtown Burgaw. However, by 1999 those bustling days were just a memory, and the building sat vacant. In 1996 Hurricane Fran had peeled back the roof and caused extensive water damage. Ever the designer, Johnny drew up plans to renovate the building for mixed use. He envisioned retail downstairs and apartments upstairs, but he couldn’t persuade any banks to back his plan. He and Carolyn drove to other small towns, looking for inspiration. They met a woman in Swansboro, NC who had a successful antique store. She persuaded them to open an antique store, and they are now celebrating the eighteenth year of Burgaw Antiqueplace.
While the motto “Keeping life simple” adorns Burgaw Antiqueplace business cards, the building has layers of complexity that can be confusing to a first time visitor. Designs in red on the front windows announce the F.W. Woolworth Co. name, and an elaborate art deco lunch counter fit with the identity of that iconic store in the era of the 1940s. However, the signs and lunch counter are actually from a set for the Turner Network Television movie FREEDOM SONG (2000) starring Danny Glover. Just before renovating the building, Johnny and Carolyn leased the space for that film’s production.
You also might need to look twice to appreciate fully the latest innovation at Burgaw Antiqueplace. The second floor is now home to ten artists’ studios, and as you wander through you might see some of the artists working in various media, from paint to textiles to stained glass. The novelty of the creative efforts going on upstairs creates a wonderful synergy with the furniture, china, farms tools and hundreds of other antiques downstairs.
Johnny and Carolyn opened the artists’ studios in June 2017 and the reception from artists and the public has been overwhelmingly positive. To generate excitement about the arts in Pender County they have participated in creating a “Fourth Thursday” event in Burgaw that takes place every other month. This is a chance for artists to display their work for sale, for customers to pick up great bargains on antiques, and for community members and out of town visitors alike to socialize.
While their business is still rebounding from the recession, you can hear the excitement in Johnny and Carolyn’s voices as they speak about the future. Married 53 years, they have worked together constantly. When Johnny shares the motto of the design firm they had in Maryland, you can hear the common theme that seems to echo through all of their endeavors: “A way to look to the past to build for the future.”