If you’re not seeing Courtney Birdsall directing the comings and goings of the Downtown Waterfront Market each Saturday morning, you might see her operating Serenity Studio Arts at the old Southern Hotel building.
Birdsall, 41, grew up on the Outer Banks. She and her husband Nathan came to Elizabeth City back in 2003 and now with their children 10-year old Grace, 7-year old Charlie and 5-year old Lucy, they have made the downtown historic neighborhood – residential and commercial – their home.
Birdsall was making jewelry and selling it each Saturday morning at the market at Mariners’ Wharf Park. There had been a succession of market directors come and go when Birsdall applied for the job.
She knew the market, loved the market and was – and is – excited to do more to be a part of it.
When her friend Sarah Hair announced that she would marry and move to Virginia, Birdsall seized the opportunity to keep Serenity Studio Arts alive downtown.
The business sells art supplies, offers art classes and studio time for area artists – including ceramics – and has become a favorite stop on the wine and paint circuit and now the paint and cookie circuit – that would be painting with the kids, of course.
Since becoming the owner/operator of Serenity, Birdsall has had some great success seeing the arts thrive downtown. Now she’s excited to take it one step further and move to the corner of Poindexter and Main Street, across from Arts of the Albemarle. That dynamic space, she says, is going to dramatically change the many opportunities Birdsall has to offer an arts experience that to date no other downtown institution has been able to do.
It’s a challenge Birdsall is up for and on Sept. 1, she hopes to be unveiling a lot more than a new storefront.
The Daily Advance: You grew up on the Outer Banks. What brought you to Elizabeth City?
Courtney Birdsall: My husband’s job. He was working for Lowe’s. He was hired as sales manager for the new story back in 2003. We lived in Southern Shores. He was working for Home Depot at the time.
TDA: You started making jewelry and selling it around town. At what point did you think you would be able to make at living at making and selling art?
CB: I’m still hoping to do that. I think that it takes a lot of time. I’ve never solely lived off of that.
TDA: You sold your jewelry at the Downtown Waterfront Market before becoming market director. Why did you take the job and what does the job mean to you?
CB: I took the job to supplement my family’s income. It kind of fell into my lap. … It means a lot to me. I’ve been with the market since the very beginning (as a vendor). I love it. It’s probably the best job I’ve ever had. You get to see businesses grow. It’s a business incubator.
TDA: The market has become a centerpiece of downtown life. What do you think it means to the people of this community to have a market such as this?
CB: I think it means a lot. People look forward to going every week. I think people look forward to buying local produce and getting to know their farmers.
TDA: What would you like to see more of at the market in the future?
CB: Not necessarily more farmers. I think farmers are happy with the business they have. There are only six of them.
I would like to see more homemade arts and crafts, jams and jellies.
I would love to have more entertainment. I think it makes a big difference. It just sets a nice mood.
TDA: Downtown is always seeing businesses come and go and yet Serenity Studio Arts persists. One person noted that you have a diverse approach and that is why you have thrived. Why do you think Serenity has thrived and continues to grow?
CB: Sarah Hair, who originally opened the studio, had a very good business model going forward. She saw a need and started to fill it.
I just wanted to get ways for people to get excited about art. … And I wanted to take classes, too.
I expanded on the kids’ classes because I have kids. The classes are what make a huge difference.
TDA: You are moving across the corner from Arts of the Albemarle. What do you think this move will do for Serenity and does it make better sense to be on that end of downtown?
CB: I think that it can only benefit our business. The location is a prime location. We’ll have more exposure. … I think we’ll have more traffic.
The way we do business will change. The space we have currently is open and the new space is open but with proper sections. We’ll have gallery space and open studio space and classrooms, a dirty studio for clay and a paint-your-own-pottery studio.
It opens up a lot more opportunities for classes and things.
TDA: There has been a lot of talk about Elizabeth City being an arts destination. Do you see that happening? Why or why not?
CB: I do see that happening very slowly and I’m optimistic about that change. I think it, the change, needs to start downtown before trying to entice people (artists) to come in.
TDA: What can the city and area business people do to help make it a reality?
CB: I think downtown businesses need to come together and work together. They are trying to, but we need to come up with a way to attract people into downtown daily. Not just First Friday. We need people downtown every day.
I think more businesses need to be open on the weekends. And restaurants, too.
TDA: What advice would you give someone who is interested in opening a business downtown?
CB: Do your research. Have a good business plan. Don’t be afraid to negotiate a lease or terms.
I think people would be more open to having a business downtown if property owners were willing to work with people.