Morgan Imports is the type of store that has a bit of everything and most definitely something for everyone. To those who have passed through the Bull City for even a brief visit, Morgan Imports stands out and for good reason, it’s a store unlike any other - a local landmark since 1969.
Heading downtown for another adventurous day in Durham, I stopped into Morgan Imports to find a minature bull for the project and to see if I could get contact information for the manager to do an interview.
After spending an exorbitant amount of time fussing over all the Durham goods (figurines, shirts, cups, wall hanging, etc.), I moseyed up to the counter to purchase a small resin duplicate of our town’s famed bull Major, a statue that resides just outside of the 21c building. A very nice gentleman by the name of Bryan checked out my purchase while I told him all about The Bulls of Durham book project. As Bryan gave me a lively history of the store and a business card with general contact information, who should stroll on by but owner and founder Richard Morgan himself!
A bit nervous to be meeting a local legend, I introduced myself and told him about the project. To see a “Durham original” light up with enthusiasm about the project made my entire day. Not only did he like the project idea, but he agreed to do an interview giving me his business card with his person contact information.
When the time came around for the interview, I was a bit harried from traveling in hectic Saturday traffic in the downtown Durham area and the trials of finding a parking spot in the downtown area. Normally I don’t mind walking, but that day I wanted to make sure I was on time to be respectful to Richard. I reached over to my passenger seat to find my laptop, only to discover it was not there. Gasp!
I’d left it at home and here I was outside of Morgan Imports with only minutes to go to our interview. I hurriedly downloaded a recording app that had been suggested to me and hopped out of my car hoping for the best. They say the hardest part is showing up...
I was kindly greeted at the top of the stairs by Richard. He walked me into the large, upstairs office area with novelties throughout, including a hand-carved, wooden elephant chair – what office space would be complete without one?
I told Richard that I would be recording the interview with my phone instead typing as we go, if that was alright with him. Ever forward thinking and up to date with technology Richard was fine with recording the interview and handed me a typed history of Morgan Imports, which can be found on their website.
Settling into a chair and figuring out how to work the recording app, I asked Richard how long he’d been in the Durham area.
Richard: I was born in Sanford, North Carolina and moved here when I was 3 years old. I went to Durham Public Schools. I graduated from Duke University in 1958. In my high school class there were a lot of people that went to Duke. If you had fairly good grades you could always go to Duke if you were a day student. Tuition back then wasn’t $54,000 a year. It was a different time from 1954 to 1958.
I went into the Marine Core because at the time it was universal military training unless you went to graduate school. I was in the ROTC and went into the Marine Corp. Being a Marine is a very important part of my life because Marines are different and special. I am proud to be a Marine. I went to Vietnam so on and so forth. It’s part of me and part of my life.
His Semper Fi Marine pride was shining through. Curious how he’d gone from a Marine life to prominent business owner, I asked him how long he’d had Morgan Imports.
Richard: When I came back in ‘69 and I said I wanted to open a store downtown and people said “you’re crazy. You don’t want to open a store downtown.” I said well everyone is opening a store up at the mall. Plus the rent was always high at the mall. So anyway, I opened a store right up the street. You know, where the corner of Morgan and Main Street is. Morgan by the way has nothing to do with my name. It was named after someone else.
It was an old Piggly Wiggly store. I moved down to the old Stephenson Wilson Pontiac dealership building and that burned down in 1979. Then I moved across the street to Brightleaf and then I moved here in 1991. I’ve been downtown all my business life. We, at one time, had a couple smaller stores in the malls. But while the volume was greater, we weren’t making a whole lot more money. We closed everything else and concentrated on this store.
This is a big store. It’s about 12,500 square feet retail. It’s a big retail shop. We’re in the top, as far as square footage goes, top 1% of independent retail stores. It’s a big store for an independent store. Most stores are around 3 to 4000 square feet.
We decided to go downtown and stay here. I also got involved in developing downtown in the 70's. I’ve always been a downtown guy. We used to sit around in the 70's and say that we were 25 years ahead of our time, but we were actually about 45 years ahead of our time. It’s always been moving forward, but in the last 5 years it’s really taken off. It’s amazing.
There’s probably over 30 restaurants within 2 or 3 blocks of this store. I think that like Bill Kalkoff, used to run downtown Durham Inc., he has a huge amount of influence. When he came and started pushing downtown he was always a real advocate for downtown. Push, push, push. He’s a big reason why it is what it is today. A lot of times it’s always that one person who driving all the time and pushing and he did it. Other people contributed, but he was kind of the leader.
I’ve just always been a downtown guy.
That sounds like something that would fit perfectly on a coffee mug and t-shirt you could find at Morgan Imports. While variety and novelty have always been a cornerstone of the business, the downtown Durham area has undergone drastic changes in the last few years. I asked Richard how have these changes in the last 4 to 5 years impacted business.
Richard: Business has always been good until 2008 on September 15th when Lehman Brothers declared bankruptcy. The business of the last quarter of the year was not good and we did half our business in the last quarter anyways. It took all of 2009 to recover. It’s coming back – 2010, 2011, 12, 13, 14, 15 - to the level that it was.
To answer your question, there are a lot of people coming to Durham to live. When I go out to dinner or even a lot of our customers, I don’t hardly know anyone anymore and I’ve lived here pretty much my whole life. That’s good. A lot of new people are coming and making a decent amount of money and they can afford to buy things.
A lot of the competition is not just local with the population growth, but the internet. We’re holding our own – a brick and mortar store. Our store is different, it’s an experience. People don’t just come in here to buy things. We try hard to create that environment. We try hard to offer customer service and a friendly atmosphere and do whatever we can to make the shopping experience something more than sitting at home and ordering things.
One of the interesting about how internet shopping has affected business, we used to do all these Black Friday things and so. Now some of our biggest days are 4 or 3 days before Christmas because people think, “oh my God, I don’t have time to get anything ordered.” They come in and shop more. It’s an interesting phenomenon that has happened in the last 3 to 4 years.
The population is growing around here – a couple thousand new apartments in the area. People are living here. They can walk down here and they can walk to the restaurants. It’s all positive. Everything is good as far as that goes – the new population and all the new restaurants and all that. It’s amazing. When I drive in downtown Durham now at night I see so many people.
With all those new people has come what the locals describe as a new parking problem in the downtown area. What are your thoughts parking in downtown?
Richard: Parking is the main problem. Wexford who bought the Chesterfield building right over here is going to put in a parking deck half a block away. They said they were going to have it open on night and weekends – we’ll see. I think it’ll be better because people will understand there’s a parking facility and they will go there. We’ll see how it works out. I’m optimistic.
But it is a problem. We’re not like South Square where they have acres and acres of parking – even though sometimes you park and you’re far away from the stores. The parking deck over there is going to be less than a block away.
Brightleaf has some parking here and we have like 25 to 30 spaces on sight. We have retail tenants and office tenants. One of the biggest problems is getting people to park where they should. If an office tenant takes up a spot all day. A parking space is worth a lot of money, especially one at your doorstep. You want people to shop and leave. It takes at least and an hour and half to leave. But that is the last problem here and hopefully the new parking deck will make a huge difference.
What was your inspiration to open the business?
Richard:I was in Vietnam and there was a couple of Marine Lieutenants, who been to the Vietnamese language school, and one of their wives, who was in charge of the PX (Post Exchange) in Naha, a Marine base in Okinawa. As manager of the store she had established many contacts. She and her Marine husband were planning on opening up an import store when they got back to the US.
I started thinking about it. I knew I wasn’t going to stay in the Marine Corp and I knew I wasn’t going back into the insurance business. I went over to her and got the names of all the suppliers that she had. I thought about it a little bit more and I said, “You know what? I think I’ll try it.”
When I went back overseas and contacted the suppliers that she had contacts with. I originally thought that I was going to be the next Pier 1 Imports, but I soon found out that I would literally need 100s of 1000s of dollars. We imported somethings and went to the Atlanta, New York and California markets for others.
I decided that Durham needed a really good retail store. The reason why was because in 1969 there weren’t really any gift stores. The hardware and department stores always had gift sections, but the idea of an independent gift store was just beginning to take hold. I decided to try it and this is going to be our 48th year.
It was not easy at first. We kept progressing: moving to a bigger place and then Brightleaf and then over here. We kept progressing. I like to go overseas and all that. And see different cultures and that’s been part of the fun. I’ve been to China to see it develop from back when everyone riding bicycles to everyone has 2 cars. I’ve been back to Vietnam several times since I was in the Marines. I’ve been to Thailand. We’ve been to a lot of different wonderful places. I wanted part of the business to be travel.
It was inspiring to hear that his success and longevity came from perseverance and now Morgan Imports is a name ingrained in Durham history. It's easy to see why Morgan Imports stands out and continues to be successful. I asked Richard what stands out to the most about Durham to him.
Richard: I was raised here. It’s a very diverse community. We’re fortunate to have Duke University here. I love the tobacco history of Durham and I like the people. I think the people are very friendly and care about each other. That’s what I like about Durham – it’s a good place to live.
As someone who’d spent his life split between being a longstanding member of the Durham community and traveling the world, I was interested to see what changes Richard would like to see for our city. I hadn’t anticipated that this would stop him in his tracks.
Richard: Wow. You know, I don’t really know. I’ve never really thought about what changes I would like to see. I think Durham is okay. We have the problems that anyone else has, but I think it’s alright. I like the fact we have NCCU and Duke. That we’re a very diverse community and we have academics. Now what I like about it is that it’s changing a lot.
It's clear that Morgan Imports is a downtown Durham staple. In fact, this Sunday Richard and his crew are celebrating their 49th year of business with cider, champagne and donuts. If you're in the Durham area stop by and see the eclectic magic for yourself. You can even purchase a Bull Love Mugs as Morgan Imports proudly carries them as a supporter of "The Bulls of Durham" living history project.
To support the project, spread love and have some incrediBULL goodness in your life, head over to The Bulls of Durham store. Swag, love and coffee y'all.
Sheila Amir is a health & nutrition writer who fell in love with Durham, North Carolina and starting writing a book about it.