How a love of antiques turned
Mary Wells into a Triad legend
By Ross Howell Jr. • Photographs by Bert VanderVeen
“My mother was a real antiques lover,” says Mary Wells, who’s kindly set up a card table so I can take notes. I’m old school: pen and pad.
Wells is sitting opposite me. By my elbow is a massive tiger maple sideboard. The wood pattern is so pretty I can hardly take my eyes from it.
“Mother grew up on a farm in Mount Pleasant, North Carolina, and she liked old things,” Wells continues. Her voice is calm, measured, soothing. When she looks at you through her wire rim glasses, you know she’s really looking.
She tells me her father was a Lutheran minister who traveled often for his work in the church.
“Whenever we traveled, Mother would make Father stop at flea markets or antique places, looking for things she liked,” Wells says. “I think that’s how I got the bug. Over time, even Father started collecting, too.”
Born in Pulaski, Virginia, Wells moved with her family to nearby Marion. Her father had been selected to lead the Virginia Synod of the Lutheran Church, and Marion was where the office was located.
“That’s when I started collecting — in sixth grade at Marion. Buttons. I just liked them, for some reason,” Wells says. “Boys in school sometimes cut them off their shirts to give to me.”
Later, her father’s work took them to Roanoke, where she attended junior high school — “I just loved the railroad there, those big engines”— and then to Arlington, where she went to high school.
“When I graduated, I decided to go to Lenoir-Rhyne University,” Wells says. “My brother had gone to Roanoke College, and he was an athlete, a big man on campus, and I wanted to go someplace where I’d be all on my own.”
At Lenoir-Rhyne, a Lutheran Church-related institution in Hickory, Wells majored in sociology and was active in student government.
“I liked being busy all the time,” she says. “After I graduated, I did social work for about six months. But I realized that wasn’t for me because in social work you couldn’t help people the way I wanted to. I wanted to make things better for people, not just listen to their problems.”
When the opportunity to take a position in a national office of the Lutheran Church in America came up, Wells took it. She packed up and moved to Philadelphia.
“For two years in my job I traveled all over the country,” Wells says. “It was faith-based and service-oriented. I met all sorts of people.”
Then, she married her first husband, whom she’d met while they were undergrads at Lenoir-Rhyne. He’d gone on to complete studies at Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary in Columbia, South Carolina. In Philadelphia, the two of them started antiques collecting in a serious way.
“So many of the old row houses in the city had these roof finials and downspouts made of tin,” Wells says. “They were painted different colors, and unusual, almost one of a kind. Architectural things, you know, they just thrill me to pieces!”
Sometimes, if she learned that a building was going to be torn down, she’d go to the courthouse to find out which contractor was doing the demolition.
“We’d do a deal,” Wells says, “so I could save some of the architectural details.”
The couple’s finds weren’t limited to the metropolitan area.
“We’d drive out to Amish country, of course,” Wells says. “We’d find all sorts of things there.”
Their antiques collection continued to grow. Then Wells’s husband accepted the charge to form a mission church in the historically black community of Warnersville, located south of Gate City Boulevard in Greensboro. Warnersville is the first African-American community founded for freed slaves in the city. So in 1970, the Wellses headed south to the Old North State.
Wells smiles to herself as she recollects.
“I tell everybody we moved to Philadelphia with a small U-Haul trailer and moved from Philadelphia with a 40-foot tractor trailer,” she says. “That’s how much we’d collected.”
Many of the things they brought with them had to be put into storage in buildings on a farm near Charlotte owned by her husband’s family.
“It was a lot of work starting that church,” Wells says. “I typed the bulletin for every service. I cleaned the church, too. And by then, we had two girls, Debbie and Lisa.” She muses, putting a finger to her chin.
“But I’d always been so independent,” she continues. “I wanted my own job.”
So in 1975, Wells opened an antiques shop, ferrying the Pennsylvania items she and her husband had in storage into the store. And the couple especially enjoyed attending to local livestock sales on weekends.
“Along with their cattle or pigs,” Wells says, “farmers would bring along old things they had in their homes or barns to sell.” She points to a big piece of earthenware on a shelf.
“That’s the first piece of pottery I ever bought,” she says. “From the back of a pickup at one of those sales.”
Wells explains that she kept her young daughters with her at the shop until they were old enough to go to day care.
“I carried them on my hips when I went looking for things to buy,” she says. “They got an early taste of the antiques business!”
When her husband accepted a position with an office of the Lutheran Church in Salisbury, Wells felt a change in their relationship.
“He drove to work every day,” she says, “so we were living in the same home. But we grew apart.”
After she and her husband were divorced, Wells moved with her two girls, one of them, Lisa, a special-needs child, to a house on Cypress Street.
“One night, a while after I’d tucked the girls into bed,” she says, “I heard a knock at the front door.” It was a policeman, who asked if she knew where her children were.
When Wells replied they were in bed, the officer asked if she’d mind checking. She looked and found that Lisa was gone. Frightened, Wells returned to the front door.
“Well, I think I have her,” the officer said. In the back of his patrol car sat Lisa. She had crawled out the partly open window of the room where she slept. Fortunately, she’d made her way to the house of a neighbor, who recognized her and called the police.
“You can bet I kept that window shut tight from then on!” Wells says.
These days, when she’s not at home with Wells, Lisa’s at the Greensboro location for LIFESPAN, an organization providing education, employment, and enrichment opportunities for children and adults with disabilities.
Older daughter Debbie finished high school and followed her mother to Lenoir-Rhyne, but a heath issue cut short her program of study. She returned to Greensboro and worked with Wells in the antiques business.
“Debbie collected everything she could find having to do with Coca-Cola,” Wells says. She points proudly to a framed feature article with photos of Debbie and her collection. Sadly, her older daughter passed away suddenly 15 years ago. Wells has kept Debbie’s Coca-Cola collection intact.
“I like to look at her things,” she says softly.
Though Wells has had her share of challenge and sadness, she’s had her share of success, too. Her notoriety was enhanced mightily when a couple named Ray and Beverly Berry drove into Greensboro from the West Coast.
The Berrys had never visited the Gate City, had no friends here, but decided this was the community where they wanted to settle and start an enterprise with a clear statement of purpose: “to develop a better grocery store that brought back the feeling of open European-style markets.”
The first Fresh Market opened in Greensboro on March 5, 1972. According to Forbes magazine, “that original Fresh Market was outfitted exclusively with used fixtures and display pieces and financed entirely with the Berry family’s savings.”
So cash was tight when the Berrys began looking for “display pieces” in local antique shops. And that’s how they met Mary Wells.
“We really hit it off,” Wells says. “They were interested, truly interested in the things I had, but they didn’t want to buy them.” To conserve cash, the Berrys had a different idea.
“They wanted me to put pieces in the store on consignment,” Wells says. “When pieces sold, that’s when I’d be paid.”
Mary smiles again, reflecting.
“So I agreed,” she continues. “But their store was located in a part of town where people really liked antiques. I think the first day they sold two big cupboards that were filled with grocery items.”
The Fresh Market staff had to empty the chests so the customers could pick them up. And Wells had to find replacement pieces quickly in order for the merchandise to be displayed again.
“Right away the Berrys came back to me and said, ‘Mary, this won’t work. We’ll have to buy the pieces from you.’ Of course, for me that was great news,” Wells says.
Perhaps no one fully anticipated the growth of the chain. The store in Greensboro was followed by an opening in Asheville. Then came South Carolina, Tennessee, Georgia, Virginia, Florida, Kentucky and Alabama. Over a 30-year period, the Fresh Market grew to more than 170 stores in 27 states, including locations in the Mid-Atlantic, the Southeast, the Midwest and New England.
“I’d load up a truck full of antiques and drive it to the new location myself in those days,” Wells says. Remarried by this time, she’d occasionally have her husband drive a second truck so they could deliver to two locations.
On her return drive, she’d stop at various locations in search of pieces to purchase for the next opening. Wells supplied antiques for the Fresh Market stores until seven years ago.
“It just got to be too much for me,” she says. “And people thought I was making a lot more money than I actually was.” Because there were so many stores to be supplied so quickly, Wells often had to pay higher prices for the antiques she was acquiring on her drives back to Greensboro.
“But that’s all right,” she says. “It was a great experience — with all the new people I met, all the new places I saw. I’ve never really been in it for the money.”
“What are you in it for?” I ask.
Wells ponders a moment, then looks me in the eye.
“It reminds me of my childhood,” she says. “I only bought things that interested me. I was always very proud of the things I had in my shop. I was proud to have things around me that I loved. Somehow, when I saw them, I just knew.”
Wells tells me the story of the tiger maple sideboard at my elbow. She’d arrived early at a show and was walking around just as a man was opening the door of his van. She looked inside and saw the sideboard.
“Shut that door!” she said.
The man was startled but closed the van.
“Ma’am?” he asked.
“I’ll pay your price for that piece,” Wells said. “Don’t show it to anybody else.”
And here it sits.
When Wells offers to show me around her house, I expect to see antiques, of course. She’s a collector. But she’d sold off her business, right?
As we move from room to room, antiques are everywhere. Stacked, shelved, piled. The dining room is so full it’s impassable.
Even Wells is a bit bemused by it all.
“I’m just not ready to part with these things,” she says.
There are other beautiful examples of tiger maple furniture.
“I’ve always been attracted to wood,” Wells says.
There are extraordinary pieces wherever the eye rests. There are face jugs. There’s an old dentist’s chair. There are quilts and rag rugs. There are paintings and prints. There are empty frames on a wall, displayed that way to show their exquisite and varied designs. There’s her collection of more than 5,000 buttons, a legendary feature of her antiques shop. There are chairs, toys, curved glass display cases.
I note the variety.
“Over the years I’ve collected in 60 categories, primarily American,” Wells explains.
There are canes and walking sticks. There’s pottery. There are woven baskets. There’s door hardware. There’s her seashell art collection. There are old bottles and jars. There are gas station signs leaning against a wall. There’s her collection of “tramp art” — picture frames, figures, a clock, a box, a chair — made of discarded wooden crates, cigar boxes, matchsticks, or even cigarette packs cut or carved by hand into tiny geometric shapes and assembled piece by intricate piece.
For each item I comment on, Wells has a story — the people she acquired it from, the locale, the reason it attracted her, its significance.
I pause in front of a handsome folded screen in a hallway. Each panel, front and back, presents a different color illustration of a young woman, about 60 percent life-sized.
“That screen dates from the 1880s or 1890s,” she says. “It’s very unusual. So many people in the tobacco business have wanted to buy it.”
Flowing cursive text on the panels extolls the flavor of “Turkish tobacco” or urges me to buy “Duke cigarettes.”
“What if some big executive sees this, claims he’ll buy it at any price,” I say to Wells. “What would you quote?”
She tilts her chin.
“Oh, you don’t think of price first,” Wells says calmly, folding her hands together. “First, you have to feel in your heart it’s right to sell.”
Point taken. It was never about the money.