The Cotton Exchange becomes a destination of choice for locals seeking unique shops, services and entertainment
By Jen Reed » Photos Madeline Gray
It’s a cloudy Saturday afternoon in the Lower Cape Fear as Alana Ricci, with daughter Stephanie in tow, makes her way through the shops of the Cotton Exchange. She ends up at Paddy’s Hollow, one of several full-service casual eateries located in the collection of historic buildings on Wilmington’s Front Street in the heart of the downtown area.
Ricci, who hails from Asheville, confesses she visits the Cotton Exchange every time she visits her in-laws in Wilmington. She says there is something exciting yet serene about browsing through the multitude of eclectic shops.
“I just love this place so much,” she says, between bites of her favorite fried green tomatoes. “I always find something interesting; this place [The Cotton Exchange] is never the same place twice. There is always something new to discover.”
Many tourists to the Wilmington area have passed through the Cotton Exchange, just like Alana and Stephanie do every few months when they come to town. The collection of shops and restaurants has long relied on tourism for its livelihood, and, according to General Manager Cheryl Bullock, that will never change. But what they are trying to change is how the Cotton Exchange is viewed by Wilmingtonians.
“While it’s true we rely on tourism, what we really want is to become a destination for those who live here,” says Bullock. “It’s important that they find us and that we are able to satisfy their needs, especially those living in and around the downtown area. We want to give them a reason not to have to get into their car and drive elsewhere.”
The Cotton Exchange is home to some 30 unique specialty shops and restaurants housed within an eight-building complex. The buildings are connected by brick walkways and open-air courtyards and have been painstakingly restored to reflect the charm and style of 19th-century Wilmington when the port was a bustling center for trade around the world.
Constructed years before the Civil War, the formerly known “Sprunt Building” was home to the Cape Fear Flour and Pearl Hominy Mill in 1884. In 1919, the building would be repurposed to make room for another industry giant, Alexander Sprunt & Sons. Sprunt & Sons had massive success in the cotton export industry, becoming the biggest cotton company in the world. Delivering cotton to ports in Europe, England, and America, it’s Sprunt’s thriving shipping endeavors that earned “The Cotton Exchange” its name.
The Cotton Exchange building was purchased by Cheryl’s parents, John and Jean Bullock, in 1990, and the family has run the destination business ever since. Cheryl’s sister Nancy led the organization until her retirement five years ago, before Cheryl took the helm.
The future of the Cotton Exchange is very much a personal endeavor for the Bullock family. In the continued effort to attract more local business, Cheryl says the Cotton Exchange is evolving from strictly retail and restaurants to businesses that are more service-oriented, including a barbershop, health and beauty salon, and a tattoo studio, among others. And in addition to services provided, live music and educational programming are being added, not only to delight tourists but to give residents a reason to come out, enjoy a cocktail and the local performances, and perhaps learn about the history of the community they call home.
As a result of this goal, the biggest push is the shift in the organization’s advertising strategy. While they have traditionally focused on the tourism market, they are now working with their advertising agency to shift toward the local market.
The shift in marketing focus is also personal to each business owner under the Cotton Exchange roofs. As Cheryl puts it, these are not simply people going to work each day; they are individuals who have made running these businesses their life’s work, and they depend on the success of the new strategy.
Each business owner is a member of the Cotton Exchange Merchants Association, whose Board of Directors meets monthly to brainstorm and plan ways to bring more visitors to the location. There are several events in the early stages, and while Cheryl is not quite ready to share the details, she promises some “exciting things are ahead.”
Earlier this year, the Cotton Exchange held its first annual Pirate Festival, a weekend-long educational event held in March that included costumed enactors, weapons display, and an exploration of the history of the Cape Fear River and Region.
“There is so much to learn and know about this area, especially during the 1800s,” she explains. “It’s one of the reasons we want people to come visit us.”
Many stories are told throughout the building, with displays chronicling the evolution of Wilmington through the years. She says they are hoping to expand on that. And while guided tours are not regularly offered through the Cotton Exchange, Cheryl says they are considering ways to incorporate video screens with informative content that can be played for visitors to view as they explore the building. The Wilmington Walk of Fame is also located in the Cotton Exchange, a display casting light on residents of the city who have become celebrities in sports and the arts.
The Christmas season usually attracts many tourists, with lights and decorations displayed throughout the complex. That’s actually how Taylor Keeping Smith ended up locating her business, Keeping It Glam, a beauty salon specializing in lash extensions, waxing, and skincare in the Cotton Exchange.
Originally from Clayton, NC, Taylor says she has always been drawn to the beach and often spent vacations in the Wilmington area. In fact, she and her now-husband Julian had their first date at Wrightsville Beach, so the area has always held a special place for the couple. After graduating and becoming a licensed aesthetician in 2019, Taylor and Julian took the leap of faith and moved to Wilmington, and it wasn’t long before plans to open the business were in the works.
“We knew we wanted to be in downtown Wilmington,” she explains. “But we just couldn’t seem to find the perfect location.”
Admittedly frustrated by the process, the couple visited the Cotton Exchange during the 2021 holiday season. Given her love of Christmas, Taylor fell in love with the location, and the business officially opened its doors in January 2022.
“I wanted to give visitors a reason to stop in,” she says, acknowledging the service aspect of the core business. “It’s been really nice. We’ve gotten to meet people we wouldn’t normally meet. This location is just awesome, and we are so grateful to be here.”
Business owner Jamie Shepard, who runs Little Locals Clothing Co., a clothing shop that caters to children, is doing dual duty as a member of the executive team of the Merchants Association. Running a niche business as she does, she relies on awareness to draw traffic through the door. And while she has had a good amount of repeat business from tourists, she thinks the business could benefit greatly from a mix of locals as well.
She offers clothing, toys, books, and other items that can’t simply be found anywhere, making her shop unique. Her goal is to continue offering top-quality items that children will love, and parents will want for their kids.
“If I wouldn’t want my kids wearing it, it won’t be in this store,” she explains.
It’s that commitment to quality and customer service Jaime says she hopes will resonate with locals.
For the first time in its history, the Cotton Exchange now boasts a distillery among the roster of businesses. Momentum Distillery, known for spirits in a unique bottle shaped like the state of North Carolina, has called the destination home for slightly more than a year.
The Momentum brand was founded by Hunter and Misti Ford, who started a surf shop business in the Outer Banks years ago. They eventually found their way to Wilmington and established Burnt Mill Creek Billiards and Wine Bar, which was a mainstay for high-end entertainment for years. Landing at the Cotton Exchange and running the distillery represents the natural progression of what they have done with their journey, says Hunter.
Momentum Distillery is open seven days per week and sells its small-batch vodka, gin, limoncello, and orangecello, among other spirits. This eliminates the need for residents to visit the ABC Store, making it a convenient offering.
Business owners Josie Whitmore and Paula Smith, founders of Urban Goods and Gardens, represent an amalgam of service and retail. Josie and Paula are interior designers and run their business out of a retail shop that includes funky and eclectic decorations for the home and is an official retailer of the Farmhouse Paint brand.
A full list of businesses can be found by visiting the website shopcottonexchange.com. The next time you find yourself with a few moments, it’s worth the trip downtown – where there is plenty of parking available – or a walk down the street to discover what so many tourists know makes downtown Wilmington special.