My town: NOFO’s Jean Martin knows Five Points

photograph by Hide Tarada
map by Jeff Poe

When Jean Poe Martin, 70, talks about the Raleigh she knows, start listening. It’s a place steeped in yesteryear, yet vital today; it’s a place with a familiar landscape, old and friendly faces, and new energy.

Martin’s childhood Raleigh was small enough that “if you were ever bad, they knew it at the drug store, they knew it at the grocery store, and they would tell your mama.” It was a Raleigh so rural her grandfather commuted by horseback from the “country” (near where WakeMed is today) to his insurance office on Fayetteville Street, trotted home for lunch and a nap, then did it again. Until 1941.

Martin’s Raleigh, which has orbited since 1957 around the Five Points and Hayes Barton neighborhoods where she lives and works, is a town in which every house and every building has a previous incarnation, and she knows the tale.

She’ll tell you about gathering after school with all of the kids in town at the soda fountain at Johnson’s Pharmacy at Fairview and Oberlin, where Mandolin Restaurant is today, or at the counter of Hayes Barton Pharmacy. About all of the ladies in the neighborhood getting their hair done at the Cinderella Beauty Shop in the gingerbread house on Fairview, which is now slated to become high-end condominiums.

She’ll tell you that the building that houses NOFO, her perennially popular restaurant-slash-gift shop on Fairview Road, used to be a Tip Top Grocery before it was a Piggly Wiggly. Every family had an index card in a box behind the counter to charge things at the Tip Top and then the Pig, and the stores would deliver. “They would come in the kitchen door, open the refrigerator and cabinets, and put the groceries up for you,” she says. One of them was Richard Walker, who moved to the Harris Teeter at Cameron Village when the Pig closed, and still comes to NOFO every year on his birthday.

“We knew all of the people who worked at these stores, and we called them by name,” she says.

Many of Martin’s customers could say the same of her today. Her eclectic offerings bring in loyal clients looking for gifts and dinner alike. “Our customers are one school or the other,” she says. “It’s either a store in which you can eat, or a cafe in which you can shop.” Martin herself can’t choose. “I’ve always liked a lot going on, and there’s a lot going on here.”

Take, for instance, the crowded store with wares that range from mascara to caramels, or the farm dinners that feature produce from up to 20 local farmers at a time. She was at the vanguard of the farmer’s market craze in town, starting one in the NOFO parking lot three years ago at which a bloody mary and a bushel of kale both could be had. It was a hit with the community, though competing markets around town made it tough to continue.

The folks in Five Points supported the market, and support NOFO, because it is a real community, she says. Business owners, neighborhood residents, and regular customers mix happily and forgive each other’s foibles. Everyone knows, for instance, to simply drive around the “wonderful woman” whose habit is to park in the middle of Fairview Road when she goes to the post office; everyone knows whose dog – or child – is whose.

“One of the wonderful things,” Martin says of Five Points, “is that it actually hasn’t changed.”

Another way that’s true is that Martin and her neighbors are still able to do so much by foot.

The Five Points Post Office across the street from Martin’s restaurant is a particularly handy amenity, she says. The tiny outpost regularly surfaces on the U.S. Postal Service’s endangered list, but until now, neighborhood activism has kept it alive. Jin’s Dry Cleaner, a few doors down, shows no sign of disappearing, Martin is happy to say, and having Wells Fargo bank next door keeps things simple. Martin gets her prescriptions filled at Hayes Barton Pharmacy, fills up her car at the Marathon on the corner of Fairview and Glenwood, and catches her movies at the Rialto Theater across the street. She gets her hair cut at Mark Christopher Salon, and her nails done down Whittaker Mill Road at Hayes Barton Nails. When it’s time to walk George, her rescue hound, Martin heads to Fred Fletcher Park and back.

And though she says she loves the boutiques and antique shops the neighborhood is known for, Martin won’t play favorites. “I do all of the shops.”