The hunt for a long-forgotten advertisement featuring our old Piggly Wiggly is a reminder of the joy of friendship in small-town Raleigh
by Matthew Busch
Raleigh was a smaller place when I was a kid. My best friend Jon Anderson and I grew up in Five Points, with
the freedom to explore on our bikes. We blazed through the streets and left our signatures in the wet concrete of freshly paved sidewalks. We could get away with just about anything. Our parents trusted us — and they trusted the town, too.
But even with the power to go wherever we wanted, we somehow always found ourselves at the Piggly Wiggly.
Back in those days, the entrance to the grocery store had a “magic” black rubber mat that would trigger the automatic door to spring open and ding, testing the manager’s patience with every chime. The checkout clerk’s name was Pete, an old man with a red nose, tinted glasses, and grey combover. He’d stand in the corner of the store, by the kiosk that hid the safe, resting his chin on a broom. He never smiled, perpetually carrying a look of non-amusement — perhaps thinking about how to deal with us kids.
Then there was Richard Walker, the kindest employee at the store. Richard knew almost every customer, including how they preferred their groceries bagged and when they celebrated their birthdays. He was so famous that The News & Observer called him “the Bigwig at the Pigwig” in a spotlight on his 20 years of service as the store was closing. I distinctly remember Richard taking groceries to the car for the elderly woman with blue hair who taught music down the street.
Just inside the front door, to the left, were freezer bins with sliding glass tops, chock-full of ice cream. And above those bins was a poster of an advertisement with a captivating, old-fashioned photo of our Piggly Wiggly. It had an ominous blue sky and a pool of yellow light that fell from a streetlamp onto the brickwork and wet pavement, giving you the sense that a fall storm had just passed. I would stop and stare at that poster, incredulous that it featured the very store I was standing in.
Fast-forward about 25 years. Jon and I are still best friends and still in Raleigh. About two years ago, we sat down for a meal at NOFO @ The Pig, decades after the space had been sold and butchered into a low-budget mini mart, stripped from its classic Piggly Wiggly aesthetics. In those years, I stopped going —
I couldn’t handle seeing the space like that. But then Jean Martin came along with her NOFO concept. Her vision of renovating the space reincorporated many of the things we had loved about the grocery store.
From the back of the restaurant, I glanced around, taking in the renovation, remembering where things used to be and noticing where some of the original Piggly Wiggly elements, like its old freezers, had been cleverly placed. Out of the corner of my eye, a large photo hung on the wall. It felt familiar, but I couldn’t place it.
After thinking about it for some time, I called Jean to ask her about it. She explained that a neighbor had given her the framed photo when she opened NOFO. This neighbor, who had worked for the Durham-based ad agency McKinney-Silver (presently McKinney), had actually helped create that photo as part of the advertisement I used to look at in the 1990s. Remington Rifles, which was (and still is) headquartered in Madison, hired the agency to create the Thanksgiving advertisement. They dolled up our Piggly Wiggly to look nostalgic for the photo, placing hand-painted signs in the windows, leaning a classic bike against the brick, and parking an old-fashioned car at the curb. With that ad printed and distributed across the United States, our very own Piggly Wiggly had achieved secret celebrity status. (Despite not exactly being complimentary: the firearms maker urged readers to “leave the grocery shopping to the other guys” while they, presumably, caught their own meal themselves.)
I had to find the ad. I called, emailed, and messaged all the companies involved, including the Remington Arms Museum in New York state. But I kept hitting dead ends; few sources were responding to my requests, and those that did respond didn’t have any more information for me. I began losing hope.
I vented my frustrations to another longtime friend, Ben McLawhorn, over dinner one night. Ben has lived in Raleigh for 40-plus years, and we share a love for all things OId Raleigh. The next morning I had a text from Ben: he’d found the poster for sale on eBay. The seller lived in Pennsylvania and had been cleaning out an old gun shop after its owner had passed. He’d found this poster in the trash. I bought it immediately.
A week later, the poster was delivered in a cardboard tube. As I unrolled it, I noticed how vibrant the colors were, how pristine the paper was. This poster had been tucked away in some closet or a drawer for 30 years.
I didn’t expect the poster to transport me back to my youth, but it did.
Would we have believed it, when we were riding our bikes down to the Piggly Wiggly, that today Jon would have a law office on the sidewalk just across the street — the same place where we’d carved our names into the wet pavement? Or that we’d manage to stay the closest of friends all these decades later? We were brothers in sports, best man in each other’s weddings; we’ve mourned together the loss of family and, recently, another dear friend, Frank Jolly IV.
Just before Christmas, I dropped by Jon’s office toward the end of the day with the poster, framed and wrapped, in my hands. He had just locked up the door and was heading to his car.
And when he opened the package, he had the same expression of excitement that I did when I saw the poster again. In these days full of work and family, it reminded us of a time when friendships were easy and hours seemed abundant. This Thanksgiving, I offer gratitude to dear friends, and to Raleigh, too — the small but growing city that has fostered these relationships.
Matthew Busch is a father, teacher, and photographer. He enjoys contributing posts to oldraleigh.com, and cherishes his wife, Julia, and 1-year-old daughter Emerson.
This article originally appeared in the November 2021 issue of WALTER magazine.