Night market(s) bring small-town vibe to the city

Social entrepreneurs share festive atmosphere across Triangle (and beyond?)

A dozen years ago, my wife and I moved to Raleigh to continue our careers. I worked downtown. It was … boring.

The seat of state government. Lawmakers, lobbyists, rent-seekers (people seeking favors from state government). 

Other than a few retailers, professional offices, and lunch stops, it had a handful of taverns and restaurants that catered to lawmakers, lobbyists, and rent-seekers. The sort of place that rolled up the sidewalks when the General Assembly ended its business day.

Aside from the city-owned performing arts center (nearly a mile from the Legislative Complex), and a handful of nightclubs, local leaders seemingly invited downtown workers and visitors to vamoose once their workday was over.

Most of the action was in adjacent neighborhoods — Glenwood South and Cameron Village near N.C. State University (now called “The Village” — the Cameron family was on the wrong side of slavery). North Hills (now known as “Midtown”). The Oakwood neighborhood near Peace College. Five Points.

Durham.

About a decade ago, downtown changed in fits and starts. Foodies discovered restaurateur Ashley Christensen’s Poole’s Diner. Her company opened Death & Taxes, Beasley’s Chicken + Honey, and other nearby hot spots. Greg Hatem’s Empire Eats brought Lebanese cuisine (Sitti), modern N.C. barbecue (The Pit), and a neighborhood coffee shop/tavern (Raleigh Times) downtown.

Local shops replaced a few of the chain stores.

Even so, nothing tied things together, forming a sense of community downtown. A couple of friends aimed to change that. What they’ve done is working, and replicating. It’s flourishing despite the pandemic and last summer’s civil unrest. Communities across the Triangle have reached out to try to capture some of the magic they’re enabling.

Four years ago, Raleigh residents Lauryn Stroud and Sara Buxton saw a need. They wanted to offer something for folks to enjoy as they made the shift from work to home.

A night market. Night markets have been embedded in Chinese culture since at least the 7th century. You can find them across China, Taiwan, Southeast Asia, and in Asian-American communities across New Zealand and North America. 

In Taiwan, they can be a big part of local economies and cultures.

They’re lively, crowded, joyful, exhilarating.

Stroud, the Triangle area’s community manager for Yelp, and Buxton, a metal artist and bartender, had seen night markets while traveling. They love Raleigh and brought the festive experience here.

The Raleigh Night Market operates spring through fall, the third Thursday of each month, beginning at 5. It “opens up a different kind of feeling of community with people who are getting off work, their families coming downtown for dinner. We’ve got a really lively and vibrant scene going on,” Buxton told me. “Cafè lights strung up, music in the air, all local North Carolina artisans and vendors, food trucks, and just a very relaxed and vibrant atmosphere that gets people hanging out and talking. … It’s a lot of fun for downtown Raleigh and the local community.”

It’s also a way for local artisans to find new audiences, possibly launch a brick-and-mortar operation. Building community and commerce locally.

The Raleigh Night Market began in 2018 at the century-old City Market district between the Convention Center and Shaw University. A handful of vendors set up in the Market Hall, now an event space. Others spread out along the sidewalks or set up in the stone-paved streets.

You’ll see stilt-walkers, jugglers, musicians — perhaps the marching band from the nearby Helping Hands Rescue Mission. A craft brewery will pour a pint. Local artisans display jewelry, fabric, leather goods, glassware, and more.

Share Social Fabric

People of all ages and backgrounds browse, chat, and dance. Families with kids are welcome. So are dogs (with their owners, of course.)

The first night market had 80 vendors. By the second month, 40 more had signed up. Every possible space was taken. More than 5,000 people visited each time. Events were booked for the rest of the year, and vendor space sold out soon after space was made available in 2019.

The humble Raleigh Uke Jam performed throughout the first year and for part of the second.

They opened a second night market in Durham that year. 

By the second year, the Raleigh market had outgrown the City Market space. It was so boisterous our ukes couldn’t be heard over the din of the patrons (although Sara told me we were welcome to give it another try, maybe at another location).

Sponsorship and support came from Campbell School of Law, Oberweis Ice Cream and Dairy, Yelp, and the LGBT Center of Raleigh, among others.

Stroud and Buxton hoped to move across the street to the newly refurbished Moore Square Park, with more room, extra seating, and better visibility. 

Then COVID hit. The in-person experience was on hold.

Surviving and thriving, post-COVID

The Night Market’s social media presence kept the dream alive. The founders promoted vendors’ products on Instagram and Facebook.

With vaccinations and the return of warmer weather, Raleigh Night Market stormed back, stronger than ever. With new options. A monthly night market opened in Apex, southern Wake County, before the main market returned.

The Raleigh Night Market indeed moved to Moore Square, and the partners launched a second market — Brunch Moore Market — the second Sunday of each month. (This one’s not actually a night market, since it runs from 11 a.m.-3 p.m., but the vibe is the same.) 

Two outdoor markets operate at the Hartwell, a renovated 1950s-vintage grocery store between downtown and Dorothea Dix Park. 

The Durham Night Market will resume in August. A new night market will open that month in Garner, south of Raleigh.

So will a second night market in Raleigh, this one in the new Smoky Hollow neighborhood near Glenwood South. The space should be much like the one at City Market, only with more comfortable walking and sitting areas.

Holiday markets are on the books for Moore Square, the Hartwell, and elsewhere. So is a Kids Market.

Roughly 60 events this year.

The business has grown enough to hire employees and take advantage of a regular team of volunteers, who are capable of sustaining the experience, keeping attendees and vendors happy.

Growth makes a Greensboro market an option. 

Buxton, a South Carolina native, says she’d love to take the concept to her birthplace. 

But Raleigh is her home. “The Raleigh Night Market always will be my baby,” she said. 

“We love doing it. We love seeing people become prosperous with the things they’ve created.”

It’s an opportunity for people who, like her, have come from other places to set down roots, make a home. 

“It’s a way to say, ‘Don’t leave yet!’”

In a Friday podcast, I’ll share my conversation with Sara Buxton.