BY KURT DUSTERBERG
Mack and Pam Thorpe sat in matching rocking chairs at the back of The Rusty Bucket, calling up 19 years of memories. In the days before moving their downtown Apex country store to Pittsboro, some of the melancholy had given way to excitement.
“I have looked at it as a blessing in disguise because Pittsboro is kind of where Apex was 20 years ago,” Pam says. “I think we’re going into this with a great location. I’m excited about it now. I’ve put the sadness of looking back behind me.”
The Thorpes cited rising rent as the reason for the move. The new location at 630 East Street off of Business US-64 will solve some of the issues they faced in Apex, including limited downtown parking. “If you need a candle or something small, you don’t want to park two blocks away,” Pam says. “I wanted to be somewhere that’s highly visible, and easy to get in and out of with plenty of parking.”
Opening the Rusty Bucket in 2004 was a leap of faith for the Thorpes, who had each spent more than 20 years at Nortel Networks. With layoffs looming, they decided to follow Pam’s dream of owning a country store. Like most mom-and-pop ventures, the commitment came with its own worries.
“It’s stressful,” Pam says. “There would be times when I would be crying and saying, ‘I don’t think I can do this anymore.’ I’m stubborn, so I decided I would make it work one way or the other. So that means reaching into your own savings account sometimes because you believe in it.”
For a generation, The Rusty Bucket was the signature shop in downtown Apex—but not just for its country home furnishings. The scents of the candles and the squeak of floorboards made the place feel like a momentary getaway from the day-to-day.
“We got a phone call years ago from a woman, and she asked if we would stay open a few minutes late,” Mack recalls. “She was a schoolteacher and had had a rough week. She said she wanted to come in and smell the smells and walk through a place that’s warm and comfortable. After about 45 minutes, she didn’t buy anything. She was a little apologetic. I told her, ‘Don’t you worry about that.’”
There have been good years and hard years for The Rusty Bucket, but the tough breaks often came with a silver lining. In response to the 2008 recession, the Thorpes turned to more local crafters to cut down on shipping costs.
“Plus, it gives customers the chance to find something unique that you’re not going to find anywhere else,” Pam says.
The patrons were loyal, but their tastes and needs changed over two decades. The Thorpes naturally adjusted right along with them. The large pieces of furniture that were popular in the early days gave way to candles and small toys as their clientele aged.
But some of The Rusty Bucket’s charm comes from the items that have stood the test of time. The candy—taffy, jaw breakers, candy sticks—goes back to another era. When children spot the vintage gumball machine, the owners are quick to hand out pennies. So it’s no surprise what Pam will miss most.
“The kids,” she says without hesitation. “There are kids who come in from Apex Middle School 10 at a time. After school they come in with their money and they buy candy. And you get to know them. A couple of them will come in and sit down and talk to me. You create this bond.”
In a retail store, however, it’s not easy to watch one-of-a-kind items come and go. Mack once bought a mechanical horse from an amusement park in Canada. He brought it home and fixed the electronics before placing it outside, where it stood for years as the shop’s unofficial mascot.
One day, a woman asked Mack if he would sell it, and he did. “Man, I thought I had a rebellion on my hands,” he says. “Kids and customers were saying, ‘Where’s Bucket the Horse?’ You live and learn.”
What the Thorpes have mostly learned is that their customers love them, both for their store and their roles in the community. Mack was known as much for playing Santa Claus as being a shopkeeper, and his restored, red Ford Model A was a staple of the Apex High School homecoming parade. They both served on economic development boards, trying to create something special. “I love knowing that I was a part of making downtown what it is,” Pam says.
So when the choice came down to moving The Rusty Bucket or settling into retirement, it was an easy call. “What else would I do?” Pam says. “I sit for hours at night looking at products, thinking about how I would use them. You just kind of go with your gut, and over the years you get to know your customers and what they like.”