When Lisa Willis left a good job finding work for others with the North Carolina Employment Security Commission to start a business in the economic desert that was downtown Burlington in 1996, even she couldn’t believe it.
“Talk about jumping into the deep end. I left a good job with good benefits to open a retail business,” she says with a laugh and rolls her eyes. “I’ve always been a practical person who uses common sense.”
What didn’t make sense at the time is crystal clear today. The business Willis opened in August of 1996, The Glass Angel, is celebrating its 25th year of operating downtown. For its time it has been an anomaly for the often struggling downtown area, which is undergoing a rebirth. The Glass Angel, located at 224 E. Front Street, is in the middle of it. A successful business in plain sight while others have come and gone.
“Bright colors and interesting shapes have always fascinated me. I am drawn to nature and am constantly amazed at its beauty. I think that is why stained glass draws me in. The endless combination of color and design is mesmerizing,” says Willis, who named her business The Glass Angel as a nod to her days at Meredith College, which students called the Angel Farm, and a glass angel given to her by her parents.
Willis is celebrating her 25th year of providing classes in stained glass art, selling stained glass supplies and serving as an outlet for retail fine art with a celebration on Saturday, Aug. 21 at The Glass Angel. It will include a prize wheel with gift cards supplied by her neighboring businesses downtown.
“I have been blown away by the number of businesses offering gift cards for us to give away. A real sense of community has built in the last few years,” Willis says. “We’re trying to encourage people to shop at nearby businesses. We want to promote what’s here downtown. It’s how we all survive.”
Willis would know about survival downtown. She’s seen the district go from a ghost town to an emerging community, back to being a ghost town only to re-emerge again over the past five years.
“Downtown at the moment is in great shape,” Willis says, pointing to restaurants like Burlington Beer Works and The Blend and Co. joining longtime downtown favorites like Zack’s Hot Dogs, Boston Sandwich Shop, Occasions and Danny’s Cafe. Other downtown businesses like her neighbors Bella’s House and Wayne’s Attic have loyal followings. And there is excitement about the Burlington Food Hall coming in September as well as Carolina Sundries. And as pandemic restrictions ease up, the Paramount Theater remains a major downtown attraction.
“Our restaurants new and old seem to be well established. The food hall will only add to that. We get a lot of traffic from people who say they’ve gone to dinner or a play. That’s why I leave window lighting on,” Willis says. “Now it seems like the right things are around.”
Things weren’t so promising when Willis, who also taught stained glass art at Alamance Community College for nine years, first explored opening a place of her own. Kate Byrd who operated an antiques store downtown offered Willis space upstairs. She took a chance and began offering classes and selling supplies. It was 52 steps to get to her space. Her neighbors were A1 Alterations and Newton Furniture. Meanwhile, she still taught one night a week at ACC.
“Many of my students from ACC began to come. A good handful of them made a difference in whether I survived or not,” Willis says.
In 2000 she purchased the building where The Glass Angel is now. She uses the 3,000 square feet of space on the first floor to display art and supplies for sale and to conduct her classes. She used a grant from the Burlington Downtown Corporation to renovate the site. She has no current plans to do anything with the area upstairs at the moment, noting that the expense would be substantial.
When Willis bought the building, many of the other storefronts were vacant.
“It was a ghost town and at night it was pitch black,” Willis says. “I’m very happy with the traffic now.”
Willis credits her loyal customers and students for her continued success downtown. She provides an engaging place for people to be part of a community, interact with the house cat and enjoy a few laughs.
“It’s about having places where people can hang out. My classes are like that. People want a place to be, have fun and feel like family. I have established a very loyal customer base. I have catered to what they like and I tried to create a place that’s fun,” she says. “I try to make it as fun and as an inviting a place as possible. They seem to come and have a good time.
“And people are drawn to pretty stuff.”