To most, it’s another small, Southern town lost on the map, sitting somewhere in the Middle of Nowhere, N.C. It’s a place that’s seen better days – a place full of aging faces and even older businesses.
But to Chuck Talley, it’s home.
“If you ever watched the Andy Griffith show, Graham is just like that,” Talley said. “It’s our little, Southern town is all it is. It’s nestled between all this growth here, but yet Graham’s not moving with it. It’s kinda like locked in time.”
If you step inside any of its downtown shops, you’ll understand what he means. The mom-and-pop businesses, large, storefront windows, tiled entryways and hand-painted signs mirror a 1950s photograph. Graham, Talley said, is more focused on preserving its treasures than expanding its business directory.
“The only thing that separates us from anywhere else in the world is our history,” he said. “So, we don’t need to be remodeling a building. We need to remodel the business. We need to save the business that’s in the building, so we can make ourselves unique, so people know when they come, they can expect something different.”
And it’s this concept of small town pride and historical safeguarding that Talley has inherited and made his mission.
Capturing a Glimpse of the Past
Though Talley was raised in the countryside, he heard endless stories about Graham’s soda shop, theater and people while growing up. He can spit out the names of every street on the grid, and he can tell you a novels-worth of personal stories he’s shared with all of the local celebrities. Graham isn’t where he was raised, but it’s where he makes his living and where his children go to school.
“We had an opportunity to buy the Hadley House, which was built in 1884, down the street, so that’s how we ended up back in Graham, buying that home,” he said. “My family’s always been here—I have the tools that my great-grandfather used to build the courthouse.”
Aside from owning his own construction company, Talley and his wife, Jennifer, own several downtown businesses, including the Graham Cinema and the Graham Soda Shop. As lovers of history, the pair has worked to maintain the old-time feelings of both businesses. They have adopted the town’s motto, which is printed on small banners on every streetlight, “Preserving our heritage, promoting our future.”
The Graham Cinema
As you open the glass front doors of the theater and take a step inside, you feel as though you have traveled back in time. The lighting is dim. It’s warm. It’s inviting. A small ticket booth sits in the left, front corner of the room. A popcorn machine sits on the far end of the gray, marble concession counter, blasting kernels into bits of buttery popcorn. A free refill machine for sodas sits on the right-hand wall and boxes of candy line the shelves of a cabinet. There’s no extravagant movie posters or shiny memorabilia. It’s simple, and it’s old.
Tim Matthews, famously known as “Tim Bob,” bought the closed Cinema in 1984 and spent nearly 25 years trying to revitalize the small-town favorite.
Aside from physical renovations, Matthews worked to bring character to the service. He crafted the Cinema’s famous joke line, a voicemail messaging system that mixes quirky jokes with the theater’s showing times. The joke line gained national attention when Matthews began recording it shortly after he purchased the Cinema in ‘84, and it remains in place today.
“Tim couldn’t afford to pay the money to advertise back then, so he started this answering machine thing where he would tell everybody what was playing, then he would rate it, whether it was good or bad and worth watching,” Talley said. “He airs his dirty laundry—small-town folklore that people find funny.”
About five years ago, as Matthews toyed with the idea of selling the theater, he immediately considered Chuck and Jennifer. The couple frequented the theater, he said, and because of their loyalty to and appreciation for it, Matthews said he knew it would be in good hands if they took over the lease.
“There was a lawyer in Chapel Hill who wanted this theater, but I decided not to sell to him because I knew that Chuck would keep it like it is,” Matthews said. “(Chuck) said it’s the heartbeat of Graham, and with him being in construction, I knew he could fix anything that broke.”
After purchasing the Cinema, Chuck and Jennifer added a new roof, installed a new heating and air conditioning system and replaced the screen’s curtains. However, everything else in the theater remains the same, from its blue, rocking seats to its vintage projection system.
Elijah Clark, a junior Elon student whose family lives in Graham, said the Cinema holds fond memories for him.
“I love the theater,” Clark said. “It’s very small with a hometown feeling. I feel like I’m stepping back into the 1950s. I love the balcony – I always sit up in the balcony because it has the reclining chairs. It’s old school.”
The Cinema is a sub-run theater, meaning it only shows movies that have been released from large, first-run theaters for a discounted price. Tickets cost $3, and movies typically play for one to two weeks, Matthews said.
The Graham Soda Shop
Just around the corner, black and white tiled floors, siren red walls and slightly tilted picture frames decorate the Graham Soda Shop. Local teams’ jerseys line the back wall, and there’s a set of checkers waiting to be played on a front table. Customers slump down on the red, vinyl booths to share conversation and laughs over lunch. Oldies tunes play over the speakers, whistles echo out of the kitchen and there’s a muffled commentary coming from the television. The Shop illustrates a perfect snapshot of an unchanged moment in time.
Originally called the Graham Drug Company, the business opened in 1933 and was located on Graham’s North Main Street. However, in 1937, Foust Thompson reopened it as the Graham Soda Shop and relocated it to the current address of 22 North East Court Square. In 1977, a fire damaged the building’s structure, and it was later leveled, rebuilt and repurposed as office spaces.
“I had always heard stories about the Graham Soda Shop because it was a place for the Graham High School students,” Talley said. “That was their turf, you know. They hung out right there on the square. Of course, when I’m coming up, it’s not there, and so when Jennifer and I moved into town, we were determined to save (the business) for the community.”
After remodeling for more than a year and after overcoming failed co-ownership leases because of financial and commitment concerns, Chuck and Jennifer reopened the shop in 2007.
“We’ve weathered some storms, but we really wanted to preserve the history of Graham and take it to the next level,” Talley said. “It’s not no cash cow, but it pays for itself, and it takes care of the employees, and that’s what matters.”
The Shop’s menu consists of traditional diner grub with hamburgers, hotdogs, sandwiches and fries, but it also includes rib-eye steaks, homemade lasagna, salads and appetizers. And unlike the flash-frozen food from many fast food establishments today, all of the Shop’s menu items are unpreserved.
“With the Soda Shop, the goal was (to have) everything fresh,” Talley said. “The wings, the chicken fingers, the hamburgers, the potato chips – everything’s fresh. It’s a cook to order restaurant.”
Jerry Peterman, the mayor of Graham, grew up knowing and frequenting the old Soda Shop of the 1950s and 60s.
“It was almost like Happy Days, with people skipping church to sneak in there to get a Coca-Cola,” Peterman said. “After ballgames, people would be there, too.”
Fifty years later, Peterman said the restaurant still holds the same character and lively atmosphere.
“Chuck’s done a lot to downtown Graham,” Peterman said. “We’re excited for (him and Jennifer). I think a lot about it. It means a lot to people who grew up here and went to (the soda shop) and are still here. They can go in there now and see their pictures on the wall from back then.”
Making a Difference Outside of Work
In addition to preserving Graham’s history through business, Chuck and Jennifer promote its importance through education. Jennifer leads twelve walking tours for elementary and middle school aged children each year, taking the students to different locations downtown to familiarize them with Graham’s past.
“I tell (the kids) all about the treasures in Graham, the Graham Cinema being one of them,” Jennifer said. “I tell them ‘The Little Colonel’ was the first movie shown there. We used to have a gold mine here in Graham, so I kind of talk initially about what treasures we can find in Graham, but it’s really based on the people here—they’re kind of our treasures.”
And it’s human treasures like Kenneth Woods, the 100-year-old barber whose shop neighbors the Cinema, that Jennifer likes to celebrate. Woods said he has signed for and delivered packages to the theater for thirty years, but it’s not the films he appreciates about the business—it’s the owners, Chuck and Jennifer Talley.
“I consider both my friends,” Woods said. “And if you’ll be a friend, you’ve got a friend.”