Raleigh Running Store Keeps Welcome Mat Out, Builds Good Will

09/27/2017 - 18:42

By Teri Saylor

Run against hate graphic.jpgPhoto by Brent Francese

(Author’s note: This is the first in a series of “This Running Life” articles on how running builds community.)

I was running late on a recent steamy summer evening and as I parked my car, I saw runners already hitting the sidewalk. It was a special night in downtown Raleigh, just a couple of weeks after the tragedy in Charlottesville, Virginia. The owners of Runologie, the only locally owned, independent running store in Raleigh, had routed a Strava valentine around the heart of the city and encouraged local runners to demonstrate their support for the residents of Charlottesville and to take a stand against hate.

The “Run Against Hate (and for Love)” took place on a Thursday evening. Brent Francese, one of Runologie’s owners, admitted his team had come up with the idea just a few days earlier.

“We wanted to create a direct and positive response to what happened in Charlottesville,” he said. “We know that running is a uniting thing that people can do together. We knew we had to stand up and make a positive gesture.”

Downtown Raleigh is laid out on a grid, its streets running north and south, east and west without many twists and turns. Francese said the grid made it relatively easy to design a run in the shape of a heart. Running the perimeter of Raleigh, which covered the state government complex, merchants and restaurants, high rise condos, and even the local homeless shelter, felt like we were giving our city a big hug. It came out to 3.2 miles, an almost perfect 5K.

Francese estimates about 80 or 90 runners showed up, and most of them stuck around to enjoy beer and fellowship at the State of Beer, a bottle shop next door, which shares some of Runologie’s owners.

In addition to his ownership role, Francese splits management duties with fellow owner Alex Warren. The store was founded in 2014 by David and Kimberlee Meeker, two local marathoners whose passions for running are matched only by their passion for their community. Meeker’s father, Charles Meeker, served as Raleigh’s mayor for five terms.

David Meeker is also a co-owner of State of Beer, which comes in handy when the Runologie team wants to serve their customers a complimentary cold one from time to time.

Francese, who grew up in Charlotte, started running track and cross country when he was 12 and stuck with those sports through high school. He moved to Raleigh to attend N.C. State University, graduating with a degree in architecture and design, became hooked on Raleigh and stayed. The 2008 recession took a toll on his career as a designer, but sometimes great things are born out of necessity and Francese migrated into the world of the running retail business. He worked for Fleet Feet and even designed a couple of their stores before joining the team at Runologie in 2015.

A decade ago, Raleigh was home to four or five independent, locally-owned running stores. But over time, the owners sold them to retail chains, leaving Runologie as the lone independent.

On a Monday morning workday, the store is open, but it’s empty. Located on a shady street, about a mile from the N.C. State University campus and a few blocks from Raleigh’s Capitol building, its spacious showroom displays a variety of running apparel, shoes, accessories, books, and even a tote bag specially designed for Runologie by local designer Holly Aiken. The bag, which comes in a variety of colors, features a runner girl silhouette cutout on the front. The owners are looking to develop an exclusive line of men’s running shorts and, staying true to their mission to keep their work local, are working with Eagle Sports, a small manufacturing plant in eastern North Carolina that specializes in making sports clothing.

Runologie is a welcoming space, where anyone can walk in, sit down, do a little work, watch television, drink a free beer (or a mimosa on weekends) and just hang out, which is a popular option. Especially when beer is involved.

Francese estimates on a good day, he’ll see around 100 people come in and out of the store. On Thursdays, the store hosts its group runs, many of them themed. They also invite physical therapists to make presentations and give advice, massage therapists to provide services, and other professionals.

It’s part of Runologie’s strategy to build vital connections within Raleigh’s running community and neighbors.

“The people who supply these services are our friends, and we like to expose our customers to other local businesses in the community,” Francese said.

They even team up with other running stores from time to time and explore how they can lift each other up and grow together.

“All of this builds good will,” Francese said.

Last Fourth of July, Runologie sponsored a new four-mile race dubbed “Keep Raleigh Independent.” It took place on the former campus of Dorothea Dix Hospital, which is slated to become a city park and is becoming a popular running course for shorter races. The store teamed up with Healing Transitions, also located on the Dix campus, which is a residential treatment center for men suffering from addiction. The store also partnered with Justin Garrity, a former Healing Transitions resident who is in recovery, studying for a Master’s degree at N.C. State University and employed at the facility. Garrity, who has started a run club there, recruited volunteers from Healing Transitions to volunteer as course monitors and hand out water.

Runologie also recruited elite runners to represent different neighborhoods around Greater Raleigh and announced them one by one before the race started, adding a uniquely cool, local vibe to the event. After the race, runners trouped across the street to a swinging Fourth of July party at Trophy Brewing Company, which the Meekers also own.

This fall, Trophy Brewing will sponsor an inaugural “Trophy Trot” 10K on Thanksgiving Day.

Since its opening three years ago, Runologie has held events such as an open house for local runners who qualified for the United States Olympic Trials, a “Run with Meb” night when Meb Keflezighi was in town promoting Skechers shoes, and a special reception for a new event in Raleigh that’s gaining traction – The Sir Walter Miler, a mile-race showcasing male runners’ attempts to break a 4-minute mile and female runners’ attempts to break 4:30.

The store hosts watch parties for local parades, and any type of activity the owners can dream up to bring the community together.

Above all, Runologie supports runners – especially the talented amateur runners who are working hard to reach their dreams and fuel their passions.

“People don’t know how hard it is to be an amateur runner trying to make it,” Francese said. “We support those who have been through battles and struggles and have come out the other side. We highlight their stories and they resonate with the entire community.”

The future is focused, Francese said and explained Runologie’s plans for the immediate future.

“We want to build our race series,” he said. “Right now we have the Independence Day 4-miler and the Trophy Trot. We’d like to grow to four signature races.”

Building the retail end of the business, and expanding its the apparel line are all part of the grand plan too. But most of all, the store owners want to continue building community and that means keeping the welcome mat rolled out. After all, Runologie’s team doesn’t consider their franchise a run club. Anyone can join a group run or participate in a party, open house, race, special event or even simply walk through the door and sit a spell. Free beer included.
(Teri Saylor writes and hangs out with runners in Raleigh, NC. This article appears in the October issue of Running Journal.)

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