Blackrock Outdoor Co. opens in Noble Hall, with cafe/bookstore combo soon to come

Owner Kelly Custer (left) and manager Megan Goebel show off some of the merchandise at the campus Blackrock Outdoor Co. store.

All the commercial space on the ground floor of Noble Hall, Western Carolina University’s new mixed-use facility on Centennnial Drive, is close to being fully operational with outdoor recreation retailer Blackrock Outdoor Co. now open for business and MadStone Cafe and Catching Light Books, a combination eatery and bookstore, set for a low-key “soft opening” during WCU’s spring break week. (Editor’s note: The “soft opening” for MadStone Cafe and Catching Light Books was postponed past the week after spring break and actually occurred Tuesday, March 28.)

Those two businesses are joining three others already in operation on Noble Hall’s ground floor – Chili’s Bar and Grill, Subway and Bob’s Mini Mart.

Blackrock Outdoor Co. owner Kelly Custer welcomed customers in for a soft opening on the morning of Monday, Feb. 27, and said he plans to have a grand opening event later when students return from their break, which is March 6-10.

Custer, an entrepreneur and attorney who also owns two businesses in Sylva – a separate Blackrock Outdoor Co. store and Sheds Hunting Supply – said his campus store will have more outdoor recreation gear for sale than his store by the same name in Sylva, but the store in Noble Hall will still offer a selection of apparel from companies such as Patagonia, Columbia, North Face, Mountain Hardwear and Marmot.

Custer also will be selling craft beer at his campus store, with six or more varieties on tap and 30 to 40 in bottles and cans. He is branding the effort as “gear and beer.”

Two part-time employees at the Blackrock Outdoor Co. store at WCU, Kayla Sloan (left) and Brittany Livengood, work on signage to let potential customers know the store is open for business.

The campus Blackrock store will be open 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 10 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and noon to 10 p.m. Sunday. The store manager is Megan Goebel, who graduated from WCU in December with a bachelor’s degree in accounting. Seven part-time employees, mostly WCU students, have been hired, and more hires are forthcoming, Custer said.

A few doors down from Blackrock Outdoor Co., the three owners of MadStone Cafe and Catching Light Books continue to prepare their 2,000 square feet of space for a soft opening.

Two of the owners, Suzanne Stone and Jeanette Evans, will be having an entrepreneurial homecoming of sorts when the cafe/bookstore opens, as they were among the business operators renting building space on WCU’s old commercial strip on Centennial Drive when it was heavily damaged by fire in November 2013. Both owned small eateries, with Stone operating Rolling Stone Burrito and Evans offering baked goods and other items from her Mad Batter Bakery and Cafe. Both lost their businesses to the fire and are now joining WCU alumnus Chris Wilcox, owner of City Lights Bookstore in Sylva, in the new venture.

Wilcox said the bookstore side of the business faces fewer regulatory hurdles than the cafe in preparing to open, so the bookstore section may open a few days ahead of the cafe. “Like City Lights Bookstore in Sylva, Catching Light Books will have a thoughtful selection of new and used books,” Wilcox said. “That selection will have a different vibe though, and will have to be more tightly curated to fit into the smaller shared space.”

The bookstore also will have magazines and gift and novelty items for sale, he said.

Stone said the food items she and Evans are planning include a variety of meals built around rice bowls, such as a breakfast “Wake Up Bowl” with rice, beans and sweet potato topped with egg and kale; cheesy nachos in all varieties; breakfast biscuits; cheese and pepperoni pizza; frozen yogurt; baked goods; and coffee. “The menu will be ever-changing,” Stone said.

Operating hours for MadStone Cafe and Catching Light Books will be 7:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Friday and 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Wilcox said a grand opening for the business is set for Tuesday, April 18, to coincide with WCU’s dedication ceremony for Noble Hall that is scheduled for the same day.

With student residential units on all four of its floors, Noble Hall opened last August when students moved in for the start of the 2016 fall semester. Construction of the building on the south side of Centennial Drive at its intersection with Central Drive already was included in WCU’s master plan for new construction when part of the university’s commercial strip at that location was damaged by the 2013 fire. Plans for the new facility were accelerated after the fire by trustees of the Endowment Fund of Western Carolina University, which owns the property.