by Annie Ambrose
Sarah Hill is a longtime Trinity Park resident, currently at 1011 Dacian Ave (downstairs, unit A), and owner of Hamilton Hill Jewelry, a longtime sponsor of the Trinity Park News.
I sat with Sarah in her boldly painted, gorgeously decorated living room, adorned with modern and eclectic furniture that reflects the style of Hamilton Hill’s jewelry collection. With jazz (WNCU! her fave) playing in the background and cat Holly (15) and dog Billie (13) keeping us company, we talked about Sarah’s decades of experience living in Trinity Park and downtown Durham and life as a small business owner.
A: What brought you to Trinity Park?
S: In 1989, after several years of living in Washington, DC, I was looking for a change. I wasn’t considering options beyond other big and pricey cities, but when I attended a wedding in the Triangle that spring, I sensed a strong connection with Durham. Until I was 12, I lived with my parents and brother in Chapel Hill (Mom taught at NCCU, Dad at UNC-CH) so I was familiar with Durham.
But that visit turned me on to the Durham of the original Ninth Street Bakery, The Independent, Duke Gardens, Bruegger’s Bagels, and the tobacco warehouses I’d seen in the movie Bull Durham. On that trip, at the corner of Markham and Buchanan, I thought to myself, “This is it! I want to live right here!” I thought Trinity Park was beautiful, and I liked the mix of houses and apartments, some clearly fine and others in more “affordable” condition.
On January 1, 1990, I moved into Duke Manor Apartments on LaSalle St. spending my first year dreaming of TP. Some people will remember it was practically obligatory to live there when arriving in Durham!
In January 1991, I moved to 608 N. Buchanan, renting from Joe Berini (originally stone masons – I think they worked on Duke Chapel), overlooking East Campus. After that, I lived at Randolph House (208 N. Buchanan), 1011 Dacian (like now, but upstairs), and 1022 Minerva.
In those early years, I solidified my desire to be able to walk to work or at least drive in under three minutes! For a couple of years, I worked at the old Duke Diet and Fitness Center at Trinity and Duke, where I met its director Michael Hamilton (our long and winding friendship continues to this day!). For another two years I worked for the fabulous Jean O’Barr at Duke Women’s Studies, which I could see from my 208 N. Buchanan window. Someone with a strong arm could have thrown a rock to it, yet still I was almost always a minute late … that’s my brand!
In 2008, after enduring droughts but still having mosquitoes in the yard, I moved to a one-bedroom unit in the Kress Building at Mangum and Main with a terrace that would free me from yard maintenance. I stayed there for 12 years as downtown revitalized. Until about 2010, there was only one restaurant between Kress and Brightleaf. So each new restaurant, apartment, etc., brought tremendous excitement.
In March 2020 I moved back to 1011 Dacian, this time to the downstairs unit. I had only come to stay for a few days in Michael Hamilton’s downstairs AirBnB as a little vacation, but I never left! I loved being back in TP and Michael’s friendship and support were critical to surviving the early days of Covid life.
A: What are your favorite things about Trinity Park?
S: I love the walkability. I like the mix of apartments and houses because of the mix of people that brings and supports, including students (I’m hooked on university towns after growing up in Chapel Hill and Gainesville, FL). And the gifts Duke gives us are amazing — beautiful East Campus, performances at Baldwin Auditorium, the Al Buehler trail… I love biking around campus, hopping on the campus bus to attend events on West Campus, and more. Despite being Tarheel born and Tarheel bred and a state school graduate, I must say loudly and clearly: we are really lucky to have Duke as a neighbor and great citizen.
A: If you could change one thing about Trinity Park, what would it be?
S: The speeding cars! Many years ago when I was on the TPNA safety committee (under the reign of friend Hank Majestic, Demerius), we volunteered to drive at the speed limit as “pace cars” on Duke and Gregson to calm traffic. And now people are speeding at higher rates and we’re having frequent, sometimes major accidents. It’s so frightening. I understand there is hope for change now that we have the East End Connector. Fingers crossed. And what’s up with the condition of the streets?! In many areas (see Watts between Trinity and Urban), the pavement is in horrible condition.
A: Tell me about Hamilton Hill.
S: HH is my passion. I think I was born to do it. My grandparents Sarah and George owned a clothing store in a little town in Kentucky and that must have gotten me hooked. In 1995, I earned my gemology certificate (that’s another story) and after working in the industry for a few years, I knew I wanted to open my own store. That store had to be in downtown Durham. The desire to be part of the revitalization of the city I loved played a huge role in my desire and decision. Richard and Jacquelne Morgan of Morgan Imports (which will be missed forever) essentially held a little space for me until the time was right. Naturally, as is our way, Michael Hamilton ended up playing a major role in the business. He lent his H name for alliteration, his design eye, management experience (not business experience mind you, we were both business innocents), and more to the endeavor.
After five years in the 800-square-foot space next to Morgan Imports, we walked our wares and furnishings across Gregson Street Brightleaf Square proper where HH is today. I’ve been the solo owner of the business since 2014, but Michael still visits frequently and coaches me when I’m in a quandary.
A: How did the pandemic affect you as a business owner?
S: Covid prompted the departure of two long-term teammates. That was sad and emotionally painful, but as is often the case, the difficulties resulted in new opportunities and those pesky but beneficial growth experiences. For several months, I did nearly everything myself, was riding the pity train, but I learned so much about my business! Over the months and years, I’ve added several new teammates, including a Hill who is no relation, my assistant who lives upstairs at 1011 Dacian, and a digital marketing manager who lives at 208 N. Buchanan. Yes, the usual incestuous-in-a-good-way Durham life! It was difficult but there were silver (make it platinum) linings. The government’s Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) was very important. Many business owners I know got a PPP loan and the forgiveness process was seamless. It was a lifesaver. Also, around 2019, we were finally beginning to see a lot of Durham newcomers at Hamilton Hill. Of course that slowed down a lot during the pandemic but now that trend is running strong again. I sense people are coming not just from New York City, California, and DC, but from Ohio, Iowa, Minnesota, Colorado, upstate New York, etc. We also have many long-time clients from Durham and nearby, many out-of-town clients, some of whom have lived in or visited Durham, and others who simply found us online.
A: How are things now?
S: In 2021, Hamilton Hill bounced back and even boomed. The same was true for the jewelry industry nationally. The theory is that disposable income not spent on travel and restaurants was available for jewelry. 2022 was less strong overall, but 2023 looks to be a banner year. The recent renovations at Brightleaf Square haven’t yet done much for business, but that’s starting to change. I think the remainder of 2023 will see greatly increased traffic in the beautiful courtyard and on the Main Street side, too. I think Asana [new owner of Brightleaf and several surrounding buildings] has what it takes to renovate and revive. (It would have been a challenging project even without Covid, and they bought it in December 2019!)
Despite the pandemic, the downturn of Brightleaf Square, Durham’s original retail/restaurant renovation crown jewel, and the stresses of running a business, I love my work. Every day I interact with people who add so much joy to my life… clients, other merchants, jewelry designers, teammates, and TP neighbors including you, right?! It’s really like being at a party!
A: Anything else you want to add?
S: As a small business owner, I’m 1000% devoted to supporting local small businesses. Living in Trinity Park makes this easy. I can walk or quickly drive to purchase groceries, pet supplies, books, clothes, home decor, and more. We’ve got frame shops, auto repair, and more so nearby. I’ll add a plea to everyone reading to do the same!
As I think more about the strange but undeniable connection I felt to Durham when I first visited, I’ll add that my father lived at 407 Watts Street while he was a graduate student at Duke in the late 1950s. He, too, loved quirky, much-maligned Durham! He thought delivering mail on semester breaks was a great gig (and never forgot to remind me of his youthful industriousness). He and my mother lived in the Duke dorms on Trent somewhere when they first married. So, full-circle, here we are!
A big thanks to you, Hamilton Hill, and to all of our sponsors! Know a business owner who would like to support TPNA? Contact Tiffany Florestal to learn about sponsorship options.