If you frequent Ninth Street Bakery in downtown Durham for your morning coffee, you’ve likely been greeted as “darling” or “sweetheart” by Jacqueline Wilkins. Depending on how long you’ve been self-identifying as a Durhamite (as Wilkins does), this might have been your morning routine for two decades.
“The people I see every day, I’ve seen for twenty years,” she says. “A lot of the workers downtown, I’ve known them since they got their jobs.”
Tomorrow, Ninth Street Bakery recognizes Wilkins’s twenty-year tenure. Owner Ari Berenbaum began telling regulars last week to come in on Tuesday for special celebratory treats.
“I can’t believe he said something. He’s gonna get it!” Wilkins quips on her shift today, looking over at her smiling boss. “Get over here, Berenbaum!”
Wilkins opens the store four days a week and manages all wholesale purchases and procurement. “She usually comes in between 2 a.m. and 4 a.m., which to me is a marvel for a lady in her sixties,” says Berenbaum. “She’s very tough!”
Wilkins, now sixty-three, grew up in Durham until she moved to California as a newlywed. She and her husband returned in the mid-1990s. They owned and operated a Southern soul-food restaurant in Pasadena before coming back so their daughter could attend university near family.
“We’re very lucky to have her,” Berenbaum says. “In an industry with high turnover, Jacqueline’s steadfastness and commitment to the bakery has been unparalleled.”
Wilkins relishes her work, saying, “When I lay down at night, I don’t have any regrets.”
She wakes up without an alarm clock for a shift that sometimes begins at 2:30 a.m. She’ll admit she gets tired, and has tried to retire more than once. Then she realized that her work is an important, necessary energy in her life.
“You have a ministry in life,” she says. “It’s nothing to do with religion. It’s how you treat people. We’re not just feeding [customers’] bodies, but sort of their souls. There are some people who didn’t have anyone in their house to say good morning to. I get to be that person, which is cool!”
Behind the glass case of freshly baked bread loaves and flaky pastries, Wilkins’s smile reveals a deep, personal sense of place and community.
“I grew up here when it was a walking town. And there was something for everyone, even though it was the Jim Crow South. Everyone’s parents worked together. It was a real community. And it’s getting back to that. When I came back [in the 1990s], I was disappointed. I saw it became a ghost town.”
She recalls trips downtown in the 1950s, her mother pulling her by the hand down Parrish Street to get a treat at Woolworth’s—a piece of candy or a bag of popcorn—after paying the light bill. (That storefront, next to Loaf Bakery, has seen numerous renovations.) On the occasions when her family didn’t spend its dollars in Hayti’s black commerce center, they’d browse the meat market and vegetable vendors at Liberty Market, opposite what is now Mateo.
“If you went to the store [downtown], black or white, nine times out of ten you’d know the clerk. The elevator lady. The cleaning lady. Being a child of color, you’d know somebody,” Wilkins says.
By the 1960s, her family had turned its bowling obsession into a business—engraving trophies, then office-door nameplates and jewelry, at their family-owned Kelly’s Trophy Shop. She soon saw a national urban renewal strategy play out locally. The original Hayti Center was “torn up” and the streets became one way, she says. “That’s when Durham started to die. People were shuffled to the mall to shop. You saw no energy.”
In an ever-changing Durham with a complicated Southern past, Wilkins is witnessing a new evolution that she sees as a positive force. When asked what she thinks about a new, younger, and sometimes transplanted generation taking charge of Durham’s growth, she has some advice.
“My prayer is this: that they stay. I hope that they stay and build it back as a walking community.”
At nearly noon, Wilkins’s shift is over. She interrupts our conversation on the front patio to blow a kiss and coo “Hey, sweetheart!” to a baker who just clocked in.
“You always make a connection when you’re part of a community.”
Wilkins will be at Ninth Street Bakery all morning on Tuesday, as usual. Give her a smile.