Erica Bishop, Joseph Wooten, and their 3-year-old daughter
Erica Bishop, Joseph Wooten, and their 3-year-old daughter Credit: Courtesy of Wooten and Bishop

The Red Carpet Selfie Studio on Ninth Street in Durham opened late last year.

It was booked solid last weekend, according to its website, and is already advertising itself as the number one selfie photo studio in the Triangle.

The studio features more than 20 colorful interactive photo booths. An olive-green-painted booth features two ornate, cream-colored Victorian thrones. There’s a Durham Bulls baseball team booth with a home plate and brand-new baseball bat. There’s a kid-size all-terrain vehicle (ATV), that sits atop fake snow in an orange-red-colored booth decorated with white plastic snowflakes. Yet another booth has a gray wall backdrop plastered with fake $100 bills. 

According to the Red Carpet website, the studio opens on Thursdays and Fridays at four p.m. and on weekends at noon. Patrons can also visit the place by appointment on Mondays, Tuesdays, and Wednesdays.

“Our exhibits are completely unique to Red Carpet Selfie Studio and cannot be found anywhere else,” the owners state on the business’s website. “Drawing on our unique and diverse set of customers in the Triangle area, we design interactive exhibits that can be enjoyed by anyone and offer a flare of local flavor enjoyed by Triangle residents and visitors alike.”

Guilford County couple Joseph Wooten and Erica Bishop previously operated the Bull City Selfie Museum at the same location before the building’s owner, retired Durham superior court judge Jim Hardin Jr., evicted them a little over a year ago. 

On April 29, Bishop and Wooten filed a countercomplaint in superior court claiming in their 31-page affidavit that they were wrongfully evicted.

In a complaint dated February 23 of last year, Hardin stated that the couple “failed to make the rent payment that was due on February 1.”

Hardin also claimed the couple violated the terms of their lease agreement when they “took steps towards seeking a permit to sell alcohol in connection with their business at the premises.”

Michael Moore, the owner of the construction company that transformed the basement of the two-story building into a selfie studio, is also seeking nearly $40,000 in damages from the couple.

Wooten and Bishop deny both allegations, saying they paid Moore about $140,000 for upfitting the basement.

The couple’s complaint claims that Moore did not even have a general contractor’s license when he did about $140,000 in renovations to the basement on their behalf to create the selfie museum booths and exhibits.

Wooten and Bishop claim that, as a consequence of Moore’s Construction Company not having a certified contractor, they were unable to obtain a building permit after an inspector with the Durham Fire Department “determined the Bull City Selfie Museum could not be granted a Certificate of Occupancy.”

A January 22 report from last year issued by fire department inspector Chris Wilcox determined that the “property must go through a change of occupancy” as an amusement center, that “the space was not permitted for use at this time in the current capacity,” and that “exit signs were needed,” according to the couple’s complaint.

Wooten’s and Bishop’s grievances have attracted the attention of local and state authorities.

This week, Frank Weisner, executive director of the NC Licensing Board for General Contractors, confirmed that Moore’s Construction Company is under investigation for potential violations of the state statutes concerning general contractors.

Weisner told the INDY that his office opened the investigation on September 8, exactly one year after Wooten and Bishop signed a lease to rent the basement space of the Couch Building at 714 Ninth Street.

Weisner said the investigation should be completed by the spring, and the state board will determine what actions need to be taken or dismiss the case altogether. 

Moore’s attorney, David Lewis of Durham, told the INDY that paperwork had been exchanged between his client and the state licensing board, but he declined further comment on an ongoing investigation

Wyatt “W. C.” Blalock, Durham’s chief building inspector, said he will “review available information” to determine if the basement of the Couch Building is operating under a limited “scope reduction,” which Hardin and Moore submitted to his office soon after Bishop and Wooten were evicted, or as an assembly venue “with over 50 people in attendance.”

Wooten and Bishop take stern and considerable exception to the Red Carpet owners’ claims on their website that they designed the interactive exhibits. They say Red Carpet Selfie Studio poached their creativity and are now claiming it as their own.

“Everything in there, we created,” Wooten told the INDY this week. “Everything you see; the money room, the ATV—I still have the pictures of when I bought the ATV—even down to the paint on the walls.”

Bishop says when Bull City Selfie was at the location, one of the goals was to promote the work of local visual artists and photographers.

“One of our pieces was by a female artist who had done a thing with the word ‘love,’” Bishop says. “It’s still up, but they crossed out her name.”

Red Carpet was closed late Thursday afternoon, but the place was booked from four to nine p.m. Saturday and all day Sunday, from noon until five p.m., according to its website. The bookings consist of 30 people who each pay $29 per hour to take selfie photos in the interactive booths.

“They’re even using our business model,” Wooten says. 

“Everything else is exactly the same,” Bishop adds. “Literally, exactly how their website is set up is how ours was set up. The same thing with ticket sales. We were doing 25 to 30 people an hour, with ages five and under free, ages 6 to 12 $10, and a general adult admission of $25. They basically took our whole business model.”

Red Carpet owners did not respond to any INDY emails or phone calls.

This week, Hardin’s attorney, J. Gray Wilson of Durham, told the INDY in an email that even though the website states otherwise, “Red Carpet Studio is not yet (and has not been) open for business.”

Wilson’s assertion does not align with what the INDY has learned about the business after talking with several people who have visited the selfie studio in recent days, including Sunday, the day before Wilson’s statement.

Kandace Rice is the owner of Freedom Beauty and Aesthetics in Raleigh. Rice told the INDY that in late January, she contacted Red Carpet to book an hour of selfie photo fun with three of her friends to celebrate her birthday on February 19. She found the business online, spoke with a man over the phone, and booked a slot for February 18 at three p.m.

“I walked in and I was amazed,” Rice told the INDY this week. 

Rice said a woman greeted them, gave them a tour of the place, and explained that the business had “just opened up” and they were “trying to get their name out there.”

“When I walked in and saw the exhibits I thought it was Black-owned with a white employee,” Rice says. “It’s a beautiful place and so inspiring. The $29 we paid was worth it. It’s one of a kind. I mean, I did an entire photo shoot.”

After Rice posted photos of her visit to Red Carpet on social media, she says a couple of her friends visited the place.

“One just went yesterday,” she told the INDY on Monday.

Hardin is a formidable legal titan. In the early 2000s, he attracted global attention as the lead prosecutor in the trial of Michael Peterson, the former Herald-Sun columnist, novelist, and Durham mayoral candidate who was convicted in 2003 for the murder of his wife, Kathleen Peterson. The case has been featured on HBO and Netflix.

In 2021, Hardin retired after serving for nearly three decades in Durham’s legal system and judiciary and became president of the Couch Development Company, his family’s commercial real estate business.

Hardin apparently wanted to knock the Bull City Selfie Museum down after evicting its owners.

Blalock, the city and county’s chief building inspector, shared emails with the INDY that indicated that on February 24 of last year Hardin requested modifications to a building permit that would allow him to demolish the exhibits Wooten and Bishop created and paid for.

Hardin, via email, asked Blalock to “please reduce the scope of the permit to authorize the demolition of the wing walls and for the reconstruction of the wall petitions as they existed prior to modifications made or directed by the Bull City Selfie Museum, LLC.”

But with the new Red Carpet business, Hardin, on January 2 of this year—days before Moore applied for a building permit—sent Blalock an email indicating he had spoken with Moore and an architect to meet all needed “requirements so that the space can eventually be designated as assembly/event space.”

When they were tenants, Bishop says they spoke to Hardin about the possibility of serving beer and wine to their patrons for special events like bridal showers or birthday parties. They say the retired judge was not averse to the suggestion, telling them to “research” the subject. But they never applied for an ABC license.

Hardin put no such alcohol prohibitions on the new tenants.

“The owner of Red Carpet Selfie Studio intends to seek a permit to sell beer and wine in the space and I believe he has already made those types of inquiries of city and county authorities,” Hardin wrote in an email to Blalock. “Although I personally believe there are too many hurdles to scale to obtain such a permit, that is not my concern at this point. My immediate objective is to make sure he can operate this photography business (without selling alcohol) in the space as it currently exists. Please confirm that Red Carpet Selfie Studio is able to operate (without selling alcohol) in the space as it is currently designated so that I can relay this information to the owner.”

Last week, after a 10-hour mediation meeting, the two parties’ efforts to reach an out-of-court settlement were unsuccessful. Garrett Davis, the couple’s attorney, says the two parties have until April to settle the issue before going to court for active civil litigation.

“We still could settle,” Davis says. He adds that he doesn’t fault the owners of Red Carpet, who are just trying to get their business up and running. 

The INDY previously chronicled the Guilford County couple’s dream of opening a selfie studio on Ninth Street, one of the city’s most eclectic retail corridors.

“It is part portrait studio, part art gallery, and serves as a flexible space for special events and other gatherings,” Davis stated in the complaint.

The couple’s dream turned into a financial nightmare with Hardin’s claim that they owed him nearly a quarter of a million dollars—$237,000 plus 12 percent annual interest—after he evicted them.

Wooten and Bishop said from the outset that the project was plagued by issues posed by the building. As a consequence they ended up paying for “work related to the entire building and common areas,” according to their complaint, including an additional $6,750 paid to Moore’s Construction Company “to locate old building wiring connected to the whole building’s electrical system, which had pre-existing problems.”

Two months after the upfitting process began, the selfie museum tenants say Hardin told them “Couch didn’t have the money” when they approached him about reimbursing them for the unexpected expenses. Instead, their landlord provided the reimbursement with an amended lease the tenants received on November 17, according to the complaint.

“The first month of the amended lease term was February 1, 2022,” Davis stated in the complaint. On February 7, Hardin sent Wooten and Bishop another letter demanding a rent payment by February 9.

On February 8, one day after receiving Hardin’s letter, Wooten and Bishop pulled into the parking lot of the Couch Building and saw someone changing the locks of the main entrance door. Wooten, according to the complaint, “went back to his truck, told Erica what he saw, and said, ‘Hardin is kicking us out.’”

The former tenants say Hardin then went upstairs to his office and returned with a typed letter “dated February 9, 2022, but that had been marked through with a handwritten date of February 8.”

Bishop says Hardin told them they were trespassing and that they needed to hand over their keys and leave.

The Wootens shared a copy of Hardin’s letter with the INDY, which appears as described. The date is marked through, and a handwritten statement indicates it was delivered to Wooten shortly after noon.

Hardin, in the letter, indicated his company would “defer and forebear action” if Wooten and Bishop made a rent installment payment of $2,221.70, along with a late fee of $200, by February 9.

Wooten and Bishop are the parents of a two-year-old daughter and three-month-old son. The young couple expected to marry last year but had to put their marital plans on hold after Hardin’s demand that they pay his company nearly a quarter of a million dollars, with an interest clock running. All told, they lost about $250,000. 

Bishop says she sometimes scrolls through social media and sees patrons exclaiming how much they enjoyed their visit to the Red Carpet Selfie Studio and cries.

“They’re enjoying the benefits of my labor,” she says. “I want Hardin to recognize the wrong that was done to us. I don’t think people understand how traumatizing this has been for us.”

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