One of the Triangle’s most eclectic retail outlets will close its doors for good after the winter holiday season.

Native Threads, a Ninth Street mainstay for nearly thirty years, will have a “grand closing” on New Year’s Eve, says owner Orlando Morales.

Morales, a native of Laredo, Texas, who grew up in Detroit, opened what eventually became Native Threads with two friends—Victor Martelino and Samuel Mbullah—in 1992. The three had met at an international yoga retreat and decided to open an ethnic import store. Their first outlet, next to The ArtsCenter in Carrboro, was called Native Expressions; it featured clothing from Guatemala. 

Morales became sole proprietor when the store relocated to Durham’s Ninth Street and was renamed Native Threads. 

“The first inventories came from tantric monks and nuns throughout the world,” Morales says. “The monks and nuns who practice yoga and mantra meditation support themselves on donations and the selling of clothing, incense, and artifacts from many countries.”

Native Threads might be best known for the highly acclaimed copper frogs, created by Charleston artist Beau Smith, that greet customers at the entrance. The damn things are famous. Morales arranged for the trio of frogs to appear on a nationally televised performance by Travis Tritt during the Country Music Awards show.

“The frogs are one of the few things in the store made in the United States,” he says.

Once you step inside, a cornucopia of sensory sensations awaits in a veritable global bazaar of goods: There’s a remarkable statute of India’s Dancing Shiva in the front center of the store’s entrance, flanked by two Native American dreamcatchers. Nag champa incense wafts in the air. There are musical instruments, masks, and statues, and art from Indonesia, Ghana, Cameroon, the Congo, Guinea, Kenya, Nigeria, and Mali. There are collarless jackets, gloves, and winter socks from Nepal, men’s shirts from Ecuador, dresses from Mexico, Indian perfume, Buddhist statues, belly-dancing scarves; tightly woven bundles of white sage, blue sage and juniper, and baubles of beads, bracelets, pendants, necklaces, and small pocketknives from the world over. (Native Threads used to have what seemed like an endless supply of the heavy Afghan hats worn by the mujahadeen fighters who fought the Soviet Union. Those things sold like ice cream in hell.)

Morales picks up an ornate green and silver bell from the Congo and strikes it with a stick to play what sounds like a celebration rhythm familiar in West African and Indian musical orchestrations. He uses the same stick to tap out a rhythm on an old Congolese wooden slit drum with three heads carved on the top.

“Someone came in one day and said they could see spirits all over the store,” he says. “They were freaked out about the Congo slit drum. They said, ‘There are spirits that won’t leave that drum.’”

Morales hopes to expand his customer base with online sales, but he sighs at the prospect of dropping his merchandise prices for the customers he’s expecting as the closing date nears.

“They are going to pick my bones,” he says.

Asked why he’s closing after all these years, his answer is simple: “The sales aren’t there.” Morales says that his best years were the decade he opened, in 2001 after the 9/11 attacks, and during the 2008 recession. 

Now, he says, “People come in, and they say, ‘Ooh, it smells so good in here,’ and ‘Ooh, I love these frogs. Oooh, I love your shop.’ Then they leave. They don’t buy nothing. It happens all the time.”

The store resembles a rustic, cream-colored home with dark-green trim. One exterior wall is always covered with posters and flyers advertising everything from local concerts to homes for rent, like a pre-internet-era community bulletin board. The green-colored copper frogs are out front, along with backpacks and other items featured on stands in front of the store window.

Native Threads recalls an earlier time in the corridor’s history, when a hipper, more eccentric Ninth Street was the Asheville of The East.

The former Wellspring Grocery—the food outlet that extolled healthy eating before it was cool—was housed in a building across the street, before it was bought out by Whole Foods and moved to Broad Street.

Francesca’s, a sorbet and coffeeshop popular with the daytime and nighttime crowd that sat next door to Native Threads, has long closed its doors. So has gemstone seller Earth & Spirit, and The Ninth Street Bakery has moved to Main Street. The Bread and Board Cafe barely registers a memory. The Playhouse toy store recently closed for good, too. 

And even though it was not on Ninth Street, the city’s premier food co-op, the beautifully named People’s Intergalactic Food Conspiracy, was around the corner on Broad Street; it moved to West Chapel Hill Street with that same PIFC sensibility, then moved a few doors down and was rechristened as the more respectable Durham Food Co-op Market.

Morales says that an influx of new businesses into the area—as well as internet giants like Amazon—has made it impossible for him to keep going.

The metaphysically inclined MagikKraft, which recently moved around the corner, sells gemstones, crystals, locally harvested honey, incense, and herbs, not to mention personal readings and workshops. That’s dented Native Threads’ customer base. There’s also Awakening Herbs & Gifts, a boutique about twenty yards away.

And, like a lot of struggling brick-and-mortar retailers, Morales points to Amazon’s presence in the market: “They’re selling the same Indian perfume I’m selling,” Morales says. Amazon “is the 2019 Walmart that’s choking out [small business] people.”

Then there’s social media.

“They’re selling these on Facebook,” Morales says, pointing to Nepal jackets hanging on a sales rack.

During the summer, Morales says he counted on a sales boost from dancers and dance students participating in the annual American Dance Festival at Duke University. Last summer, however, ADF participants pretty much ignored the store.

“All in all, it’s the economy,” he says. “The handwriting is on the wall, man.”

Morales greets Native Threads’ patrons from an overstuffed easy chair behind the counter. More often than not, Morales, whose high school rock band opened up for Grand Funk Railroad in 1960s Detroit, is strumming his acoustic guitar. At heart, he’s a musician. And he says his seeming misfortune as a shopkeeper may well be a moment of musical serendipity. 

“I’m a musician masquerading as a shop owner,” he says. “For years, I stayed up late at night writing music. I make it into the shop and I fall asleep.”

Through all of his endeavors—traveling to yoga retreats, working at an Atlanta food bank, working as a clothing and artifacts wholesaler, and helping to build a yoga center in Missouri—music has always been at the center of Morales’s life story. He’s planning to host “in-house concerts” at his home and putting the final touches on a compilation of songs he wrote between 1984 and 2016.

One of those songs, “City of Peaches,” is about the Atlanta child murders that terrified the city in the 1980s. He wrote it while working at the food bank and was befriended by women employed by agencies that relied on the food bank. He learned that several of the women knew those missing kids.

“All in all, I’m glad for the change because I’ll be doing what I wanna do,” Morales says. “I’ve had second- and third-generation kids come into the store, and they’ll tell me, ‘I’m thirty-one years old. I’ve been coming here since I was twelve.’ It’s cool.”

It’s been a helluva run, he says. 

“Look, the store was a success,” Morales adds. “It just didn’t make any money.”

Contact staff writer Thomasi McDonald at 

Support independent local journalism. Join the INDY Press Club to help us keep fearless watchdog reporting and essential arts and culture coverage viable in the Triangle.