Jennings Brody taught herself everything she knows about retail, starting with the opening of Parker & Otis – the first of her four stores – in 2007.
By Hannah Lee
When the lights dim, the doors lock, the employees leave, and the rest of American Tobacco Campus grinds to a halt, Jennings Brody stands alone in a world of her own design. She can’t help but smile as she surveys the new Parker & Otis shop and cafe – the wine wall, the chests of candy and especially the piles of puzzles. She basks in all she’s created.
“A dream of mine,” Jennings calls the new space, one that brings out the fun-loving child in every adult customer.
It’s easy for Jennings – who manages four stores, cares for her 9-year-old daughter, Miller Kea, and serves on multiple boards – to forget to take a moment to celebrate her success. “She’s constantly attending meetings,” says Kelli Cotter, owner of Toast and one of Jennings’ close friends. “She’s not just on the Downtown Durham Inc. board, but the Nasher [Museum Friends] board, the Families Moving Forward board. I don’t know how she has so much on her plate and stays sane.”
She truly enjoys the work, even the late nights of minutia, like building color-coordinated displays. These local retail meccas come from someone with no business background – Jennings studied art history and political science – which makes her rise all the more impressive. Those degrees still come in handy, though; Jennings mentions her art history background is helpful when she’s designing her space and even her menus.
She taught herself everything she knows about retail, starting when she opened P&O in 2007. That’s when she quit her job as a traveling candy and gourmet food salesperson, ditched the MapQuest printouts and turned in unremarkable road sandwiches for finer fare.
“I never had taken a business class or read a P&L [profit and loss statement] or anything,” Jennings says. “At 29, standing in the [original P&O] space of 8000 square feet and saying, ‘I got this’ … I wish I had half that bravery now. But I felt like I could do something there.”
Looking back, Jennings jokes that her stores’ early days were “the sparsest hot mess ever.” She scrolls through her phone now staring in disbelief at old photos of metal racks of beer that are not completely filled and not-so-strategically placed beside DeCecco pasta and tomatoes.
P&O was just the start of her retail empire. She opened Chet Miller eight years later, followed by her Tiny children’s store. Her most recent endeavor, Parker Paper Company – an extension of P&O with a focus on “putting pen (or pencil) to paper” – opened permanently after an iteration as a pop-up at ATC in January 2020.
It’s been 14 years since she opened shop, and after an in-house fire, a gas explosion and a global pandemic, P&O and its sister stores are consistently top of mind for their wide selection of gifts, and nearly everyone in Durham knows their favorite P&O sandwich number (you’ve got to try the No. 9).
And even if she doesn’t always recognize it, that bravery Jennings mentioned earlier remains with her.
“All small business people fear admitting that you don’t know something or asking for help as a sign of weakness,” Jennings says. “In the pandemic, I had to apply for grants, apply for a PPP, negotiate all this accounting stuff, which all of us restaurant people are not necessarily very good at. Even if you’re 14 years in and you say to your banker, ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about,’ it’s not a sign of weakness. It’s a powerful thing to do.”