Home-grown success; Local entrepreneur Joe Wolfenbarger owns many tri-state businesses

Published 2:09 pm Thursday, May 11, 2023



The Emporium at 2120 will celebrate its one-year anniversary  Memorial Day weekend. Joe Wolfenbarger, the owner of the Emporium, also owns Whistle Stop Antiques, Gerties Commissary and Gap Creek Coffee House, and each has a different story of success.

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“We opened memorial day weekend last year, so we’re coming up on our first anniversary,” said Wolfenbarger.

Wolfenbarger explained that the furniture and merchandise in the store comes from everywhere.  While some of his furniture comes from places like Knoxville, a lot of it is from local people.

“We buy a lot of things locally from people that we know that are selling, maybe their families stuff or their grandparents stuff, but if I go anywhere on any type of trip, if I see a shop I will shop and pick,” said Wolfenbarger. “So it comes from everywhere.”

However, Wolfenbarger has been a businessman for 30 years, the Emporium being his fourth business. He explained that Whistle Stop Antiques has a 30 year anniversary coming up Memorial Day weekend. He has also owned Gertie’s Commissary for 15 years and Gap Creek Coffee House for nine. Wolfenbarger also operates out of an antique mall in Clinton, Tennessee, or the past 25 years.

“I just lost my mind,” joked Wolfenbarger. “I just woke up one day and I was crazy.”

All together, Wolfenbarger employees 25 people across his four businesses, including some full and part-time employees.

Wolfenbarger says he is overwhelmed with the positive response he has received from the community after opening his first business in Middlesboro.

“I’ve been real pleased with this first year,” said Wolfenbarger. “Because opening up over here was all new. I knew my market, I knew my territory in Tennessee, but I’ve never had a business here. And I’ve been more than pleased with the response here. The support from the local people has really made this place go.”

Wolfenbarger explained that business in Cumberland Gap is a little bit different when compared to the Emporium in Middlesboro. He said that with a lot of his business in Cumberland Gap, his store’s traffic mostly comes from students from LMU or tourists. These customers are not usually able to walk away with larger items, and the businesses traffic is affected by an “off season,” where there is little traveling roughly from December to February. Wolfenbarger explained that the Emporium’s business has held strong since the first month they opened.

“We’ve sold a lot more furniture over here but that’s because of the local residents coming in and supporting the business,” said Wolfenbarger. “That’s been my biggest surprise and the thing that’s made me the most happy, because you never know ‘well, are they going to support a business downtown?’ But downtown’s really changing, which is a good thing, but I’ve been overwhelmed by the amount of support we’ve got locally.”

Wolfenbarger says the bulk of his business has been Middlesboro and Bell County residents, but their business isn’t limited to only Bell County thanks to social media.

Wolfenbarger says he manages the majority or his business himself.

“I have a really good manager at the coffee house though, he handles everything there basically,” said Wolfenbarger. “He handles the payroll, he handles the ordering, he handles the scheduling, so that takes off a lot.”

Wolfenbarger says his two workers at the Emporium not only help him at the store, but advertising his merchandise on social media. Because of his success with the Emporium, Wolfenbarger plans to use social media to advertise pieces from his other antique stores.

Despite his store’s success in just one year, Wolfenbarger did not plan to open the Emporium.

“I walked out of Shade’s in January of last year and looked across the street one night,” said Wolfenbarger. “And I wasn’t drunk, I hadn’t been drinking, but I did walk out and see the building, and I told the people I was with ‘there is the perfect location for a business.’ ”

Wolfenbarger says he came back just the very next day and asked who owned the building and rented it right then.

“I had no plans on anything, other than I was going to open,” he said.

Wolfenbarger rented the building in roughly January or February of last year, and began moving in while they were doing some work on the building. Once the final touch-up work was completed, such as the carpets being laid, Wolfenbarger opened his doors.

He decided to simply name it “The Emporium at 2120,” encompassing a unique name for “shop” and the address.

“Most people plan, and worry, and fret over things, but if I feel like it’s the right thing to do, I do it,” said Wolfenbarger. “That’s what I’ve done with everyone of my businesses.”