Last December, the Shrunken Head Boutique’s store manager and granddaughter of the shop founders, Melissa Pate, received a phone call from Chapel Hill Police. They said the store flooded.
The sprinkler system in the offices above the shop malfunctioned overnight, which led Shrunken Head to endure hours of flooding that soaked most merchandise, damaged the floors and caused a ceiling tile to fall.
Pate underestimated the scope of the damage when she arrived at the store that morning.
“You hear ‘flood,’ and you don’t really know what to expect,” Pate said. “It was a lot worse than we thought.”
Brittany Castevens, another manager at Shrunken Head, said she was out sick the day of the flooding and only got to see it in person the day after.
“Melissa sent us pictures and videos, and they didn’t really do the damage justice,” Castevens said.
Due to the overwhelming water damage and fear of mildew, Pate said her team had to throw out all in-store merchandise and remove all carpeting.
Apart from the physical damage, they had to navigate a complex maze of insurance processes, property rights with the building manager and development codes with the Town of Chapel Hill.
More than two months after its initial closure, Shrunken Head's physical storefront remains closed and further repairs are expected to take several more weeks.
“They just started pulling up the carpet,” Pate said. “I didn’t know it would be this difficult.”
Before its temporary closure, Shrunken Head was stacked wall-to-wall with vintage Tar Heel memorabilia. Thankfully, Pate said that most of those items were salvaged from the flood.
“It’s a miracle,” Pate said. "When the flood came down, all the memorabilia was against the wall, so it really didn’t damage any of it that we can see."
Being a Franklin Street fixture for more than 50 years, Pate hopes to prove that Shrunken Head isn’t going anywhere.
A 'blessing in disguise'
This isn't Pate's first experience with managing Shrunken Head during a crisis.
She first stepped into the role of store manager in early 2020, a few months before lockdowns began due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Similar to many businesses, she managed early quarantine by revamping Shrunken Head’s online store, offering free shipping and local pickup to entice customers.
Now facing another closure, Pate is using tips from that same playbook.
“When corona happened, we couldn’t really put a lot of energy into our storefront, so we had time to pause and think about our social media and our online business,” Pate said.
Shrunken Head is also staging pop-up shops around Chapel Hill, including at major apartment complexes, like Union Chapel Hill and Lark Chapel Hill, as well as common meeting areas like the Pit and He’s Not Here.
Aside from an initial cut to hours during the first few weeks of the closure, Shrunken Head has also been able to maintain all employees’ wages and hours without having to make any layoffs.
Alana Loken, the store's brand manager, said she and her staff have innovated ways to keep employees working during the closure.
“We’re coming up with more things that they can do like sending them to our warehouse, doing photoshoots on campus that they can post on Instagram, things like that,” Loken said.
Shrunken Head's reopening
As one of Chapel Hill's oldest UNC merchandise stores, Shrunken Head has been part of game day traditions since 1969.
And with that legacy, Pate remains optimistic about its survival.
“The Shrunken Head is such a tradition for our community,” Pate said. “People that come to the games always come by the store to get their free button, and then maybe eat at Sutton’s.”
Pate added that maintaining a friendly environment within the community has always been a priority.
“When you walk into the Shrunken Head, you know that we’re excited to see you,” she said. “That’s what my grandparents built the store on.”
Pate also said one unexpected challenge of Shrunken Head’s reopening is the code process. As the store reopens, they have to be brought up to the same codes that a new Franklin Street establishment would, including replacing the dated ceilings and walls.
“So we’re doing essentially like a whole remodel,” Pate said.
As Pate and her team look toward reopening, they hope to give Shrunken Head an updated, elevated look with tile flooring, new walls and framing for their memorabilia.
Still, they want to make sure the store feels familiar for returning customers.
“We want to bring it a little bit to the 2020s, but also keeping that mom and pop shop feel,” Pate said. “We definitely know what we were built on.”
Pate said missing the 2021-22 basketball season has been a major loss for the store, both from a financial and communal perspective.
Still, she said she’s been overwhelmed by the support from the UNC community with more online sales, successful pop-ups and messages of support written outside the storefront.
When Shrunken Head returns, Pate hopes Chapel Hill will welcome them with open arms, as they’ve always strived to do for the community within their store.
“We are ready to open and have a huge party,” Pate said. “We want to keep the feeling of the Shrunken Head alive.”
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