He chucked a 32-year career as an engineer to sell tees from a cart. Now he has 2 stores.

Mike Nye, owner of Moon Street USA.
Mike Nye, owner of Moon Street USA.

When Mike Nye opened a cart in Triangle Town Center, he just wanted to sell a few T-shirts. Little did he know that nine months later, he’d be operating one of the mall’s top stores in a 7,000-square-foot space.

Initially known as Carolina Moon Graphics, Moon Street USA sells Southern-themed products and recently opened a new location at The Streets at Southpoint Mall to supplement its flagship store at Triangle Town Center, positioning itself as a noteworthy player in Triangle retail. The stores feature T-shirts, hats, drinking glass and the like for men and women of all ages.

Nye, who is 61 and lives in Raleigh, created the business in July 2013 after a 32-year career in engineering, including positions at Cisco Systems and Intel. While he was working for Cisco in 2011, the company started making cuts, and he decided to set his sights on a more creative venture.

“I took an early retirement and scratched my head for a little while. I went on engineering interviews, and it didn’t excite me anymore,” he said. “I had always wanted to own my own business, so I spent a year studying and doing research.”

When he visited family in his hometown of Charleston, Nye said, he noticed that many people had T-shirts or car stickers with moons, a nod to the S.C. state flag. He realized that although he owned South Carolina-themed apparel, he didn’t have similar items for North Carolina.

Nye spend the next week scouring local stores for North Carolina-themed merchandise but either came up empty or found products that he would never want to wear. So he taught himself how to do design work and created his own. Some of them featured characters that he used to doodle on the edge of his engineering notebooks – he calls them Moonies and has them playing tennis or riding motorcycles and bikes.

He then approached Triangle Town Center with his idea, and they gave him go-ahead to open a 48-square-foot cart, which he funded through his severance package from Cisco. When trying to find additional merchandise to supplement his own creations, many companies told him no, saying they didn’t want to sell their products in a cart, but he eventually scored a deal with Heybo, a Southern apparel supplier based in South Carolina.

“When we opened the cart, it worked,” Nye said. “We didn’t bother anybody, they just walked up to the cart.”

Several other malls took note, wanting Nye to duplicate the cart in their locations. He opened a second one at Crabtree Valley Mall in September 2013 and then moved to a brick-and-mortar location in Triangle Town Center. When he opened the 1,000-square-foot space in November, Nye said, there were so many people that he could hardly walk through the store.

After turning in his sales numbers to the mall, the general manager told Nye that Moon Street USA needed a bigger space – seven times bigger to be exact.

“I had my eyes on space down the hall, and he said ‘no, you need bigger,’ ” Nye said. “When he showed me the space, I said ‘No, that’s not a natural progression.’ 

Nye eventually agreed to the expansion, partitioning off the space and opening gradually throughout the spring of 2014. Later that year, Nye said he took his first paycheck – previously he had been rolling all the proceeds back into the business.

The company also underwent a name change in 2015, becoming Moon Street USA after Nye had difficulty in trademarking Carolina Moon Graphics because several other companies also featured the name Carolina Moon.

Two years later, Nye decided to open a second shop, at The Streets at Southpoint.

“They had a space nobody wanted to rent, and it was the one with the big front porch,” he said. “It was a (former) Hollister and didn’t fit the concept for other stores.”

To make the space feel more homey, Nye did away with Hollister’s notoriously dark vibe by painting the space white and adding a real front door and a rocking chair on the porch. The location opened Sept. 4.

Nye said his stores at Triangle Town Center and Southpoint now have about 20 employees total, and he no longer operates his cart in Crabtree. Much of the design work is still done in house using T-shirts bought from Steve’s T’s in Wake Forest. They also seek out T-shirt businesses in North and South Carolina, which make up about 50 of the companies Moon Street USA represents. All of the businesses they work with are based in the United States, but some import their T-shirts from overseas.

Ney said he especially likes buying merchandise from young vendors and has provided many with their first opportunity to sell their products in a brick-and-mortar space.

“I enjoy working with them and helping where I can and offering advice and a little bit of experience,” he said.

His solid employee base has also been key to Moon Street USA’s success, he said. The two women he initially hired to work his cart at Triangle Town Center – Shelby Hakes and Kayla Keith – each manage one of the stores, and Nye said he has enjoyed watching them become more business savvy.

The 23-year-old Hakes, who manages the Southpoint location, said Nye has been a mentor and role model. She’s now pursuing a business and marketing degree in her spare time.

She thinks Moon Street USA has done well because its products allow people to express themselves. Customers can find T-shirts for any hobby they have, she said.

“It was crazy to see how fast we took off and how much there was a market for it.”

It’s not all smooth sailing though. Connecticut-based retailer Vineyard Vines sued Moon Street USA in May over its use of a smiling whale logo, alleging trademark infringement since Vineyard Vines also uses a smiling whale as its symbol. Nye said his company has been featuring “ale whales” since April 2016. The design, which depicts whales in the shape of beer bottles, is a pun on the popular craft beer.

“It was just kind of a fun little thing for us to do,” Nye said. “A whale in craft beer slang is a hard-to-find, special edition brew.”

He said he plans to fight the suit and that the litigation is still ongoing.

Moving forward, Nye hopes to keep expanding the business and has his eye on a couple of areas to establish new stores. His customer base often influences what direction his plans take.

“Our customers are the ones pushing us in certain directions,” he said. “They’re supportive of the business and have got all kinds of great ideas.”