News Columns & Blogs

Cancer led him to take a risk. Now life is all about beer and dogs.

Doctors removed Steve Smith’s thyroid in June 2017, a month after he was diagnosed with cancer.

Nothing was normal after that, Smith said, although he quickly returned to his regular routine. He went to his job at SAS, a software company in Cary. He spent time with his wife, Catherine Nicholson, and their two dogs, Bentley and Gypsy.

“(But) everything you do feels like an echo of what you used to do,” recalled Smith, 39. “We just both were antsy, you know? We couldn’t put a finger on it.”

Smith and Nicholson had toyed for years with the idea of opening a bottle shop, a place where friends and neighbors could stop by for a beer and take home a six-pack or two. But they always talked themselves out of it, choosing to stick with the safety of their corporate careers.

Cancer has a way of putting things in perspective, though, and the couple didn’t want a life of “going through the motions.”

“You know what, why put this off?” Smith recalled thinking. “Why say, ‘Let’s try next year’ or ‘This is a bad time.’ It’s always a bad time to start a business.”

RAL_ 20180831_bottleshop_CA_2 (2)
Steve Smith, left, and Catherine Nicholson work together on ordering products at the bar they will serve craft beer on when they soon open Black Dog Bottle Shop, on Friday, Aug. 31, 2018, in Holly Springs, NC. They decided to open after Smith’s successful battle with thyroid cancer and named it after their two rescued, black dogs, Bentley and Gypsy. Casey Toth ctoth@newsobserver.com

So they went for it, and this month the couple are opening Black Dog Bottle Shop in Holly Springs. (More on that name shortly.)

In the interest of full disclosure, I knew Smith years ago, when we were neighbors in North Raleigh. He was always friendly, stopping to chat outside our apartment doors and taking an interest when I adopted a dog, Lucy, from the animal shelter.

Facebook allowed me to keep up with him after he moved, but we didn’t stay in touch. He married Nicholson in 2014, and the couple moved to Holly Springs the following year.

Then came the cancer.

Then came the bottle shop, which is so much more than a place to buy beer. It’s a reminder that we shouldn’t settle. That we shouldn’t put things off.

Smith lived that mentality before cancer cells invaded his thyroid. When we were neighbors, he often talked proudly of his job with a transportation-logistics company. But after his wedding, he realized he wanted more from his career. So he took a “junky job,” as he called it, because he thought it would lead him to something better in the IT industry.

It led him three years ago to SAS, where he works in sales. Smith plans to stay in the job after Black Dog celebrates its grand opening Saturday, Sept. 22.

Nicholson left her job with IBM to work on the shop full time.

RAL_ 20180831_bottleshop_CA
Catherine Nicholson takes a break from working to love on her two rescued, black dogs, Bentley and Gypsy, in the space where she will soon open Black Dog Bottle Shop with her husband Steve Smith, on Friday, Aug. 31, 2018, in Holly Springs, NC. Bentley and Gypsy carry the theme of the new business, which Nicholson and Smith decided to open after Smith’s successful battle with thyroid cancer. Casey Toth ctoth@newsobserver.com

Oh, the name — Bentley and Gypsy have black fur. Bentley is an 11-year-old mix of a lot of things, including Siberian Husky, Dalmation and pit bull, according to a DNA test. Gypsy is a 3-year-old something or other adopted from a neighbor whose son was allergic to dogs.

“Who knows?” Nicholson, 34, said of the breed.

The dogs are family, and they wander around their namesake shop like they own the place and bark at passersby in the shopping plaza.

Some people say black dogs are less likely to be adopted — maybe because they don’t photograph as well as their light-haired comrades, or maybe because of some weird bias.

RAL_ 20180831_bottleshop_CA_3
Steve Smith, left, and Catherine Nicholson sit for a portrait together in the space they are preparing to open their new Black Dog Bottle Shop, on Friday, Aug. 31, 2018, in Holly Springs, NC. They decided to open after Smith’s successful battle with thyroid cancer and named it after their two rescued, black dogs, Bentley and Gypsy. Casey Toth ctoth@newsobserver.com

Smith and Nicholson said they plan to partner with local animal-rescue groups to raise money for pets that need homes.

Pawfect Match, a rescue group in Holly Springs, will bring some its dogs for the grand opening, Smith said, and local breweries will have beers on tap.

If you’re in Holly Springs on Saturday, or any time, stop by Black Dog for a cold one. Toast Bentley and Gypsy, two of the coolest dogs around. Toast Smith and Nicholson, who can inspire us all to take a risk. To step out of our comfort zone.

“I’m so far outside my comfort zone, I don’t even think I could see it in my rear-view mirror,” Nicholson said. “It’s scary, but it feels awesome.”

Black Dog Bottle Shop

Address: 140 W. Holly Springs Road, Holly Springs

Facebook: www.facebook.com/BlackDogBottleShop

Grand opening: Noon to 8 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 22

Sarah Nagem: 919-829-4635; @sarah_nagem
  Comments