“It is amazing the kind of life you can live in Mississippi”
By BECKY GILLETTE
Three Laurel couples, including one whose HGTV Home Town pilot on renovating historic homes in Laurel had 2.2 million viewers, recently opened a new store downtown, Laurel Mercantile at 414 Front Street, that sells only unique items that have to reach the bar of being such high quality product that they can hardly bear to part with them.
Erin and Ben Napier’s Home Town has been made into a series that will begin airing sometime in the spring of 2017. The other business partners include Emily and Josh Nowell and Mallorie and Jim Rasberry.
“We have been friends for a long time,” Emily Nowell said. “We became friends when lived downtown in apartments on the same street. There was really no one else living downtown at that time, so we all hung out. We fell in love with the small downtown and decided when able, we were going to work to restore it. We wanted something that is old and historic with character and charm.”
Helping bring back the downtown was important to them on several levels. One is simply the importance of shopping local and supporting Mississippi crafts people.
“Mississippi used to be filled with skilled craftsmen who made things from hand,” Nowell said. “Unfortunately, in the past 30 years or so, most Americans have been more concerned with buying something cheap rather than quality goods made to be repaired and last forever. It has affected the state of the economy in Mississippi. Skilled tradesmen are out of work because people are buying things from overseas for lower prices.”
The Laurel Mercantile, which opened in early December, first sources items manufactured in Mississippi. If it can’t be found in state, it reaches out to the rest of the South and then to the rest of the U.S.
One example is their signature item that they call “gentlemen’s workwear,” flannel shirts made in a factory in Tylertown that are marketed under the Laurel Mercantile brand, Scotsman Co. The shirts run about $70.
“You can buy a name brand flannel shirt for $70, but it is made in China,” Nowell said. “We are not carrying anything you can find anywhere. Our store is very unique. The way we judge if something is correct for the store is by how hard it is for us to let it go. When it comes to our vintage quilts, it almost physically hurts to let them go.”
Laurel Mercantile is quickly becoming an attraction, not just a store. As Nowell said, it is “an experience.” And the hope is that the store also increases traffic to other downtown businesses.
“There are other merchants who have been downtown a while,” she said. “We have fed off energy already here. When people come into the store, afterward they go to the other stores downtown.”
Erin Napier calls Laurel Mercantile “a store of curiosity. There is a story behind every product. The driving theme behind everything we choose is Americana, like you have stepped back in time, but have what you need for modern life. We sell things that last forever and can be passed down to the next generation. We don’t go to markets and pick things out of catalogs to have in our store.”
Some signature products made in Mississippi include wood products made from wood that is grown and sawn in Mississippi. They carry furniture, butcher blocks, cutting boards, serving trays, coasters, rolling pins, and toys. Antiques include curated vintage collections of dishes, silverware, quilts, hatches and axes.
“We have so many stories attached to every product,” Napier said. “We hope everyone who comes to visit will take time to read the stories. We choose the products with love. They are not just beautiful and cool. The things we sell are the things we really love.”
Napier said they are also demonstrating that Mississippi is an incredible draw for young entrepreneurs.
“You can afford to live your biggest and brightest dreams because it is affordable due to our cost of goods and living being so low,” she said. “It is amazing the kind of life you can live in Mississippi.”
Ben Napier, who designs and builds furniture, said they are very selective in what they carry in their shop.
“We approached it differently than a lot of stores,” Napier said. “We are very selective in what we use and the companies we work with. We have also partnered with a lot of companies to design products and then sought out American factories to produce those for us. When we first started, Emily said she had reached point in life where she would rather not have something for a while and wait to buy a quality, American-made product as opposed to buying the cheap knockoffs.”
Jim Rasberry, one of the other partners involved, was a founding member of Laurel Main Street (http://laurelmainstreet.com/ formed in 2006.\
“Downtown Laurel at the time was really, really struggling,” Rasberry said. “There were few businesses, and lots of vacant buildings and buildings in bad repair. We three couples believe in the downtown and wanted to see it come back to life. We all opened businesses downtown and renovated buildings downtown. For such a long time, there were very few of us who believed in downtown. At the time, people thought we were crazy. It is a slow process, but in the past three to four years, it has really started to take root. We have seen the community get behind it, believe in it and be very proud of it. It has been an exciting time for us to see it all happen.”
He said it has been a pleasure to see people buying buildings, renovating them and starting new businesses downtown.
“It is a fun and exciting time in Laurel right now, and the age of the people doing this is the most exciting thing,” Rasberry said. “It is all people in their 30s and early 40s who taking the risk believing in downtown and following their dreams to launch some really unique and fun businesses. The next generation of entrepreneurs is taking the reins.”
The store also had an online store open since summer. While they want people to come to downtown Laurel, they also want their products available to the rest of the country.
“Everything is digital,” Rasberry said. “We are showing you can live in Laurel and have a business worldwide. We want to share our story with young entrepreneurs in small towns everywhere. You don’t have to move to a big city to have a big life. The whole thought is: ‘Bloom where you are planted.’ Make your downtown what you want it to be. You can do that especially in Mississippi because it is really easy and affordable. And it is a lot of fun, as well.”
Rasberry said they want to bring back not just the business district, but the historic downtown home district.
“Any city to be successful needs to have a thriving downtown,” he said. “It is the political and economic center of the town. And it is more than that. We want a successful city overall. We want to be part of a business community that is growing and not dying.”
The HGTV program has been helpful in putting Laurel on the map.
“The show definitely bolstered out-of-state tourism for Laurel in 2016,” Ben Napier said. “I think the network noticed what was already happening in Laurel and saw the potential in it. We have partnered with our downtown to make this show.”