Ben and Erin Napier, the Laurel natives who are co-stars of the HGTV television show “Home Town,” first began filming in the downtown area in 2016. When they discovered the building that now houses Laurel Mercantile Co. (414 Front St., Laurel), it had long since fallen into disrepair after the furniture store it once housed closed down in the 1960s. Inside, the industrial orange-brick building was completely bare, with only an old-fashioned pulley freight elevator as evidence of the building’s age.
Laurel Mercantile Co. originally opened in 1901, built near the train tracks on Front Street in what was then one of the busiest parts of the town. In those days, merchants gathered there to sell dry goods and work wares. The construction of new roads and the shifting of industries that came about in the 1930s led the old goods to dry up, and the old streets to fall into disuse. Over time, a good portion of downtown Laurel followed suit, leading to numerous closed businesses and empty and abandoned buildings.
“When I first moved to Laurel 15 years ago, the downtown area only had a few businesses and government offices left,” Emily Nowell, co-owner and vice president of operations of Laurel Mercantile Co., says. “Back then you never saw anyone out and about there after 5 p.m., and it was a desolate and sad sight to see. When Ben and Erin saw this building, however, they saw the potential for a landing spot for people coming into downtown. Since they had full-time jobs elsewhere, they also knew they wouldn’t be able to make that happen alone.”
Downtown Laurel Revitalization
In search of a solution, the Napiers reached out to some of their friends, real-estate developers Jim and Mallorie Rasberry and entrepreneur Josh Nowell. TTogether they launched a grassroots organization called Laurel Main Street with the goal of bringing together the community to revitalize the downtown area. They began with restoring the two-story Laurel Mercantile building, leaving the old-fashioned elevator and original ceiling paneling as decorative features, but otherwise modernizing the complex with new shelving and green-stained concrete flooring.
Since 2016, the three families and Laurel residents have managed to restore more than 60,000 square feet of commercial space and at least 40 historic homes, and have overseen the opening of roughly 25 businesses. After reopening Laurel Mercantile Co., the group introduced a branch store called Scotsman General Store & Woodshop (1 Spec Wilson, Laurel) in 2018, where Ben Napier also regularly films furniture-building segments for “Home Town.”
In 2021, Laurel Mercantile launched an event called “Mississippi Made” to both celebrate the restoration of downtown Laurel and promote local vendors who do not have storefronts of their own to display their creations.
“We had actually had this idea in the works as far back as 2015, before we officially launched,” Nowell says. “One of our company goals was to have a rotating event schedule that would give people a variety of reasons to come downtown on multiple trips.”
However, the pandemic meant that Laurel Mercantile had to postpone any plans for large gatherings. By 2021, after conditions had improved somewhat, Nowell and other company heads decided that an outdoor vendor market would be the best approach to more safely introduce visitors to small-business owners.
After the outdoor market proved to be a success, the group decided to make it a recurring event. Laurel Mercantile hosts the vendor event multiple times each year. The next Mississippi Made is set for Saturday, June 11, with another on Sept. 3, 2022, and more planned for 2023.
‘Outdoor Showcase for Mississippi Artisans Like Me’
Mississippi Made will feature at least 15 vendors representing small businesses from across the state, selling everything from pottery and woodcrafts to handmade soaps and jewelry. Visitors can play games such as cornhole and collect stamps from each participating vendor they shop with on a passport for the chance to win prizes from Laurel Mercantile.
“When we started up this event last year, our goal was to create the perfect atmosphere for people to come and see all the beautiful things we have here in downtown Laurel now and promote our state’s local makers as well,” Lindsay Miller, content strategist for Laurel Mercantile, says. “Mississippi Made gives them the chance to share their stories and to let visitors know just why it is that they create what they do.”
Vendors will have outdoor booths in the Laurel Mercantile yard from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. The event is free to enter and will also feature a food-truck park in front of Scotsman General Store.
Wells Lazy Acres, a Laurel-based honey producer that retired nurse Judy Wells operates, will feature a bee display and teach visitors how to care for bees and harvest honey.
Another Laurel-based small business taking part in Mississippi Made is Novi Creations, which made an appearance during season five of “Home Town” in 2021. Owner Shauna Stocksdale specializes in handmade copper crafts, bowls, jewelry and more.
“Mississippi Made is a great little outdoor showcase for Mississippi artisans like me,” Stocksdale says. “The new venue the ‘Home Town’ folks set up is quaint, close to home and helps other businesses set up here. There’s been a lot more activity and energy in downtown Laurel since the restoration, and that only encourages more creativity and draws more people out to visit us.”
Elizabeth Fanslow, another vendor for the event, is a former business consultant who decided to go into business for herself after the COVID-19 pandemic made traveling to meet with clients for her former job difficult. She opened Be Amazing Paper Company, a store in downtown Laurel that sells stationery, journals, books, candles, cards and more in August 2021.
“When we arrived here and started looking for a place to set up, we found a downtown that was vibrant thanks to the restoration effort the folks here went through,” Fanslow says. “The attention the Napiers, Rasberrys and Nowells have brought to downtown is a boon to tourism, which is a boon for small-business owners and locals as well. Getting people to come and see downtown is the key to keeping small businesses successful.”
Other participating vendors include Hattiesburg ceramicist and artist Vixon Sullivan; Emma Wilder Farm, where owners Barry and Kimberly Broome raise bees and Nubian goats and create soaps made from goat milk, oats, honey and beeswax; Laurel ceramicist Harley Perdue; A Wood Working, a shop in Aberdeen, Miss., where Terry Woods makes handmade wooden toys; Blessings and Hugs Woodworking by Laurel natives Don and Kathie Scott; Free State Bowls by Steven Crawford; Jackson-based calligrapher J. Graham Designs; handmade stained glass from students at Jones County Junior College; hand-painted signs and home decor from Laken Cole Designs; handmade dog treats from Jones Bones owner Rena Register; Starkville-based custom art from Hi Yall! Made in the South; landscape photographer David W. Smith of David Wayne Shoots; Hattiesburg-based Amber Spence Pottery; Buff City Soap and bath accessories; ‘Siply Good Tea; Coastal Cookie Creations and more.
Saturday’s event starts at 10 a.m. and lasts until 4 p.m. on June 11. Laurel Mercantile Co.’s next Mississippi Made event is scheduled for Saturday, Sept. 3, between those same hours. For more information on Laurel Mercantile, Mississippi Made or participating vendors, call 601-804-2288 or visit laurelmercantile.com.