By Natalie Hope McDonald
Since 1883 Mast General Store has been a hub for pioneers heading south to the Carolinas. The flagship shop and headquarters in Valle Crucis, N.C., a once bustling community that actually had the pleasure of boasting two general stores and one of the region’s first car dealerships, is still a place where families pass through on vacation or just going about their daily lives.
Today, after many different owners and incarnations, Mast is going stronger than ever since John and Faye Cooper took over in 1980. Each of the locations is known around these parts as being “the store that has everything” – it’s a reputation they take very seriously.
According to Sheri Moretz, a spokesperson for Mast, there are actually 10 stores operating now in nine different communities. “Each one is a little different from the others,” she said.” In fact, Mast has a partnership with a Rivercross Made in USA buyer based out of a gallery located right next to the Original Mast General Store in Valle Crucis, N.C. Rivercross “features all made-in-the-USA products,” she said, “including pottery, weaving, photography, candles, leather goods, metalwork and jewelry. Some of it is made within a rock’s throw of the front door.”
Different Mast locations carry vastly different merchandise depending on customer demand in each town. But when it comes to jewelry, Moretz said that earrings, bracelets and necklaces tend to be popular across the board. Some of the jewelry is made from sterling silver, while other pieces feature glass beads, wooden beads and semi-precious stones.
“We also carry some items made by a couple of local potters with pieces of pottery used on earrings, bracelets and necklaces,” said Moretz. For men, a line of high-end leather cuffs with metal details is also available from Colonel Littleton. Still other pieces include silver and copper designs. “We have, from time to time, carried spoon rings and bracelets,” said Moretz. “And we have a local silversmith that makes simple sterling silver rings in several patterns in sizes from two (or smaller) and up. They are perfect for baby’s first rings.”
The jewelry being sold, said Moretz, is selected based on its design and price point.
Also, in the case of Mast Store locations, she said, “we try to keep in mind that our locations are different – some are more small town while others are more metropolitan – that also figures into what we might select for those locations.”
Moretz said vendors regularly visit buyers at the shop’s headquarters in Valle Crucis. Shop buyers also attend trade and craft shows around the country to see what may best fit into the Mast tradition.
“Our customer base is made up of locals, visitors and tourists, and college students,” said Moretz. “Their preferences vary greatly, but because we offer attractive price point options in different types of jewelry, they can all find something that fits their tastes and budgets.”
The most popular pieces being sold these days are the earring/necklace ensembles. “Their price points are dead on,” said Moretz, “and the designs range from fun to elegant.”
A lot of the pieces that are made by hand are also great sellers because they often have a local connection and offer something that’s one of a kind. It makes Mast stand out from other chain stores in the region. What you get here is quality and uniqueness.
“As an overall buying strategy for the whole store,” Moretz explained, “we try to buy local first, then regional, then Made in the USA, then international.” In the jewelry area, local artists tend to sell well. The potter who makes jewelry using the pottery mentioned earlier visits a few times each year for a trunk show in Greenville. “She brings items that we don’t carry and interacts with our guests,” said Moretz. “Her in-store shows are typically around Mother’s Day and during Christmas time.”
Another popular jewelry designer, who lives in nearby Boone, combines stones with fossils in settings that are reasonably priced. “About half of our jewelry is made in the USA,” said Moretz. “Lots of it is fair trade and some of it supports a cause – it could be cancer research, education, etc.”
One of the buyers for Mast, Tracey Thompson, said that over the years she has developed a great sense of what customers have come to expect from the retail experience, one that may hark back more than a century but still requires a certain foresight into fresh, contemporary trends.
“I’ve found that women like to accessorize with beautiful statement pieces,” said Thompson. “Some are large and bold and others are more delicate and intricate. Our guests like to spend their money on original handmade pieces, and the more local, the better – not just for our visitors from out of state but also for our local community guests, as well.”
Thompson’s confident that people tend to take a lot of time and pride in making a jewelry purchase for themselves or a loved one, and this is especially true when the product is made locally. “We are proud to offer that,” she said, “along with building great relationships with the artists.”
Nostalgia for the Next Generation
At the Boston General Store with locations in Dedham and Brookline, Mass., the ambiance captures days gone by, and the memories the owner had of her beloved childhood summers in the Berkshires. Punctuated by functional, high-quality goods made by crafters from around the world, the shop is a welcoming oasis from the sometimes overproduced and mass-marketed merchandise glut often found at big chains.
Since the first shop opened in 2013, Owner April Gabriel has been interested in cultivating a nod to the past in a fresh way, thanks to top-quality merchandise in a warm and approachable atmosphere.
“Just as traditional general stores of years past did,” she said, “I also hope to develop a connection with the communities we serve. These traits once played large roles in places like the Western Massachusetts town my grandparents built their families in, but today have all but disappeared.”
She is bringing these old-fashioned notions of quality and service back – and quite successfully with two busy locations during a time that can be tough for any retailer.
Walking into either location is like visiting the past, if the past were super stylish. Here, customers find everything from straw fedoras and woolen Mill City scarves to handsome leather totes and neckties made from vintage fabrics.
“We don’t really sell jewelry,” said Gabriel, but the shop does specialize in a range of wearable accessories, including hats and mittens. Other popular items include trail socks, brass Maxx & Unicorn key rings and sturdy bags by Bradley Mountain.
A lot of the wearable items in the shop are unisex, so they tend to appeal to a wider demographic. And Gabriel said of late she has been introducing vintage items into the mix, things like fisherman’s sweaters, vintage tees and bomber jackets. The vintage pieces are all one of a kind, though there seems to be at least a few Woolrich coats with the trademark red and black watch plaid that are going fast. Don’t be surprised to also find a vintage Harvard sweatshirt, or even a line of old-school shaving products from Perma Brands.
Using Technology for Buying Better Product
At the Green Harbor General Store in Marshfield, Mass., customers have been coming in for odds and ends for more than 100 years. While some loyalists show up for the fresh homemade soups and deli dishes, others are looking for cold beer and gifts – it’s the ultimate general store with a selection of just about everything, even pet food.
The shop’s Spokesperson Deborah Habel said that she’s been busy refreshing the Genny Boutique at the store by adding new merchandise for the spring and summer.
“Our most popular items are hats, sweatshirts and T-shirts with the Green Harbor name or GH insignia,” she explained. “We have repeat customers, so I like to look for new items to carry.”
The shop attracts both locals and tourists, which means that stocking the boutique can be good for business. “I have a couple of favorite vendors for some items,” Habel explained, “but I am always looking for new ideas and what is popular in the current marketplace. I look for the best quality for the money.”
She said her customers tend to be from the country and are quite frugal. They don’t want to pay Boston or even Cape Cod prices for items, especially not the gear they most want boasting the Green Harbor name.
It’s not always easy to find a balance between quality and price, she admitted.
“Since we are a small shop, I don’t have room for quantity, so I can’t always take advantage of volume discounts,” said Habel. “With technology, it is easier to buy and shop online, as well as communicate with my vendors. However, there is nothing better than to touch and feel the product before you purchase thousands of dollars worth of merchandise that you hope your customers will like. It’s a gamble, for sure.”
She said that one of the ways she makes smart and profitable purchases is by working with vendors she trusts. “Having a good vendor to work with, someone who knows your customer profile, knows what is hot in the market place and keeps your best interests in mind,” she said, “is key and a valuable asset to a small business like ours.”