Recapturing the Magic of the Small Town General Store

Like the general store that came before it, District Mercantile is fast becoming a powerful community hub that attracts residents of varying ages and life experiences. It also appeals to visitors.

Step inside the shop, and feel the cozy fusion of nostalgia and modern life. The space has quickly become one of those places where locals drop in regularly -- and where tourists visit before leaving town. It’s exactly what the Perdues were hoping for when they opened the business in August after months of planning and renovation.

“We were really drawn to this project,” says Onnie. “Here was this beautiful old building on Ferdinand Street for sale where the town’s general store used to be. At first, we thought about fixing it up and renting it for commercial space, but we fell in love with it and decided to take it on as a project.”

Charlie and Onnie Perdue at the mercantile's main gathering space

St. Francisville’s original mercantile was likely founded around 1890, says Onnie. Like other main street general stores across America, the store was a community anchor -- chock-full of kitchen goods, farming supplies and other household staples. Centrally located in the heart of town, it was a spot where residents purchased sundries, absorbed local news and connected with one another.

As life changed in St. Francisville and the United States, mom-and-pop stores withered under various Twentieth Century influences like big-box stores,suburban malls and online shopping. But while these experiences lured patrons with convenience and competitive pricing, they failed to deliver an intangible benefit– the satisfaction of interacting with others in a meaningful gathering spot.

Now, there’s a quiet movement afoot to recapture the role that the general store once played at the heart of a community. Modern versions selling a combination of eclectic, historic, and everyday products, in an environment that encourages conversation and personal connection, have established a foothold across the U.S. in major cities and small towns alike. In this region, the Felicianas Store in Jackson, Louisiana, the Onward Store in Rolling Fork, Mississippi, and the formidable two-story Kaffie-Frederick General Mercantile Store in downtown Natchitoches have all found customers responding to the combination of a memorable retail experience and community gathering place. It’s what old-time general stores used to provide, and it turns out modern day shoppers like it, too.

At District Mercantile, a cross-section of St. Francisville residents and out-of-town visitors file in for handcrafted vintage toys and modern gifts by regional artisans. Teenagers drop by after school to visit and sip coffee. Children delight over the displays of retro candy and a freezer filled with Bomb Pops, Push-ups and ice cream sandwiches. On weekends, patrons munch on donuts, kolaches and breakfast burritos before heading out to the many athletic or cultural events happening around town.

District Mercantile is also becoming a powerful magnet for visitors to West Feliciana. Onnie says about half the patrons thus far are tourists. Many riverboat and weekend visitors mark their visit to St. Francisville with some District Mercantile’s “merch,” especially the rooster weathervane t- shirts in hip hues.

District Mercantile's own line of merchandise

The Perdues opened the store through a Bank of St. Francisville Home Equity Line of Credit which helped fund the purchase and curate their retail shelves with a carefully chosen selection of vintage and modern items. They made a thoughtful decision on what to do with the back half of the large store. Generous square footage allowed them to bring in several antique vendor booths, which generates rental revenue for the couple, while also giving shoppers a broader shopping experience under one roof. 

Onnie says the public’s response to District Mercantile has surpassed their expectations.

“We’ve been so supported by community,” she says. “Everyone seems to think that the store really meets a need. They recognize that it’s not just the goods inside, but the experience of being here.”

Further Reading