The Downtown Savour

By Dana W. Todd
January 01, 2013

Long before malls sprouted in the suburbs, even long before department stores sprang up, local communities centered around general stores. General stores served as the Walmarts of the 1800s and early 1900s. Customers traveled into town regularly to buy a variety of items like boots, a new wool hat, sugar, rice, candy, horseshoes, medicine, cast iron skillets, and pick up the mail.

As the community hub, general store owners facilitated economic development in the “good old days” by bartering with customers – trading a laying hen for soap, for example. The general store, known as a local hangout as well as the only major retail outlet, attracted children after school to trade pennies for pieces of hard candy from the glass jars lining the walls.

It’s possible to snag a piece of that hard-to-find candy today and pick up new hiking boots at the same time. Take a drive to Main Street, where you’ll find Mast General Store, stocking 500 old-fashioned (now hard-to-find) candies displayed the same way great grandpa did in his general store. If you’re lucky enough to live on Main Street, Mast General Store is only a short stroll away.

The store opened its doors at 111 North Main Street in Greenville in 2003. Store executives followed up several years later in 2011 by opening the newest store at 1601 Main Street in Columbia. In both South Carolina locations, a Tennessee store, and throughout North Carolina where the store is headquartered, Mast General has grown from its humble roots in 1883 to nine stores today.

Mast General Store is credited with reviving the downtown retail experience wherever the management team decides to open a store. Like many struggling downtowns that suffered when the suburban migration began and expanded, most long-lived retail establishments closed their Main Street doors when their customers moved away. In the late 1990s and early 2000s when Greenville and Columbia downtown organizations and government leaders desired to revitalize Main Street by attracting new retailers, it was Mast General Stores that agreed to step in and jumpstart the process.

Mary Nase, manager of the Greenville Mast General store, says the headquarters office receives many requests for the company to open a store in downtowns across the Southeast. Before final decisions are made, company executives visit each potential location and discuss with municipalities which buildings are targeted for renovation.

“The executive team looks into the city to see if it’s growing and has established strong points,” says Smyrl. “Are there people living there? Do people want to be there? Is city government committed to revitalization?”

Each store then is renovated to fit with the original architecture and era of its unique building. In Greenville, the chosen structure housed what many know as the old Meyers-Arnold department store. Mast General refurbished the space to its original 1920s glory.

In Columbia, the company renovated a building dating back to 1884 which was occupied for decades by Lourie’s department store.

“There are a number of factors we look at when going into a downtown area,” says Mast General Store’s Columbia manager, Ruth Smyrl. “One of the most important elements we look for is ... ‘Are the pieces in place for revitalization?’”

Angela Warren, marketing director for Mast General Store, says, “Mast is passionate about helping bring downtowns back to life, and it looks specifically for opportunities to work with partners like City Center Partnership in Columbia to help revitalize an underdeveloped area and give a community their downtown back. It’s a wonderful feeling to see crowded sidewalks and happy faces where there were once abandoned buildings and empty parking spaces.”

“Mast General Store has had a transformational effect on the revitalization of Columbia’s Main Street,” says Matt Kennell, president and CEO of City Center Partnership. “This unique business is a must-visit destination for locals and visitors and has been the spark to take the already improving city core to new levels of success and prosperity, most recently evidenced by the opening of the adjacent “new” Nickelodeon Theatre, unique businesses such as Paradise Ice and the Saturday Soda City Farmers Market. The newly announced relocation of Agape Health Care’s corporate offices to the “Mast block” on Main Street will turn three formerly vacant buildings into offices, the Good Life Café restaurant, a health club, and a pharmacy.”

“We’re very community minded and try to fit into each community to bring back the buildings the way they once were,” Nase says.

Mast General Store continues to uphold the tradition of community. Customers may not come in today to gather their mail or have a cup of coffee, but they do return to purchase a wide variety of outdoor apparel, camping gear, signature mercantile items, and old-fashioned candy and enjoy the same sense of community.

“We are the center point of each community, and we still hold on to that tradition,” says Deb Lazenby, community relations manager for Mast General Store.

She says each store chooses a range of local non-profit organizations and events to sponsor financially, through volunteer work, or via no-cost publicity on store websites. Choices are usually made at the local level and fall into one of four categories: human services, arts, education, and conservation. The Columbia store, for example, partners with Riverbanks Zoo and Harvest Hope Food Bank while the Greenville store helps with Upstate Forever and United Ministries.

Just as in the past where general stores served as a hub of activity, Mast General Store has become a destination all by itself, drawing visitors to the Main Street corridor who make a weekend of it and spend their dollars supporting other local businesses, too.

“The new skating rink is bringing a lot of traffic downtown,” says Smyrl. “We see wet knees coming in the store on Saturday afternoons.”

“We pay attention to ‘What else would our customers like to do while they’re in town?’” says Lazenby. That philosophy drives the company’s choice of local partners in addition to corporate philanthropic initiatives such as its annual Coat Drive.

The company also fosters a sense of community and revitalization through its corporate culture of strong, friendly, positive customer service, says Smyrl.

“We are not a chain but a family group of stores,” she says.

The current owners include majority stakeholders John and Faye Cooper, who reopened the store in 1980 after a three-year hiatus, and the employees themselves. The Coopers are only the third set of owners in the company’s 130-year history.

Although both general managers confirm there are other locations in the works, they are mum on the details for now until a deal is finalized.

“We are growing like crazy and pleased with our business,” Nase says. “We were accepted and welcomed with open arms and have become a tourist destination.”

Where to Find Mast General Stores

  • Asheville, NC
  • Boone, NC
  • Columbia, SC
  • Greenville, SC
  • Hendersonville, NC
  • Knoxville, TN
  • Valle Crucis, NC (original location and Annex)
  • Waynesville, NC

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