Mercantile on Main has stood test of time as ‘co-op’ format retailer
By Louis Hoglund
What do you need to maintain a vibrant downtown shopping district, in a small town?
At least three retail shops—plus a coffee joint.
Mercantile on Main is one of those “puzzle pieces” that form the jigsaw puzzle—and it is marking its tenth anniversary this month.
The store is a unique cooperative-format store, featuring more than a dozen area vendors, artisans and crafters.
One of the founders, Kathy Knuteson, recalled that, back in 2011, the core group of about nine weren’t sure if it would get through one summer. But the Mercantile has stood the test of time.
The crew will be celebrating June 10-11, and all month long.
The idea of a retail “co-op” originated when Judy Tabbut and Melanie Michels attended an economic development workshop, which stressed the importance of a “creative shop” to help anchor a downtown district.
Because of the co-op approach, Mercantile has one of the most unique retail inventory mixes in the region—most of the merchandise handcrafted.
“The local people have been so supportive,” said Tabbut. And, tourists and summer residents have also been loyal customers. The store has a steady draw from the lakes, Fergus Falls and the Fargo -Moorhead area. In the summer, more than 50 percent of the store’s volume comes from loyal seasonal residents and visitors, estimated Tabbut.
The store moved around a couple times in the early months, including a stint in what is now Escobar’s Mexican restaurant.
When the city built the all new liquor store, the main street liquor storefront was open.
For $22,000, the Mercantile group bought the present building—and the debt was paid off in early 2018.
Renovation was extensive. While there was some construction debt, the store was built in large part by donated materials and volunteer labor. The entire interior was completely gutted.
“We did a lot of dumpster diving,” laughed Judy. The crew scrounged for materials, including fixtures from the former Good Samaritan care facility.
Though some of the city council members were skeptical at the time, the city kicked in $1,000 from its economic development account. Bell Bank donated to legal services, which officially set up the cooperative framework. Under the arrangement with vendor-members, the store “charges” 20 percent, while the vendor takes 80 percent. The operation has generated enough revenue to pay off most of the debt, cover overhead costs, and make improvements over the years.
There were about 21 vendors initially, a decade ago. “It has fluctuated a bit, but the core group has remained,” said Knuteson, noting that there are still nine orignal members.
Vendors rotate shifts at the counter and sales floor
“People were so generous in helping—otherwise we never would have made it,” said Kathy Knuteson, who is also current president of the mercantile board.
The Mercantile expanded for a few summers to Cormorant Village, until the lease went to another retailer.
Even though the Cormorant outlet was basically a break-even proposition, it promoted the Mercantile and drew loyal customers to the downtown store—which was a boost not only the Mercantile, but also the downtown Pelican business district.
“It turned out to be great advertising for the Pelican store and downtown Pelican,” said Judy.
Mercantile managed through the COVID pandemic, though with limited hours. But the unique store is poised to roar back this summer, along with other merchants and businesses in downtown Pelican Rapids.