They say, “write what you know.” For Karen Barrs, owner of Little England Mercantile, “buy what you love,” might be a better fit. That’s how the Newport News native started shopping for the eclectic “provisions with purpose” that now fill her charming retail store in Gloucester Point and its newest location at the Virginia Beach Oceanfront.
What began as an idea for a seasonal holiday shop selling fresh greenery and jams as an extension of Little England Farm, the historic property on the York River in Gloucester Barrs and her husband Steve bought and restored 10 years ago, morphed into something much more.
“I started thinking about what I go shopping for,” Barrs explains while tucked into an upholstered chair, handcrafted by Hickory, North Carolina-based CR Laine, on the sales floor at the Virginia Beach store. “What do I need? And I just started going to markets and basically collecting those things.”
Taking a leap of faith into her first retail venture, she stuck to items that suited her taste, she jokes, just in case she ended up with them. And she focused on unique pieces, the kind you can’t find at Target or Home Goods. From that CR Laine custom upholstery line that is still a mainstay to art, glassware, lamps, decorative items, women’s accessories, seasonal décor and Barr’s favorite, rugs: “Rugs are my thing. If we could only sell one thing, it would be rugs for me.”
In each key product area, Barrs notes, she offers three price points—“good, better and best.” With rugs, for example, strong basic pieces are complemented by the slightly higher end Dash & Alberts, wools and indoor-outdoors, while in the “best” category are the one-of-a-kind, hand-knotted Ushaks. In the same vein with art, both stores sell prints, giclées and originals.
But it’s not just the things for sale inside the stores that have driven Barrs and her team of “Merc girls,” as she calls them, over these last five years. One of her key motivations for opening the original location was to inspire the community and help bring some life to the Gloucester Point area, which had languished on the economic development front over the past several decades.
The idea took off. Barrs purchased the shopping center at the corner of Tidemill Road and Route 17, across from Scoot’s BBQ, and, in addition to Little England Mercantile, populated it with a thriving cluster of local small businesses.
A few months after the original store’s debut, she remembers, a customer came in to purchase a pair of chairs for her home office before asking Barrs if she might be willing to come to her home and suggest where the chairs should sit. That simple request led to a major design project: “We ended up redoing the entire house down to the paper towels on the paper towel rack—furnishing, remodeling, everything.”
That’s how the Mercantile’s home design side of the business was born and how Barrs and her designer Carly Paxton became a dream team. Having grown up with a love of sawdust as the daughter of a builder, Barrs’ passion is in the functionality and form of the home while Paxton “wraps everything in a burrito of love” when it comes to the aesthetics of a design project.
With design clients from Richmond to Virginia Beach and her husband’s contracting and materials businesses with multiple regional locations, Barrs says opening a second Mercantile store at the Oceanfront felt like a natural fit.
She is still figuring out the vibe of shop number two, which opened a year ago in a former bank (look for the old vault) in the Beach Tower building near the intersection of 34th and Pacific: “I love a space that’s not quite cookie-cutter, so when I saw this space, I thought, ‘I can totally do this.’”
But “eclectic” certainly still fits. Stop into either location where new merch comes in every week. Christmas is big at the Mercantile, so look for great gifts items and everything you need to deck the halls in fab fashion.
Learn more at LittleEnglandFarm.com.