The nondescript white building stood alongside Main Street, a family of white metal goats keeping watch by the front door. I was a passenger in a car that was pulling into the adjoining gravel parking lot. The driver had an errand to run inside, and I was the unwilling party she was dragging along.
The building is Merchants on Main, a rugged brick structure that houses around two dozen small retail businesses offering a variety of items. Waiting in the car appealed to me less than browsing the merchandise, so I followed the driver in, prepared to amble aimlessly while trying to not think about the work that waited for me at the office.
The moment I stepped through the front door, I forgot all about my work and lackadaisical attitude. It was one of those “cool” moments you never forget.
I was in a small space just inside the front door, staring at tables and shelves filled with more items than I could absorb in a single sweep. A circular rack of bizarre socks caught my attention, and I was soon caught up in reading the humorous sayings on each one. “I love you, weirdo” said one. I laughed out loud. “Perfect!” I thought as I snatched it up.
A collection of soap bars, each one with a cartoon and a clever saying on the package, caught my eye next. I grabbed a bar that said: “You’re beautiful. Don’t change.”
And just like that, I’d been drawn in by the Merchants on Main spell.
Although the first two pieces of merchandise I decided to buy were novelty items, Merchants on Main is not a novelty store. It’s not a gift store, either, although if you’re having trouble finding a present for someone, you’d probably stand a better chance of finding something there than you would at the mall. It’s more of an eclectic shopping experience. It’s as though the retailers have hidden within their displays items tailored specifically to strike a chord in you.
I lost track of time as I strolled from one room to the next. I felt a sense of anticipation and exploration as I wondered what each new area would offer, and what I would see as I turned the corner. The owner, Missy Steiner, was tucked behind the checkout counter wrapping presents for customers, and cheerfully offered to hold the items I was carrying as I continued to browse.
It would be easier to list the items not offered at Merchants on Main. Filling every nook and cranny were clothes, jewelry, handmade purses, refurbished furniture, gourmet foods, home décor, greeting cards, lamps, pottery, candles, antiques, and more. I especially liked the old license plates that had been repurposed into artwork shaped like guitars, a pig with wings, and a Tennessee Vols logo. Steiner caught up with me at one point and said new stuff comes in on a weekly basis. “We’re never the same store twice,” she said.
My favorite area was Refinery 423 Mercantile, an area of products for men. Owners Carl Greene and Keith Wooten were there stocking their shelves with Tennessee Whiskers and Lucky Scruff, beard products made in-state.
“These products appeal to me, so why not offer them?” Wooten, a thickly bearded man, said.
The slightly whiskered Greene is a financial advisor by trade, while Wooten works at the Chattanooga Auction House. Refinery 423 Mercantile is the product of their dream to own a small retail business. They’ve hit on a great idea, and I spent several minutes poring over their hot sauces, men’s bags, and other thoughtfully selected merchandise, much of which can’t be found elsewhere in Chattanooga.
My need to return to the office cut my time at Merchants on Main short. But as I left, gift bags in hand, I felt exhilarated. Merchants on Main is a true Chattanooga treasure, one that’s packed with charm and exciting discoveries. I don’t shop, and I especially don’t browse, and Steiner’s store roped me into doing both. I’m looking forward to going back and seeing what else I discover. Plus, Refinery 423 Mercantile has stocked up on Pimento Cheese Chips, and I know someone who would love a bag!
To see more photos, pick up a copy of this week's Hamilton County Herald.