By David Laprad
Chattanooga has some wicked cool stores that cater to particular tastes and needs. Chalk it up to entrepreneurial spirit or a healthy local economy – or both – but downtown alone is packed with unique shops that seem to have sprung wholly formed out of fertile creative minds. One especially interesting new retailer is Refinery 423 Mercantile, which offers select goods for men.
Housed within a refurbished passenger car parked behind the Chattanooga Choo-Choo hotel, Refinery 423 is similar to a retail version of a man cave, only without the big a-- television and mini-fridge stocked with domestic beer. What they have instead is a Big A-- Brick of Soap from Duke Cannon Supply Co., and stitched koozies you can slip over a bottle of beer – domestic or imported.
Don’t get the wrong idea; Refinery 423 isn’t stocked solely with items that celebrate the uncouth tendencies of males, but there are enough of those products to make browsing the store’s shelves fun. The mildly suggestive Goorin farm hats come to mind (one sports a woodpecker boring a hole in the tree, but the lettering drops the “wood”), as does the Throne Spray, which is both funny and practical.
In spite of its kitschy nuances, Refinery 423 has a casual but tasteful vibe. You won’t find silk ties, gold cufflinks, or Fedoras by Stetson, but you will find skinny ties by Lord and Lady, cufflinks by Wanderlust and Wolf (a Chattanooga-based venture), and handkerchiefs by Dapper Dude. These and the other items sold at Refinery 423 fit comfortably into a single category broadly defined as modern rustic.
When co-proprietors Keith Wooten and Carl Greene dreamed up Refinery 423 seven years ago, they wanted to put together a shop that targeted men and offered small batch items from small businesses. To this end, they sell hand-made hot sauce from Hoff & Pepper, organic lip balm from Lucky Bastard Co., and handcrafted bracelets by Canoe. For patrons who prefer to buy local, Refinery 423 offers a line of handcrafted and naturally dyed pocket squares by Love Virginia Ruth.
Wooten and Greene also sell several lines of men’s apothecary, most of which have names that leave no room for mistaking them for a women’s beauty product, including beard oil from Tennessee Whiskers, beer soap from Damn Handsome Grooming Co., and Rock & Roll Suicide Face Scrub from Triumph & Disaster. (Hand horns!) To make it onto a shelf at Refinery 423, a grooming product must first pass the Wooten test. Wooten, who sports a well-groomed beard, tries these products personally, and sells only those that earn his stamp of approval.
This approach gives Refinery 423 a highly curated inventory. Wooten and Greene don’t just find a product line they like and sell it wholesale; rather, they pick and choose the items that impress them the most. While browsing the store with both gentlemen on a recent Friday afternoon, Greene pointed out their line of candles from We Took To The Woods. Out of the nearly two dozen scents the South Carolina company produces, Refinery 423 sells just a few outdoors scents and a masculine whiskey scent. Someone must have told Wooten and Greene that their target customers don’t like to browse.
I’m definitely not a browser. When I enter a store, I have laser-beam focus, and am committed to getting in and out and quickly as I can. But something interesting happened as I made my way through Refinery 423: I looked at everything – the bottle openers made out of two-by-fours acquired from demolished buildings in Detroit, Mich.; the key holder that works like a Swiss Army Knife; and the bottle openers made out of naturally shed antlers.
I was able to relax and enjoy looking through the store because Wooten and Greene do like to browse, and have already done the hard work for me. They have spent untold hours searching for products online, and like the stars of a TV reality show, have gone on countless trips to pick through the mountains of the south on their quest to find goods they like. Both men said searching for merchandise is their favorite part of running Refinery 423.
Refinery 423 isn’t their hobby, though. Wooten and Greene took a deliberate and measured approach as they devised what the store would be, and have poured a considerable amount of sweat equity into it. They started Refinery 423 as a pop-up at Merchants on Main last December. The concept was an instant success, so Wooten and Greene expanded into their own space at Merchants in January. (It’s still there, and sells a different selection of products.) When Adam Kinsey, president of the Choo-Choo’s parent company, Choo-Choo Partners, approached them about launching a shop at the hotel, they saw it as a door opening to the next stage of their dream to expand Refinery 423 to multiple locations.
With the Choo-Choo undergoing substantial renovations aimed at turning it into a major Scenic City attraction, Wooten and Greene are rolling up their sleeves to make Refinery 423 a one-of-a-kind destination not just for tourists staying at the hotel but for local residents as well. Greene, a financial advisor with Lawson Winchester Wealth Management, is keeping his day job, but still putting in a lot of hours at the store. Wooten, who previously worked for Chattanooga Auction Company, is working in-store seven days a week.
Wooten is barely breaking a sweat, though, and not because his manly man deodorant is working overtime to keep him dry; instead, he and Greene seem to be tapping into the unseen energy stream that courses through Chattanooga and feeds the efforts of dreamers who want their businesses, nonprofits, and other endeavors to succeed, grow, and give back.
The giving back part is important to Wooten and Greene, who have developed a specific business ethic for Refinery 423. Many of their products have a story about the positive things the company that produced them is doing. For example, when someone purchases a bar of Duke Cannon soap, a portion of the proceeds goes to causes that support military veterans.
Even the few mass produced items Refinery 423 sells have an uplifting story behind them. The STATE backpacks from Brooklyn, N.Y., are an excellent example. When you purchase one of the beautifully crafted bags, one is hand-delivered to a student growing up in an underfunded American neighborhood. I like being able to do a little good when I shop.
For all of their focus on men, Wooten and Greene haven’t forgotten about the ladies. While I was there, a family of four took their time eyeballing the shop’s wares, and the mom found more than a few items of interest. Not only will women enjoy many of the products on sale at Refinery 423, but the retailer makes an excellent gift shopping destination.
The small business community in Chattanooga has been producing one diamond after another, and Refinery 423 is a nicely cut gem. It’s certainly worth an exploratory visit. While you’re there, you could grab a bite at Silver Diner Pizza and drinks at Back Stage Bar, and make an evening of it. Just don’t expect to see a “Boys only” sign hanging on the outside. It’s a business, not a clubhouse, and Wooten and Greene will gladly accept money from purses as well as wallets.