What better way to show appreciation for The Mercantile’s past than invest in its future?
“It’s a cornerstone of downtown Portage,” said Tracy Cooper, who along with her daughter, Olivia Fuqua, purchased the cooperative’s building from Mila Stahl in February.
“We didn’t want one of the more iconic pieces of Portage to go away,” Fuqua said of The Mercantile, which is located on East Cook Street and involves 11 businesses.
Cooper and Fuqua own and operate BonBon and Bordeaux on DeWitt Street, a short walk from their new venture. They opened their boutique in 2016.
Their plans for The Mercantile pay heed to Portage residents who don’t yet frequent the cooperative as much as those who already do, the new owners said. In other words, Cooper and Fuqua hope certain changes will modernize the cooperative and bring in more visitors.
“It’s a big vision,” Fuqua said of plans that so far include interior painting, showcasing “Artists of the Month,” renovating upstairs storage space for cooking classes and other artist events, and possibly adding a soup-and-salad café. The new owners already reorganized displays and brought in new merchandise for their new store — “Bon Appetit” — which sells bulk candy, as well as cooking ingredients and home decorations.
“BonBon will stay what it is,” Fuqua said of the gourmet wine store that, when it comes to its foods, is focused on cheeses and chocolates and other items that pair with wine.
At Bon Appetit, food options are more “kid-friendly,” she said.
The Mercantile already hosts classes taught by local artists, but Cooper and Fuqua want to boost attendance for them, primarily with better advertising. “We want people to know we’re a store that supports Portage artists and the local economy — for people to come in and love it as much as we do,” Fuqua said.
“We’re doing slow changes, for most part. I really don’t want to rush anybody,” Cooper said.
The Mercantile is a collective effort and will stay that way, both mother and daughter emphasized.
That “cooperative nature” is what makes The Mercantile so unique to Portage, offered Marianne Hanson, executive director of the Portage Area Chamber of Commerce, which held a ribbon-cutting ceremony for the new owners Thursday. “It really showcases what you can do when you work together, and I think that’s what makes The Mercantile business what it is.”
The Mercantile first opened for business in June 2005. The family of Pat Atkinson had long ago operated the department store, Atkinson’s, in the same building, where today Atkinson operates The Cubby Hole in The Mercantile. The building later housed a hardware store, and then Northwoods Inc. — which assists people with disabilities — had sold soup, sandwiches and gift baskets there.
“It has always been a store with lots of goods and items for customers, and we want to carry that on with local artists and keep it a Portage store,” Fuqua said.
Cooper said: “The artists are amazing. We’re always getting in a lot of new and interesting products,” including glass-infused products in Peg Napralla’s store, vases made from tree roots in Tom Dugan’s store, children’s items from multiple vendors and a variety of food choices located at the back of the store — an area the new owners called “the kitchen.”
“We have all kinds of goodies,” Cooper said.
The Mercantile remains “a great opportunity for entrepreneurs,” Hanson said, especially for those who want to start a business but haven’t yet reached the point of brick and mortar.
“We really want to revive downtown, and I think The Mercantile is one of the pivotal points to that,” Fuqua said. “There are so many stores downtown, and we want the draw for visitors and tourists.”