The Mercantile in Lewisburg celebrates 40 years in business

·5 min read

Oct. 17—For Laurie Slear, business is personal.

Slear owns The Mercantile in downtown Lewisburg, which marks its 40th anniversary this month.

She began working there as a young mother, quickly came to manage the shop, and in 2005, purchased the business and the building that houses it at 319 Market St.

Her mother, Gloria Walters, once worked at the store. Her father, the late Harold Walters, even worked in the building in the 1950s when Bechtel's Dairy operated its ice cream parlor out of the storefront. A black-and-white photo of her father behind the counter hangs near Slear's register.

Slear is proud of The Mercantile's place in Lewisburg's vibrant downtown but uncertain about the store's future.

The continuing pandemic is squeezing small business owners on all fronts and online shopping is an omnipotent threat. Market Street is a day-trip destination in the Valley, but unlike her predecessor, Hilda "Dee" Clemens, Slear doesn't have a successor in-house.

"I always thought that I would have someone working for me as I had for Hilda," Slear said of the original owner, who opened Pennsylvania Mercantile in 1981 with her husband, Christopher. "I would love to have a successor so it could keep going when I'm ready to step away. I can't do this forever."

Slear spent most of her life in the retail industry. Her grandmother, Helen Lyons, owned and operated a self-named gift shop for 30 years at 335 Market St., now home to The Cookie Dude. Slear spent countless hours there, playing as a child and helping as she approached her teenage years. Lyons sold the business when Slear was 13. An impression was already set.

Slear studied retail merchandising in college. In 1985, just 3 months after giving birth, Dee hired Slear, then 23, to work at Pennsylvania Mercantile. Dee served as a mentor for Slear. She began managing the store not long after being hired, handling all aspects of operations over the next 20 years. It was tremendous preparation for the inevitable.

"She was 80 years old when she sold it to me. I was 43 when I took over. She was very much a mother to me," Slear said.

Pennsylvania Mercantile initially only offered home goods.

In time, that changed. So did the name, shortened to its current moniker, The Mercantile.

"We didn't even have an earring in the store. Now, we have half home goods and half accessories. We've been wiling to change with the times," Slear said.

She's had to. As Slear tells it, there was no local Walmart when she first began working at the store. Its arrival wasn't a welcome sight.

The opening of Monroe Marketplace in Shamokin Dam was cause for consternation, too, as were the exits of both CVS and a state liquor store from downtown Lewisburg. There was the stock market fallout in 2009, the push to online shopping and now perhaps the biggest threat as Slear sees it, the COVID-19 pandemic.

Small businesses like The Mercantile press on. Slear said she works hard to stock quality goods and is cautious with pricing.

She focuses on variety, too, and that's reflected in the store: women's and children's clothing, soaps and body creams, jewelry and handbags, unique kitchenware and much more.

Customer service is critical. That's why The Mercantile offers gift-wrapping service.

"That's something we said we'd never stop because you can't do that online as much," Slear said.

Bernadine Richard, of Lewisburg, visited Wednesday to shop for gifts and for herself. She's living locally again after moving away for 30 years. When she was living away, she'd make a point to visit The Mercantile on her visits home.

"I love what she has. She has beautiful things. It's a fun store and, of course, I love Laurie and all the girls who work for her," Richard said. "We can't have an abandoned downtown. The only way we can do it is to support our merchants."

Ann DiStefano, of Lewisburg, has been a customer for 25 years. The customer service keeps her coming back, she said. DiStefano worked a few doors down from The Mercantile before retirement. She'd stroll the downtown to window shop on her lunch breaks, and she said supporting the local merchants is important to keep Lewisburg thriving.

"Laurie always has something different on display; great gift ideas for me and for others," DiStefano said. "If I can buy it downtown even if it's a few dollars more I'll buy it here as opposed to from a big box store or mail order."

The work of the Lewisburg Downtown Partnership and cooperation among merchants goes a long way to make Market Street what it is, Slear said. She's grateful for what Bucknell University brings to the borough, too.

Local residents seem to show off the downtown to out-of-town guests, and Slear's also grateful for that. But she reminds that if people don't shop locally there won't be any local shops.

"You hope that's still meaningful, that they care. We need everybody to support (small businesses) as much as they can," Slear said.

Oct. 21 is the official anniversary date for The Mercantile. Slear will celebrate on Oct. 23 with extended hours, 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., during which she'll draw customer names for $40 gift card giveaways, discounts at the register and chances to win an original print of the 300 block of Market Street by local artist Jeanette Campbell — The Mercantile featured prominently in the middle.

For more information about The Mercantile find the store's pages on Facebook and Instagram or visit www.lewisburgmercantile.com including for online orders.

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