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The Mercantile opens in former Meyer Cleaners

The Mercantile includes sports memorabilia and a basket of balls. Renee Richardson1 / 8
The Mercantile includes children's clothing and toys along with adult garments, DVDs, books, umbrellas and household items from an iron to decorative storage boxes. Renee Richardson2 / 8
It's been awhile since a burger was 15 cents. Vintage items like this lunch box line the shelves at The Mercantile, a new thrift store on Washington Street in Brainerd. 3 / 8
Family games, small appliances, lamps and wall art are part of the mix at the newly opened thrift store. Renee Richardson4 / 8
Renovations are nearing completion on the former Meyer's Cleaning building recently purchased by Julie and Dennis LaValle. They opened their store The Mercantile inside on July 1. Renee Richardson5 / 8
Julie and Dennis LaValle could have retired after selling their North Central Medical Supply business but decided a new challenge was more interesting. They recently opened The Mercantile, a vintage, thrift and repurposed business in the former Meyer's Cleaning building on Washington Street in Brainerd. Renee Richardson6 / 8
For Julie LaValle, the history and memories behind pieces she gathers at estate sales and online auctions are part of the interest in saving and repurposing them. Renee Richardson7 / 8
Christmas decorations in the original box are included among a shelf of household items such as dishware and an electric knife. 8 / 8

After selling their medical supply business after 15 years, Julie LaValle said retirement wasn't that appealing.

It was downright boring. Where the road led next wasn't what she expected.

"I never would have thought I would do a thrift store," she said.

But that's just what happened. Julie and Dennis LaValle opened their store - The Mercantile - on July 1. After the couple sold North Central Medical Supply in west Brainerd, Julie LaValle said she wanted to do something else, something less restrictive, something fun.

"I'm having a blast," she said.

The thrift store idea grew after she sold a few things on Ebay, something else she never expected to be doing. And then she went thrift store shopping with family and enjoyed the experience. The seed of a plan for a business grew.

"I think a lot of people do it out of need or necessity," Julie LaValle said of thrift store shoppers, particularly after the Great Recession. "And then you realize it's just smart after that."

In choosing a location, Dennis LaValle said the Meyer's Cleaning building on Washington Street, west of the South Sixth Street intersection near the historic water tower, was always interesting. It was once a service station, part of Brainerd's heritage of a time when small service and gas stations were nearly a standard for city blocks. Dennis LaValle said they drove by the building for years and thought of it as a cool building. So they decided to buy it and fix it up.

The LaValles bought the former Meyer's Cleaning building as an investment. They leased out the back office to an American Family Insurance agent.

They cleaned out the dry-cleaning businesses interior, put on a new roof, new furnace, new parking lot. Recently crews have been working on the exterior and putting in new stone work. Last week, the LaValles were asking for customer input on a new color for the exterior.

Outside the store windows, including the double panes covering what once was the service garage entrance, was a constantly moving stream of traffic.

"Being downtown, you feel you are part of Brainerd," Dennis LaValle said.

Already they've had customers come through the doors who have kept an eye on the construction activity and wondered when they would open - all before the actual business sign is in place outside.

The Meyer's sign recently was taken down. It was a notable one along the busy main thoroughfare through Brainerd as the previous owners put up interesting bits of wisdom.

"I think everybody remembers that," Julie LaValle said.

The LaValles are operating the business together. They worked together at the medical supply business with 20 employees. For couples who live and work together, communication is key. Dennis LaValle said it's a case of picking battles for the things you feel most strongly about and knowing what else to let go.

For the store, the goal has been for a clean, uncluttered interior and shelves with merchandise that appeals across generations.

The store offers vintage, new, thrift and repurposed items. Estate sales, online auctions and liquidations are all utilized to gather the store's inventory. The store doesn't take consignment. By going to estate sales in different parts of the country they are able to get a diverse offering. Items include board games, books, DVDs, comics, clothing, children's clothes and toys, housewares, sports memorabilia, artwork and home decor. New merchandise is on the shelves every two to three weeks.

Julie LaValle said she looks for items that are appealing to different tastes and ages, something helped by shopping with her daughter and daughter-in-law. She enjoys calling them up to tell them the item she picked, one they were sure no one would buy, just went out the door in a customer's arms.

Months of buying went into preparing for the store's opening, with inventory that was filling closets and bedrooms in their home before the store was ready. Julie LaValle enjoys the estate sales and salvaging items that were part of family memories, like the vintage wedding dress still there on the last day of an estate sale.

A handwritten note on the back of a picture gives the item a sense of time and place it may not have had by itself. One such item had the writer remembering their father's efforts after a storm. Since the picture isn't a photograph, Julie LaValle said the image must have reminded the writer of a personal event. She isn't sure who it will appeal to but she said the memory and the moment was worth saving.

Price ranges for items range from a quarter to $100 for a multi-drawer wooden jewelry case standing 3 feet high.

As a bit of whimsy, when a little plastic lobster was left even in the free box, the LaValles named it Lucy. Everyday they hide Lucy in the store and give the customer that finds it a 10 percent discount on a purchase.

When a young couple, obviously just starting out a life together, couldn't find it, Julie LaValle sort of directed them to it.

So while some may decide an opportunity to sell a business they've grown is a chance to hit the golf course or relax at home, the LaValles are back at work in a business they didn't expect but are enjoying as they watch the city move outside their corner store windows.

"This is fun to me," Julie LaValle said. "This isn't work."

Renee Richardson
Richardson is a Pacelli High School graduate from Austin, Minn., who earned an applied science degree from the University of Minnesota, Waseca, with an emphasis in horse management. She worked extensively in the resort industry. She received an associate’s degree from Central Lakes College, where she was editor of the Westbank Journal student newspaper, as well as a summer intern at the Dispatch. She graduated from St. Cloud State University summa cum laude with a bachelor’s degree in mass communications and interned at the St. Cloud Times covering business while attending SCSU. She's been with the Brainerd Dispatch since 1996.
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