We continue our Shop Talk series with one of the most storied retailers in the country, Mast General Store. Mast has been around in one way or another since the 1850s, and today, it exists as a thriving family (and employee) owned business with multiple locations across the Southeast.
We recently caught up with Sheri Moretz, Chief Storyteller at Mast, to find out what makes this family of stores so special.
What is the history of the Mast General Store?
The Mast Store was started by Henry Taylor. He had a smaller store across the road for a number of years (the Taylor and Moore Company) before expanding into a new building in 1882. It was called the Taylor General Store at that point in time, and what we call the Middle Room today (where you’ll find kitchen gadgets, cast iron, apothecary, pottery, rocking chairs, etc.). It wasn’t long before this new building was added on to, as the need to carry more products and offer more services to his neighbors grew.
In 1897, W. W. Mast bought a half interest in the store. It was called the Taylor and Mast General Store until W. W. purchased the rest of the business in 1913. The store was owned and operated by the Mast Family until the early 1970s when it went through several owners, including a professor at ASU and a brain surgeon in Atlanta. It was closed in the fall of 1977 with a plan to re-open in the spring of 1978. It didn’t re-open.
John and Faye Cooper had visited the area several times with their family and were familiar with the store. When they found out it was closed, they became interested in it. Faye often says, “We knew someone should save it, we just didn’t know it would be us.”
The Coopers ended up purchasing the store in 1979, moved into the upstairs of the Middle Room, and re-opened the Mast Store in June of 1980.
It should also be noted that the store has served the community in many other ways during its long history. It was a place where news was gathered and shared, where whoppers and fish tales were told, and during the 1940 flood, it served as a funeral home for a family that lost two members when they were swept away by the rushing waters over Pigeon Roost Creek.
Since the Coopers took over 36 years ago, the business has experienced tremendous growth and success. What do you attribute this to?
When the Coopers reopened the store, they were determined to carry on the traditions of a general store. They talked with community members to see what items they needed to have at the store. They consulted one of the sales reps from Mitchell Powers, a hardware company that we still deal with today (as a store, we’ve had a relationship with Mitchell Powers since the early 1900s), to see what merchandise a general store would need to carry – nuts, bolts, Saturday-Night Specials, washboards, rope, hoes, shovels, plow points, etc.
They greeted everyone with a friendly smile, and provided personal customer service. Of course, when the store re-opened, it was during an energy crisis with an economy that was shaky at best. But what the Coopers created was a special place that people wanted to find. Valle Crucis is a small, rural community, and in 1980 it was more off the beaten path than it is today. People had to want to get here, and they did. Noted travel journalist Charles Kuralt featured the Mast Store in his syndicated column in 1986 saying, “Where should I send you to know the soul of the South? I think I’ll send you to the Mast General Store.” People came in droves carrying the article from the newspaper in hand and sending it from far away places. There is a framed copy of the article in the Original Store in Valle Crucis.
Their idea of providing quality goods at fair prices, along with friendly service, was something out of the ordinary, even in the 1980s. The store was a place that people sought out. Now, in a self-service culture, it’s even more uncommon. The Mast Store is fortunate to find employees that enjoy working with each other and who truly want to find out about their customers and meet their needs. This business practice seems to translate well to Main Streets in other towns and cities – and, we always make sure to find buildings that have great stories to tell, just like the Original Store in Valle Crucis.
You now have 9 stores across 3 states. How do you decide where to open a new store? What criteria must new locations meet?
First of all, lots of people want to call us a chain. While all of our locations have a lot in common and are linked together, the moniker of chain just doesn’t quite fit the way we think about ourselves. We’re more like a family, and each new location, both the employees and the physical building, are brought into our family.
The first requirement for new locations is that the community asks us to come. Dozens of communities, big and small, contact us each year with a building they are certain would be right for us.
We also look for a building that speaks to us – one that has a great retail tradition, that plays a big part in the community’s downtown, and that has enough square footage to accommodate our eclectic mix.
We also look for towns and cities that are dedicated to the rejuvenation of their downtown business district, and that have a strong and varied local economy, an established or growing tourism industry, and a college or university.
Would you tell us about your Employee Stock Ownership Plan? How did it come about, and why did you decide to go in that direction?
The Coopers thought that an ESOP would be a great way to establish a succession plan, while offering the employees an added benefit. After all, who knows the company better than those who work here?
As members of the ESOP, the hope is that the employee-owners will treat the Mast Store as if it were a business they started on their own, and that they will take responsibility for all aspects of its operation because ultimately we are all responsible. We all interact with customers, internal and external, and share a common goal of meeting their needs. We all make decisions every day that can affect the company’s bottom line. We just need to make the right decisions to satisfy our customers, conserve company resources, and lighten the load on the environment.
After making the decision to become an employee-owned company, Mast Store employees have been earning shares by providing quality goods, fair prices, and old-fashioned, friendly service.
At one time, the store’s slogan was, “Cradles to Caskets — if you can’t buy it here, you don’t need it.” How has the store’s selection evolved over the years? What products do you focus on today?
Today, our product focus is more in the vein of “all you need for life.” As a general store, we try to have something for everyone from age one to 101. The clothing in our fashion department has a more timeless look and feel, which is perfect for Woolrich – shirts, pants, blouses, skirts, dresses, sweaters, hats that are at home on contractors and construction workers and teachers and students.
In the outdoor area, we work for a good, better, best scenario for travel clothing, fleece, outerwear, and trail gear with an eye to new trends and updated items. It includes useful items for people traveling the world or thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail.
Our footwear evolves with style but always has a concentration on comfort and support. Again, the collection embraces casual shoes and sandals to light hiking and backpacking boots.
The Mercantile Department is our keystone – it most links us to our old-time general store past with apothecary items like Watkins liniments and salves to cast iron cookware and rocking chairs. It also has a wide variety of country gourmet foods including our own branded jams and jellies and Old Mill of Guilford Grits that are ground in a mill that dates back to the Revolutionary War.
An overwhelming feast for the eyes and a walk down Memory Lane, the Candy Barrel has been called “better than Halloween.” It features over 500 old-fashioned candies including Squirrel Nut Zippers, Cow Tales, and Atomic Fireballs. When grandparents walk the aisles with their grandchildren, it thrills the bystanders to hear the stories told about the old-fashioned candies.
How long have you been carrying Woolrich? How do you see the brand fitting into your overall ethos?
Woolrich was the first clothing that we brought in, besides overalls. It was the early 1980s. We had missed the time to place orders, so all we could get was seconds. They were given a prominent spot in the store, hanging near the front in the middle room of the store (this is where you’ll find our collection of CDs and toys and some apothecary today). In the early years, we worked closely with our Woolrich sales reps and chose items that reflected the rural character of our store and met the needs of our visitors. We believe that Woolrich is an iconic brand that is reflective of our heritage and is an asset to our men’s and women’s fashion offering because of its timeless designs.
Your stores are known to serve as community hangouts and information hubs. How did you cultivate that sort of relationship with the communities around your stores?
Much of what we do throughout the organization is founded on the way business was conducted in the late 1800s and early 1900s. The shopkeeper was a trusted friend. He (or she) knew the community and could offer advice based upon experience. They were also involved in the community – served on committees, helped their neighbors, etc. We encourage our employees to be ambassadors of the community – to know where a good leg-stretcher hike can be found, where kids can easily see a pasture filled with horses, or where you can get the best pizza in town.
We also partner with organizations that fit well with our culture – each June we host local land conservation organizations to allow them to friend raise for a day, educate people on how Land Trusts not only help preserve open and beautiful spaces, but help farm families keep their farm in business and protect watersheds to provide habitat for wildlife and clean water for everyone. At the end of the day, we make a contribution that is a percentage of the day’s sales. We promote them, and they in turn support us.
Employees are also encouraged to volunteer with their favorite cause. As a part of our benefits, part-time and full-time employees can be paid for four or eight hours respectively for their volunteer time. It’s just a way of supporting our employees who support our communities.
Is there an interesting story you’d like to share about Mast’s history that may not be widely known?
We’ll share two…
From Faye: Our Woolrich sales representative in the 1980s was Jim Harbison. He befriended us and helped us by encouraging other, non-competing vendors to open accounts with us. His faith in us, and our commitment to be financially responsible, gave us the boost we needed to be able to provide the other types of merchandise our customers needed. Osh Kosh for children, Duofold for layering and many other manufacturers. We are grateful for his generosity of spirit.
From John: When we bought the Mast Store and were planning to open it in Spring of 1980, we were aware that the previous owner had closed the store without making provision to keep the post office in the valley. That being a major disappointment for the local folks, we set about exploring how we could return the post office to the Mast Store. Our neighbors could no longer have a Valle Crucis (“Valley of the Cross”) address. (As a note – even right now, having a mailbox at the store is the only way to have a Valle Crucis address. The Original Store is in the Sugar Grove zip code, and just 2/10 mile down the road, the Annex is in the Banner Elk zip code.)
When we called the Post Office authorities in Greensboro, we were told that they were eliminating a lot of rural contracts, and the only way we could get a contract station would be to operate the post office for $1 per year. So we made an application for a contract for $1 per year. Shortly thereafter, we received a notice of rejection. When I called to find out why, I was told that they didn’t think that I was serious in my assertion that we would run the post office in Valle Crucis for $1 per year.
Shortly after that, we were told that we would be able to get the post office back and effective October 4, 1980, approximately 4 months after we had reopened the store, we were able to serve our neighbors with the restored 28691 zip code. Immediately, all the post office boxes were rented, and we did indeed start to receive our check for $1, with box rents going to the U.S. Postal Service.
It was some time later that I heard that I needed to thank Rufus Edmisten, North Carolina State Attorney General. When I did thank him, he told me that he had talked to Senator Sam Ervin, who convinced authorities of the importance of restoring the post office to this historic landmark.
As you walk in the front door of the Original Store, you will see about 160 vintage post office boxes, now in use and with a perpetual waiting list for residents who want to have a Valle Crucis address. Because the boxes are antiques, we frequently have to ask customers to not open the boxes because they don’t realize it is a real, working post office.
What does the future hold for Mast?
As an employee-owned company, the Mast Store needs to grow to increase the value of our employees’ stock shares. But our growth will be measured and unrushed. Typically, we grow a family member about every four to five years. That allows us the time to fully understand our newest community and build our relationships there before opening another “new old location.”
I should also mention that while John and Faye Cooper are still involved with the Mast Store, their daughter, Lisa Cooper, is taking the lead on many of the store’s operations. She, along with the Leadership Team, which is made up of members from all facets of the store, makes the major decisions for our company.
The Shop Talk blog series highlights key accounts across the country that support Woolrich. Local retailers are vital to every community, and provide much more than just a place to purchase clothes. They also serve as information hubs and gathering spaces. We encourage you to get out and support these wonderful places and the amazing people that work at them.