The Village Mercantile sits in the gap between Fountain City and North Knoxville near a cluster of historic places that aren’t there anymore – the old Whittle Springs public swimming pool, the WNOX studios and auditorium, Eddie’s Auto Parts – on a street named for Cas Walker.
But the colorful little shop at 4503 Walker Blvd. is on a mission to provide wholesome, interesting food at the lowest possible prices and is preparing to celebrate its third anniversary on May 17.
Owner Monica Lauber’s not telling all her secrets, but she is willing to explain that most of her inventory started out on the middle aisles of big grocery stores.
“It started out somewhere else but was pulled from the shelves for a variety of reasons – the branding might have changed, or the packaging might be damaged, or a store goes out of business, or the merchandise is short-dated (meaning it’s getting close to its ‘best by’ date).”
Lauber said she is able to buy in bulk because she teams up with her cousins (Julie Brown and Alan Taylor), who own the Savvy Shopper in Kingsport, so they can buy “more and better.” The goods are freighted into Kingsport, and Lauber makes frequent runs to pick up her merchandise.
“I do a bit of running to find stuff for the shelves, but it’s worth it,” she said.
Lauber, who has four children (two who are 23 and 20, and 14-year-old twins who are in the eighth grade at Halls Middle School), says she got the idea for the store when she fell on tough times and found herself in a food-pantry line.
“I was needing to feed my family that night, and it was enough, but not really quite enough,” she said. And it got her to wondering:
“Where is the place between a food pantry or a soup kitchen and a full-price retail grocery store?”
That is what she works to provide at The Village Mercantile. The store carries mostly nonperishables – cereals, condiments, packaged sauces and crackers, a variety of nut butters and a wide range of sweets and snacks. A delivery of fresh bread – loaves, buns and bagels – was stacked on a front table and disappearing fast. There are also gift items, health and beauty stuff and assorted gadgetry, local crafts and Lauber’s own handmade soaps and ointment.
Lauber grew up in Southern California, where her father was a citrus field superintendent and her mother a transplanted schoolteacher who grew up in Boone, N.C. Her birth name was Mast, and it was Lauber’s Uncle Will who started the first Mast general store in Valle Crucis, N.C., right outside Boone.
In addition to groceries, the Masts sold gasoline, hardware, cheese, coffins and anything neighbors asked for.
“It was the store,” Lauber said.
The family sold the store, and the predecessor to the present-day Mast General Store took over in 1982. The cousins, Lauber said, had no say in the store’s fate.
Her mother became ill when Lauber was 14, and the family moved from Ventura to Mountain City, Tenn., to be closer to family. By that time, the town had lost its hospital and manufacturing plants and was heavily dependent on tobacco production.
She went to college at Carson-Newman, started spending time in Knoxville and moved here in 1993. A Realtor steered her to the Fountain City area, where she lived until she moved to Halls, where she, her children and her partner, Amy Perkins, have lived for several years.