When JC Penney closed its doors in Ely in 2004, residents of the small community in White Pine County were left with few options to purchase new clothing, shoes and other goods.
Unable to lure another mid-tier retailer to town, Ely residents followed the lead of a small town in Powell, Wyo. About 300 Ely residents and business owners banded together and formed Garnet Mercantile, a community-owned store. Residents raised about $500,000 selling shares at $500 apiece to stock the store with clothing, footwear and work wear for the mining industry.
Like most retailers, Garnet Mercantile struggled through the recession, but the store was dealt a more crushing blow in January of 2013 when an upstairs water main broke and flooded the store, destroying more than 90 percent of its inventory. Garnet Mercantile closed for nearly six months as crews worked to repair the ceiling, flooring, plumbing and remove damaged goods.
Water damage was extensive — it pooled more than two inches deep throughout the sales floor, and about half the ceiling tiles and insulation were destroyed.
“We had to start all over again,” Manager Mary Howes says. “We call it the flood of ’13. It was pretty rough to go through.”
Garnet Mercantile fills a vital role in the community’s retail landscape — the nearest places to shop for soft goods are Las Vegas, Reno, Elko or St. George, Utah. A trip to those areas includes a minimum of six hours round-trip driving.
“It makes for a long day if you have to go out of town to shop,” Howes says.
Garnet Mercantile is on the rebound, having restocked each of its sales departments, but while the store was shuttered the handful of other small retailers in Ely began stocking many of the items that made the store a key player in Ely, says Virginia Terry, chair of the community leadership board.
“We need to build back a whole new clientele — that is the biggest challenge at the present,” Terry says.
The advent of Internet retailing has impacted the store as well. When the store first opened, it carried a much fuller lineup of clothing. The focus now, Terry says, is to carry lines of goods consumers don’t often shop for online, such as shoes, steel-toed boots and the rugged coveralls favored by miners. And not every resident in Ely has credit cards for online shopping, Terry notes.
Store employees often buy wholesale goods online themselves to stock the shelves. Garnet Mercantile also has enjoyed a boost in sales by selling hand-made goods from local crafters. Popular items include tutus, knit hats, baby quilts and crib sheets, party baskets, and Native American jewelry. It also dedicated a portion of the store to the Garnet Pantry, which features Made in Nevada foodstuffs. Tourists passing through Ely often gravitate to that section of the store, Howes says.
Profits from retail sales are re-invested in new inventory and also used to pay taxes, utilities and wages. December and back-to-school shopping account for the biggest sales periods.
The hope for the rest of the year, Howes says, is to continue brining more inventory into the store and get sales on the upswing.
“We still are operating at a minimum — we don’t have the selection we would like to have,” she says. “It has been a big struggle, but we are hanging in there. We want to get up our sales and provide what this town needs.”