In junior high, Erin Napier fell in love with a 1925 Craftsman-style house near the art museum in her hometown of Laurel, Mississippi.
She even pointed out the home to her future husband Ben, whom she affectionately calls “Big,” while the two were dating in college. The young couple dreamed of what it would be like to one day live in the charming historic neighborhood.
As newlyweds, Ben and Erin struck up a conversation with the homeowner of that same Craftsman-style house Erin fell in love with years before, and got the opportunity to tour the house. They shared that should she become interested in selling her home, they’d be thrilled to buy it.
Serendipitously, the owner called the Napiers shortly thereafter. They were elated to buy Erin’s childhood dream home just a month later.
Erin, an artist with a graphic design degree, and Ben, a craftsman with a history degree, set out to revitalize their new home. The dynamic duo’s zest for historic home renovation and eye for design quickly caught on, garnering the attention of HGTV executive Lindsey Weidhorn via Instagram in 2014.
Erin initially thought Lindsey might be interested in her Lucky Luxe letterpress wedding stationery. Instead, Lindsey approached Erin and Ben about making a TV show—something they had never thought of doing. Erin had been a designer, while Ben was a former youth minister who built furniture and served as the town’s mascot, Mr. Loblolly.
“You can make your plans, but know it's going to be so much better when the plan changes or completely falls apart,” Erin says, sharing the Napiers’ belief that God has helped lead them to where they’re supposed to be, however crazy and unlikely it may have seemed.
The two took a leap of faith, and it’s been an exciting whirlwind ever since. Their pilot episode of Home Town aired in January 2016, chronicling the Napiers as they welcome new Laurel residents by helping them find and renovate historic homes.
“We love the creative challenges that come with finding the alchemy of every house and its new owner,” the Napiers, both 30-somethings, say. “The architecture and their personal style and history don't always match at first blush, but that's where our expertise comes in. We find the common thread in the things that they love, the story of their life and family, and how that relates to this house, then we present it visually with color and objects and furniture. It's satisfying when that comes together!”
While they have become local celebrities, joining the ranks of HGTV stars such as Chip and Joanna Gaines, the Napiers point to the many people who have helped turn a new page in their community of 19,000.
Laurel was a city built on industry and known for its art and culture—a melding Ben described to E! News as the blue collar, manual labor world meets the creative, artistic, cultural world. But just a decade ago, the city’s downtown was mostly shuttered.
“Laurel has found her feet again in the public opinion because of so many volunteers, investors and business people [who] cared enough to see it thrive all along,” Ben says. “We get too much credit for what's happening. We're just kind of like the art department for this movement in our town, while many have given their life savings and sweat to bring it back to the thriving city it was in the 1920s. It's exhilarating to live here right now and see it happen before our eyes.”
The Napiers say that every person has a gift or a skill, and it takes far more than just the creatives and the young folks to bring a community back to life. It takes every skill they have working in tandem with everyone else's skill—the artists and the lawyers, the writers and the bankers, the ministers and teachers, giving up their time and using their specific gifts to change whatever they can in their sphere of influence.
“When it happens and everyone works together, it feels like magic,” they describe. “It takes off.”
As for their own sphere of influence, the Napiers share that “historic design for paper, furniture, and homes are our bread and butter and if we live to see our hometown fully revitalized someday, that will be enough.”
Along with two other couples, who are some of their best friends, Ben and Erin reopened the Laurel Mercantile Co. in 2016. Once a bastion of commerce in the early 20th century, The Laurel Mercantile Co. had closed in the 1930s as industries and needs in the community changed.
As its flagship brand, Laurel Mercantile Co. features Scotsman Co., Ben’s handmade, reclaimed furniture and men’s workwear. Additionally, the store carries American-made heirloom wares and durable goods, such as watercolor prints created by local artists and cast iron pieces made to pass down through the generations. Erin documents all the good things that happen in her life in a daily journal on the store’s website.
She recalls checking a woman out during the insane rush of the Christmas parade on Laurel Mercantile Co.’s grand opening day, December 3, 2016. Erin wrapped the woman’s order from behind the store’s 100-year-old oak desk as the woman told Erin how much it meant to see Laurel coming back to life.
“Louis Armstrong was singing ‘White Christmas’ in the background,” Erin says. “And she told me, ‘Laurel is home. It’s where my mother brought me to get my Brownie uniform when I became a Girl Scout. All my happiest memories are tied to this place.’ I got goosebumps and felt a lump in my throat… I was living, in that instant, in my dream. I was twirling, it was enchanting. Standing behind the counter in my own ‘Shop Around the Corner,’ that means something to the people in my community just as much as it does to me. It’s part of their story now, and kind of always was.”
With youthful energy, historic charm and an entrepreneurial spirit, Laurel has sprung into a new era. And while many people helped in the transformation, the Napiers and Home Town have played a crucial role.
George Bassi, executive director of the Lauren Rogers Museum of Art—the oldest art museum in Mississippi—shares that museum attendance has gone up 25 percent since the show began. He describes an energy and spirit in the community that was always there but has become more vocal and visible.
“Some people who are enamored with what they see of Laurel on TV may wonder if that transcends into reality,” Bassi says. “And yes, it really does.”
As they prepared to air season two of Home Town, the Napiers announced an exciting personal development: they’re expect- ing their first baby in early 2018. She’ll be named after Erin’s grandmother, Helen.
“I hope our someday children will love this town and not take it for granted as they grow up here,” Erin says.
“We hope that Laurel never loses the grit and mystery that made it so unique all these years, even as new development and business moves in.”
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