Look at a map of the Southern states closely. Note the little dots, the small towns, their names in tiny type, that pepper the grey or greenish background. There are hundreds, and each is distinct. But they share something too, and it’s what determines their fate. It’s why some flourish while others fade into mere memory. External forces that affect businesses and cut jobs play a part. Yet there are towns that face these and other negatives and don’t just survive, but thrive, and the common denominator and the difference-maker is not location, history or even money. It’s people. When a place is populated by residents with vision, grit and a can-do attitude who are flexible, adaptable and full to the brim with love for a specific speck on a vast landscape, almost anything is possible.
Laurel, Mississippi, has a good many of these people, and two of them, Erin and Ben Napier, now have a national stage on which to highlight the little dot they love as well as their like-minded friends and neighbors. Their HGTV show “Home Town,” which follows them as they help people find and redo old homes in Laurel, premiered at the end of March 2017 and only adds to their already-in-progress endeavors to improve their city’s present and its future.
It began long before camera crews rolled into town, and while the shiny, happy young couple has become the face of the transformations underway in Laurel, they’re only one piece of a larger group, a fact both are quick to point out.
“We’ve gotten a lot of credit we don’t deserve,” Erin said. “There are so many behind the renaissance here, and not just young people but people in their 50s and older. It didn’t start with us.” But the bearded bear of a guy and his short, spunky, blonde-bobbed wife make almost perfect “camera-ready” spokespeople for delivering Laurel’s swelling “pride of place” message. “I think Ben and I are like the art department for this movement,” Erin said, pushing a mop of yellow bangs out of her eyes and turning cherry-red lips up in a smile, a gesture that makes it simple to see why producers felt she would make good TV.
Moments earlier, when she bopped into Laurel Mercantile, the store she and Ben own with college friends Josh and Emily Nowell and Jim and Mallorie Rasberry (Jim’s also Erin’s cousin), her sunny presence lit up the gloom that had seeped in from a dreary, rain-drenched day. After fiddling with the volume on the store’s sound system, she perched on a stool behind a wooden counter that her husband made and launched into a speech. “America is covered up in small towns like Laurel, places that people just gave up on and left behind,” she said. “I left here too, and I was happy to get out. I remember thinking my town was so lame.”
She went to the University of Mississippi, where she studied graphic design and printmaking, but after her four years away, she was hit with the longing pangs of homesickness. In 2007, she came back to Laurel, and she brought husband Ben (who was also at Ole Miss) with her. Ben fell almost as hard for Laurel as he had for Erin, in part because he so quickly felt at home. And Erin saw her city with fresh eyes; all the things she’d heard growing up — that the town built on the timber industry (it was once the “yellow pine capital of the world”) had once been a vibrant hub of culture — finally sunk in. “Laurel was one of the most booming, creative pockets in the South,” Erin said. (The city’s almost century-old Lauren Rogers Museum of Art is an impressive example, boasting an extensive collection of 19th and 20th-century paintings, including pieces by Winslow Homer and Andy Warhol, as well as several of Faulkner’s first editions.)
The timing for the pair’s arrival in Laurel couldn’t have been better. A rumbling among residents interested in preserving and reviving their city’s heritage was already gaining momentum. Thanks to the work of Laurel Main Street, an organization dedicated to the economic growth of the city’s downtown business district, the area that had been covered in ugly façades in the 1970s and then all but abandoned in the decades after, was regaining its place of prominence. While they were busy with their jobs, Erin doing graphic design for corporate marketing and Ben serving as a student minister, they and the Nowells and Rasberrys got involved in Main Street’s initiatives and put their money where their mouths were, each couple moving into a loft they’d renovated downtown.
In 2010, Erin took a leap and left her steady job to found her high-end letterpress wedding invitation company, Lucky Luxe, and located its office downtown. Lucky Luxe’s website included a blog that Erin treated like a gratitude journal, posting daily all the good things that happened to her. “I’m a Negative Nancy by nature, and it was an exercise to help me focus on the positive,” she said. “It changed my perspective completely.” She hasn’t missed a day since, and though the habit was put in place for personal reasons, it had a ripple effect. After a slew of good press, her business blew up, and she was drawing customers from all over the country and the world. “The business was growing, so the audience reading my journal grew too, and through my posts, these people from everywhere started seeing Laurel how I saw it,” she said.
They saw Mayberry-esque images of tree-lined streets, Christmas parades and pancake breakfasts, but they also saw proof of a supportive, close-knit community working to do something positive.
Her posts captured the progress downtown as more and more buildings were renovated. In turn, stores and businesses like Southern Antiques, Adam Trest Home, Slowboat Brewing Co, Sweet Somethings Bakery and Lee’s Coffee & Tea, one of the first to take a chance on a revitalized downtown, set up shop in the spaces, creating jobs and bringing people back to the city’s center. One of Laurel Main Street’s projects, crisscrossing strings of glowing light bulbs over downtown streets as a throwback to the way the area was lit a century ago, encapsulated the overall sentiment. The small, but illuminating detail says, “This place is cared for.”
And it is, by young and old, natives and newcomers alike, including Ben. “My dad was a Methodist minister, and so when I was growing up, we moved around a lot,” he said. “I never really had one hometown, but I saw lots of small towns, and I know that what truly makes them special is the people and love they have for their community.” Love was in full bloom in Laurel, evidenced by residents’ renewed commitment to protect and sustain their city’s story and its tangibles, like the houses and buildings in and around downtown.
In 2011, the Napiers expressed their devotion to Laurel by doing just that. They, the Nowells and the Rasberrys each bought, renovated and moved into homes in a historic district on the edge of downtown.
In early 2014, the Napiers found themselves at a crossroads. Lucky Luxe wasn’t satisfying Erin, and Ben felt like he was aging out of his ministry. His hobby — giving old wood a second chance by using it to build furniture — had grown into something he wanted to do full time. Unsure about their next steps, they turned to their faith for clarity. “We prayed for months, asking God what we should do,” Erin said. They got an answer. “The day Ben wrote his resignation letter, I got an email from an executive at HGTV asking us about doing a TV show. We were shocked. Neither of us had ever thought about anything like that,” she said.
The producer had found Erin on Instagram and, like so many others, saw Laurel through her filter of passion and affection. The couple took the email as the sign from “the big man upstairs” that they’d been waiting for and said yes. “I think God has a purpose for us in this; it just felt ordained,” Erin said. “I’m not sure what that purpose is yet, and I’ll admit that’s scary, but we are trusting him.”
Their strong faith has factored into much of their lives and work in Laurel, but so has Erin’s stubborn streak. “I can’t stand to see an underdog lose, and I can’t stand to hear ‘I told you so,’” she said.
So many said, ‘I can’t believe you’re going back to Laurel. There’s nothing there.’ I hated that, and I’m enjoying proving them wrong.
Erin and Ben are inspired by the intersection of art and history they see in home and furniture design, something they were playing around with when they renovated their loft and their house. But the show gave them the opportunity to pursue it full time. They’re now putting their talents and enthusiasm to work on behalf of others who want to make an old home their home and want to do it in Laurel. Erin designs and sketches plans for needed fixes and updates, being careful to retain each property’s character. Ben’s handiwork, often using found and salvaged materials, makes the vision reality.
If Erin and Ben are now the heart of the renewed energy and economic activity downtown, the new nerve center is Laurel Mercantile, which opened its doors in December 2016. Named to honor the city’s popular general store that closed long ago, the shop ihoused in an early 1900s building that was formerly a furniture warehouse was a dream of the Napiers and their friends turned business partners before “Home Town” was finalized; the show simply sped up the timeline. “We had planned a place for Ben’s furniture, and Josh, who is a historic developer working on several buildings downtown, owned the building, so we just moved faster to have it open by the time the show was running,” Erin said. “We wanted a focal point and a kind of ‘welcome to Laurel’ for visitors who discover the city through the show.”
To get it done, the six friends pooled their efforts and expertise to fashion a space for “heirloom wares and durable goods” as proclaimed by the old-school advertisement emblazoned on one side of the Mercantile’s creamy, painted brick exterior. Inside, a tin-panel-tiled ceiling overlooks worn brick peeking through swaths of white plaster, black and white portrait photos hung on a back wall and rustic wooden tables and shelves (some built by Ben) holding stacks of one-of-a-kind finds like vintage china, colorful spirals of rolled-up antique quilts and men’s shirts rescued from the local thrift store and recycled into handkerchiefs, as well as new American- and Mississippi-made items designed to last and be handed down. Products from Ben’s Scotsman Co. woodworking business are for sale alongside candles crafted in Starkville (with scents like sweet olive made specifically for the store); restored axes and hatchets, saved from all over the South but refurbished in Starkville; and Scotsman Co. flannel shirts sewn in nearby Tyler Town.
Every item in the shop is an extension of the Napiers’ and the other owners’ aesthetic and philosophy, with emphasis put on the value of old things. “They are like time machines,” Erin said. “Each has a story, a richness and warmth, and when you preserve them or reuse them, you get to be part of that story. We will always choose to restore instead of replace.” It’s why Erin and Ben both drive antique cars, and why Ben’s furniture uses reclaimed woods. And that goes for everything the couple comes in contact with. “As a Christian, I think that motto ties into the rebirth and renewal that are cornerstones of what we believe. I think maybe this is our way to share that with others, as they watch us loving old, forgotten things and loving this town back to life.”
It’s an evangelism strategy that’s spreading not just the tenants of the literal gospel, but good news about Laurel’s promising future that the Napiers hope sparks a wider interest and continued development. “In five years, I want everyone here to be proud to live here, and I want us to just be some small part of that,” Erin said. “We want it to become a ‘maker town’ on both a small and large scale to bring more jobs here, more opportunity and even more creativity so we can keep this story going,” Ben added.
It’s obviously a love story, but one that’s build on an even deeper bond. “We are always together, and it’s great that way. The only time we fuss is when we’ve been apart for a day or two,” Ben said. “We are basically joined at the hip, and I wouldn’t want it any other way,” Erin said. “Ben is the absolute love of my life. He balances me, and he’s such an encourager.”
It’s a trait not reserved solely for his wife. “Every town in our country has the potential to be this,” Ben said. “Laurel has not cornered the market on charming small town. It’s just us and others putting forth the effort to preserve, restore and spotlight what is special here. Every place has something. You just have to find it, take care of it, and tell the world about it.”
Written by Jennifer Kornegay / Photography by Growl Bros.