Written by Bill Kent | Photos by Gracie Withers
Just before anyone had even heard the word “coronavirus,” Meredith Brown was shopping at what everybody calls The Merc, a 1,700-square-foot, 130-year-old grocery on East Colonial Highway in Hamilton. After putting a jar of her favorite sauerkraut next to a pint of coffee ice cream in her grocery basket, Sue Phillips, the market’s owner, told Brown she was moving and asked her if she wanted to buy the place.
Brown immediately said, “Yes!” Not only was the Merc convenient to her home in Lincoln, where she lives with her husband John, a Kinloch Farm beekeeper, and daughter Ada, but her family loved the store’s organic brands. Brown asked her former boss and fellow Merc regular, Abbie Whitehurst, owner of Leesburg’s King Street Coffee, if she wanted to join her and maybe sell some coffee at the place.
The women closed the store for five days and made some slight alterations. “The idea was to turn it into an upscale convenience store,” Brown explains, “where everything you needed was healthy and organic, and you could find a few things that were just wonderful, and all originating as close as possible to the store.”
They upgraded and reduced the number of supplements, put a circular table in the center of the store and filled it with fresh cut flowers and gift baskets, added practical household items like environmentally gentle laundry detergent, and put out a call to local farmers, crafts people, vineyards, and breweries that they were interested in carrying the best they had to offer.
The back wall became a walk-up window. The women moved in a refurbished La Marzocco espresso machine from King Street, and stocked Winchester Lone Oak roast from former King Street Coffee barista Sam Kayser. Brown then landscaped the front and the parking area. She added chairs where people could linger while drinking their coffee, made her own flavor syrups, and served cream and milk from Middletown Maryland’s South Mountain Creamery.
Finally, they changed the name. What had been the Natural Mercantile became the Hamilton Mercantile.
Their business actually improved during the pandemic. “Enough people, including my family, became even more conscious about their health, that they wanted healthier alternatives,” Brown remembers. “They weren’t going to bigger food stores as much. We could do curbside delivery or just hand people their groceries through the window. My staff and I pitched in and we did some home deliveries, too.”
And people continued to visit the store, discovering local meat, produce, wine, beer, jewelry, pottery, and more. The team realized they were a success when their customers, some from as far away as Florida and Massachusetts, wanted to buy souvenir T-shirts. So, Brown found a vendor. One of her dozen part-time employees designed the printing on the shirt, and the first edition sold out in weeks
While not everything the Merc sells is immediately local (the extra virgin olive oil comes from Greece, for example), enough of it is so that customers get a feeling of connection to Hunt Country’s agrarian and artisanal roots.
“We’ve become a safe place for all kinds of people, with all kinds of opinions about food and what’s good for them,” Brown continues. “Everybody seemed to agree with us that by nurturing the local producers we were creating a larger community of people who want to support their work.”
Mark Thurston, an associate professor at George Mason living in Round Hill, goes to the Merc more frequently than any other food store. He likes the coffee and appreciates “a lovely feeling of community-building. I experience it as a gathering place that has intentionality and gracefulness to the way the business is being run. There is a much-needed honoring of local farmers and artisans.”
One of those artisans is Valor Ridge Potter Mariah McKechnie, who sells her mugs at a half-dozen places around Hunt Country, but calls the Merc her “most successful shop to sell through.” McKechnie adds, “I absolutely love the wholesome vibe.”
When McKechnie wanted to raise funds for autism advocacy within Loudoun County, the Merc gave a matching donation for pottery sold from the store.
For Jessie Baker of Middleburg’s Day Spring Farm, the Merc is vital because “they can reach more people than come to our farm…. Our herbal products and turkeys are sold there, and we just love the heart and soul of the store. Plus their chai tea is so good it’s like meeting up with an old friend.”
To Marina Wilson, a Merc employee for more than 20 years, “Sue [Phillips] was a businesswoman. Meredith is an artist whose heart is in the community. The store is much more like a community now. People who have never known each other get to know each other. I’ve worked in several natural food places before my husband and I got lost off Route 7 and decided to move to Philomont, but what happens here is by far the best I’ve ever experienced.”
Wilson mentions that back in the pandemic era, after a brutal snowstorm, “we managed to open and I was at the window serving the coffee. When the snow stopped, I saw four women who didn’t know each other standing in line outside to get a coffee. Perhaps they ran out of coffee at home or they just wanted to get out and go for a walk. But they began to talk to each other.
“And right there they decided to form a book club, and they’ve continued with it. That may not seem [like] an earth-changing event, but, because it draws people together, it might be. I felt so good to make the coffee that helped it happen.” ML
341 East Colonial Highway
Hamilton, VA 20158
Published in the May 2023 issue of Middleburg Life.