Polson Shop Talk
Small businesses find unique ventures despite pandemic
While 2020 may not seem like an auspicious year to launch a new business, five intrepid women have opened retail shops in downtown Polson since June 15.
River Rock Mercantile at 7 3rd Ave. E. opened June 15, just two days after the Hallmark store closed at the same location. The new owner, Megan Comings, worked twice for Hallmark proprietor Marilyn Frame; first, after graduating from high school, and again, for the past two years after she and her husband settled in Polson.
The new store still has a coffee bar with the same popular brands, plus cards and gift items. But shoppers will find new inventory, too, including handmade children’s clothes, a new line of loungewear, candy, Montana books and vintage puzzles. More apparel is on the horizon, including jeans and some boutique clothing brands.
Opening during a pandemic has posed challenges, but old customers and new ones continue to support the business. “Obviously everybody has had their bumps,” said Comings. “But it’s been going absolutely amazing.”
Her employee, Alysha Valentine, chimes in when asked what sets River Rock Mercantile apart from other downtown shops. “We really preach kindness and that body image is beauty. No matter what you look like, no matter how big or small you are, no matter what race or who you’re voting for, kindness is key,” she says. “I think that’s really what makes us unique. We try to make sure everyone leaves here with a happy heart.”
Sweet Home Montana Designs, at 105 Main St., also opened June 15 and is located across from the Salish Building. Owner Krista Denning, who shares the space with her mother, real estate broker Christine Noel, said she had originally intended to open in March but was stymied by the pandemic shutdown.
“I had started this process last winter before all the other stores opened so I thought there was definitely room for more retail in Polson,” she says. Since then, empty storefronts have filled. “Hopefully that just makes us more of a shopping destination,” she said. “More business is good for everybody.”
While slightly off the beaten path, the shop has attracted visitors from the Mexican restaurant and city park across the street, as well as the more established downtown shopping area. “My biggest thing is getting noticed and having people find me,” she said.
Denning grew up in Kalispell and owned a coffee shop south of town. She’s also worked at a number of office jobs but enjoys the independence and challenge that self-employment affords.
“Trying a little retail boutique was a way to work for myself and, hopefully, make as much money as I would working for someone else,” she said. “It’s a hard business for sure – very seasonal – but it’s been fun so far.”
Her shop is stocked with colorful clocks, Montana-themed clothing, gift items, including candles and jewelry and an assortment of home décor and small furniture. She hopes to expand the décor and furniture line this spring.
“I try very hard to have a great variety of products and pick items that are affordable for everyone, local and tourists alike,” she said.
Candlemaker Daisy Walsh opened Beargrass Candles and Décor at 222 Main St. on July 1. The narrow little shop brims with handmade beeswax candles of all shapes and sizes and an assortment of gift items, including cards, earrings and baby clothes. Among her most unique items are hand-carved wooden bowls from Mexico filled with a soy-wax candle that can be refilled at the shop.
Walsh has been making candles for a few years and uses beeswax from a beekeeper in Hamilton. Originally, she learned her craft in her kitchen and left wax trails in her wake. “There was candle craziness everywhere,” she said. “So when I moved to this shop, I was happy to be able to have some space – so is my husband.”
A few unusual plants, including rare orchids and miniature olive trees, are inspired by her mother, who owns a flower shop in Kalispell. “It’s a good pairing – the candles and the floral side,” said Walsh.
For her, candle making is a creative outlet, and beeswax itself is an inspiration. “It’s such an eco-friendly item,” she said. “Beeswax releases negative ions so it purifies the air a little bit as it burns. It’s a great alternative to paraffin candles.”
Since opening, she’s seen an outpouring of support from the local community. Small Business Saturday, held the Saturday after Thanksgiving, was especially busy. “It was great,” she said. “I couldn’t believe how many people turned out.”
The most recent addition to the downtown scene is Polson Bay Mercantile, which opened Dec. 1 at 49487 Hwy. 93. Owner Jodi Lee is a recent transplant from Great Falls, where she owned a food trailer and traveled across the state and beyond during the summer months.
When she and her boyfriend, Robert Rutherford, moved to Polson last August, she noticed the vacant retail space “and decided to give myself a job.”
The couple spent much of the fall renovating the interior, and Lee has stocked her new store with women’s and men’s apparel, gift items such as candles, purses and jewelry, and Rutherford’s handsome handmade cutting boards. She also carries a line of CBD products for both humans and pets.
Her women’s line is varied, with casual clothes for young and older shoppers alike, ranging from soft, comfy sweaters to playful leopard-print blouses. She plans to expand her Made-in-Montana offerings for the summer months to include jams, jellies, T-shirts and sweatshirts, and other goodies more geared toward the tourist trade.
The contents are “inspired by what I like to do when I’m out and about,” she said. “But, it’s also geared for the locals because that’s your home base.”
Another recent addition is Purple Wildflower Boutique and Consignment at 3 4th Ave. E., which opened Nov. 6. Owner Jeanne French remodeled the little stand-alone shop herself, stripping down the interior to reveal its original walls and embellish its rustic character.
The shop “was created out of my passion for creativity and fashion,” she said. French, who grew up in Browning, has worked in a number of retail businesses in the Flathead Valley, including real estate. That experience is reflected in the Purple Wildflower’s unique fusion of home décor, consignment clothes, artwork and gift items.
Offerings include bath salts, sterling jewelry, hand-painted signs, paintings and artwork, all created by Montanans. Handmade purses, many decorated in a vintage cowgirl motif and “Junk Journals,” each crafted by a local artist, are among the treasures. Her array of higher-end consignment clothing is equally eclectic, with woven hats and scarves, jeans, jackets and other vintage and contemporary fashion items lining the walls.
“I love boutique shopping and doing interior design and fashion,” she said. Purple Wildflower brings those passions together under one roof.
While it’s been stressful to open a new business during a pandemic, French said she’s already seeing return customers. “Opening the store makes me feel stronger because I’m doing something challenging in a challenging year,” she said. “I’ve just had to keep going and keep having faith.”
Note: While all shop owners we interviewed wore masks and ask their customers to do the same, some opted to drop their face coverings for their photographs.