White's Mercantile: From Nashville with Love

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Written by Holly Bieler

Growing up, Holly Williams always had an unusual dream career. Or, at least, part of it was unusual.

 “I remember in high school telling my counselor: I want to make music, and I want to be an interior designer,” Williams said.

 Aspirations of the former weren’t exactly rare in Nashville, with such a rich music scene and history people often call it Music City, U.S.A.  Coming from Williams, however, this pie-in-the-sky dream sounded just a little less far-fetched. The daughter of legendary country star Hank Williams Jr. and granddaughter of Hank Williams, one of the most significant songwriters of the 20th century, Williams hails from one of the most famous country music families in history. From an early age it became clear her bloodline’s considerable talents had also been passed along to her. Obsessed with poetry from the time she could read, by 9 years old Williams already had a folder filled with song lyrics, and soon began showing an aptitude for piano and guitar. By high school Williams was writing and performing her own music in front of friends and any Nashville venue that would let her on stage. When her father finally heard her perform for the first time, a composition about the recent death of his best friend, he confirmed to his daughter what had become increasingly obvious to those around her: 

“You’ve got the real thing,” he said.

But while her musical inclinations weren’t a surprise, the interior design thing, on the other hand—that was a little out of left field. 

“My mom had good taste but she didn’t love design,” Williams said. “In no way did I grow up going to furniture stores and learning about wallpaper.”

She had, however, grown up visiting the home of her maternal grandparents June and Warren White, not as famous as her celebrity paternal counterparts, perhaps, but ultimately of no less inspiration to the young Williams.

The new White’s Mercantile store in the Malibu Country Mart opened in May.

The new White’s Mercantile store in the Malibu Country Mart opened in May.

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She remembers how magical every room in the Warren’s house felt, shelves brimming with beautiful antiques deftly intermixed with unique modern and contemporary pieces.

“I was really inspired by their interiors when I was younger,” Williams said. “There wasn’t really one style. It wasn’t all modern or all shabby chic or all antiques. It was such a perfect mix of a few family heirloom pieces, a few modern pieces, a few antiques. Just anything that spoke to their heart.” 

Fast forward a few years later and incredulous college counselors, not to mention Williams herself, might be surprised to see how deftly she’s juggled her disparate passions. A celebrated singer-songwriter with three critically-acclaimed albums under her belt, Williams’ lyrical, genre-fusing ballads have made her one of the most popular young voices in the country sphere today.

At the same time Williams has quietly become a leading figure in the new generation of Southern design. The founder of White’s Mercantile (named after June and Warren), a rapidly-expanding collection of shops rendered in the tradition of a traditional Southern general store, Williams’ beautifully-appointed storefronts and meticulously-curated inventory, mixing high and low, old Southern antiques with new local artisans, have inspired a contemporary Southern aesthetic all their own. Featuring everything from food to clothing to home goods, in just a few short years Williams’ jewel box shops have gained a cult following, and now count 8 locations, including a new store in the Malibu Country Mart, with plans to open more in the next couple years.

Which is not to say that living your dream is easy. The mother of three young children, Williams is the first to admit that turning a passion into a profession is hard, let alone two. However she knows no other way. 

“God gave me the type of personality, where I’m very much a risk-taker,” she said. “I don’t know if I’m crazy or smart. I haven’t figured that part out yet. But I do take risks.”

Indeed risks are the reason Holly Williams is where she is. After graduating high school at 18, Williams immediately began pursuing music full-time, eschewing college in favor of a cross-country roadtrip to test out her talents. Armed with an acoustic guitar and a beat-up copy of On the Road, Williams jumped in her mom’s Suburban and set out across the U.S., jumping on stage at every hole-in-the-wall venue and open mic she could find.

If her friends and family were skeptical ,and traveling young and alone could undoubtedly be tough, Williams couldn’t have been happier.

“It was a really important experience to me culturally I think,” she said. “Young people will put out an album and go straight into massive fame; tour buses and jets and arenas. Which is awesome. But you don’t really get to see the world that way. I got to do such incredible traveling, and really experience life through that.”

Hard-scrabble anonymity did not last long, however.  Within a few years Williams had begun drawing the attention of stars like like Sheryl Crowe and Keith Urban, and was soon opening massive arena shows around the country while quietly  working on a debut album. Released in 2004 by Universal South Records, The Ones We Never Knew drew rave reviews and strong sales, further catapulting Williams’ career.

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However as Williams star was starting to grow, tragedy hit. While driving with her sister Hilary on an unlit Mississippi road, Haley hit a small patch of gravel, losing control of the car before it flipped into a ravine.

“All I remember is screaming bloody murder and almost telling myself, you need to shut down,” Williams said. 

Hilary was pronounced dead at the scene before she was ultimately revived by EMTs, and for the next few days her condition was touch-and-go. When she finally stabilized, doctors let her family know she was facing a long and brutal road to rehabilitation: she wouldn’t be out of the hospital in less than a year, and having broken nearly every bone in her body, would need to relearn all of her basic physical functions, including walking.

And while Holly had fared far better than her sister, sustaining just a broken arm and wrist, the injuries were severe enough doctors couldn’t say with certainty she would every play music again. Just a few days earlier, Holly had been scheduled to embark on a massive German tour. However facing her injuries and her sister’s frightening prognosis, Williams realized she needed to reconsider her career in muic.

“I remember telling my mom, ‘I need a plan B’,” said Williams. “I can’t go to Europe and leave ya’ll to take care of her. And then I just decided, kind out literally of the blue one day: I want to try to open a clothing store.”

While Williams had never worked in retail before, a clothing store, in many ways, seemed like an obvious choice. Entrepreneurship ran in her family as well, with her grandfather Hank Williams, and his wife, Audrey, opening Nashville’s first retail clothing store in 1951. And when Williams surveyed the current state of retail in her home city, it seemed things hadn’t much changed since. If you were looking for country club formalwear or a dress for church, Nashville had plenty of options, as it did stores catering to college students. Shoppers looking for anything in between, however, were generally out of luck, especially when it came to contemporary brands like Rag & Bone and J. Brand that Williams had been exposed to and come to favor during her tours.

Williams at home in Nashville.

Williams at home in Nashville.

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After working on a business plan for a year and a half, Williams opened her store in downtown Nashville in 2009, naming it H. Audrey after her her first initial and her grandmother’s name. The store proved a huge success, drawing shoppers across Tennesee in its first year. 

It wasn’t long before Williams had fully caught the retail bug, and just a couple years later was onto her next project. 

“I had this crazy idea where I wanted to open, what I call now, a general store for the modern day tastemaker,” Williams said. “It just kind of popped in my head. I was like I’m too busy to go to the paper store and the dog store and the gift shop and all these different places. And from being on the road all the time I had the chance to discover so many wonderful lines. I was really passionate about trying to bring everything I loved into one place.”

Williams took as inspiration the old Southern general stores she had grown up hearing about, often the heart of small towns, where neighbors gathered to chat and picked up their necessities.  

“I really wanted to capture the old American general store,” she said. “I love nothing more than when some 85 year old comes in and says, ‘This reminds me of the general store in my hometown.’”

When it opened in 2013 out of a renovated Nashville gas station, White’s Mercantile was an instant success, drawing tons of daily visitors and soon an obsessive Instagram following.

“It became bigger than anything I had expected,” Williams said. “Our Instagram numbers started growing rapidly, customers were coming in from all over, and I started dreaming about this one-stop shop growing far past Nashville.”

A second Nashville location soon followed, and then another in Wilson, Arkansas.  Galvanized by their success, Williams began mapping out a future for White’s Mercantile much larger than she had imagined at first, identifying 6 more locations for future stores. 

Williams’ has renovated over 8 houses throughout the South.

Williams’ has renovated over 8 houses throughout the South.

“I just based it off towns I liked to hang out in,” she said. “I wanted places that had a sense of community, and a small-town feel.”  

Locations in Louisville, Kentucky and Charleston, South Carolina soon followed, before opening her New Orleans and Malibu shops in May of this year. 

Throughout expansion, Williams has ensured that each White’s Mercantile shop retain the community feel at the core of its mission. Each location is involved in local charity efforts, and 20% of each store’s inventory is locally-sourced. 

In the Malibu shop, a light-filled space in the Country Mart, expect to find local goods such as Simple Nature candles made right here in Malibu and copies of Malibu Farm Cookbook. This in addition to the store’s own inventory, a dizzying, meticulously-curated collection of specialty foods, beauty and grooming products, exquisite home wares and a small but thoughtful selection of men’s and women’s clothing from brands like Agolde and Mason du Soir. One could get lost roaming the surprisingly expansive store, perusing the shelves of small-batch condiments and rows of books, rifling through bins of knickknacks to the lilt of country music always on shuffle. For Williams, this first west coast store epitomizes what White’s Mercantile is about: casual luxury, not taking yourself too seriously, and finding a little piece of home in an ostensibly very different place.

“The first time I went to the Country Mart I remember thinking this is incredible,” she said. “I saw a horse walk by and I was like, there’s a horse? It felt like the South did in certain ways—very warm and welcoming.”

With a goal of opening 10 locations of White’s Mercantile by next year, Williams is getting close to seeing her vision fully realized. Not that that’ll mean down time. Currently at work on a fourth album, scheduled to begin recording this February, and with a burgeoning side business renovating dilapidated farmhouses and cabins across the South, there is truly no rest for Williams. As long as she can pursue her passions, however, every last one of them, she’s not complaining.

“Expanding this brand that I am so crazy about can be extremely overwhelming and nerve-wracking,” said Williams. “But my love for White’s and my amazing team are the magic.  I do believe that if you are passionate about something, you do it.” MM

White’s Mercantile

3835 Cross Creek Rd STE C

(310) 317-4750

whitesmercantile.com

Holly Bieler