Back To Business: Lark Street Mercantile

December 16, 2020

Opening a new business takes a lot of time and planning. Entrepreneurs work months – even years – to get everything ready for opening day: Financing, building, purchasing and more. The momentum, once it’s underway, is hard to stop.

Brandon and Michelle Whittall know this first hand. They were building out Lark Street Mercantile, their second Capital Region incubator space for local artists and makers, all last winter, getting the pieces in place for a planned ribbon cutting ceremony in mid-March.

That ceremony never happened.

Instead, the Whittalls opted for a soft opening as concerns about the highly infectious new coronavirus continued to build. Their Albany incubator space welcomed customers for eight days and then shuttered for two months following the governor’s PAUSE mandate, which closed all but essential businesses in an effort to curb COVID-19’s spread.

Like so many other businesses, the Whittalls quickly pivoted to online sales, for which they previously had the capacity, but never experienced such a pressing need to build it out. The couple put as much inventory as possible online but found that virtual shopping for the products they offered could not fully replace the in-person experience.

“Most people in our field, we have found, want to touch and see and feel and talk to,” said Brandon Whittall. “We do sell online, but that’s not a huge draw for us. It’s so unique.”

The Whittalls divide up their larger space and lease the smaller areas to a cadre of independent artist and makers, who, in turn, display and sell their wares. Everything offered is handmade, and products run the gamut from wooden bowls and cutting boards, to pottery, photography, paintings, clothing, candles, soap and even jewelry.

All sales run through a single register and the Whittalls handle the accounting side of things, including credit card fees and sales tax. The Lark Street Mercantile was able to reopen for in-person shopping on June 3, and the move was very well received, Brandon Whittall said.

“The community rallied around us,” he recalled. “We did get a big boost right at the beginning and have been able to keep a steady flow of customers. And we’re ramping up because it’s shopping season for Christmas.”

The flow of customers was steady, but not overwhelming, Brandon Whittall said, which made enforcing safe social distances between customers easier. The couple tries to limit the number of people inside the store, requires masks and regularly wipes down high-touch surfaces.

The Lark Street Mercantile – the “Merc” to those in the know – is not the Whittalls only business. They opened a similar retail space, the Clinton Street Mercantile, in Schenectady in 2018. The Schenectady space at 144 Clinton St. is owned by Redburn Development Partners, and offers workshops and classes, all taught by local vendors.

The Whittalls rent their location at 262 Lark St., the former home of the Lark Street Flower Market, which is owned by a partnership between Redburn’s Jeff Buell and husband and wife Justin and Jennifer Miller, who are operating a yoga studio and opening a live music venue called Lark Hall in the historic building. 

The Whittalls do not have any employees and run their businesses on their own. Brandon’s previous career was in food service, so he has experience in forecasting and management, while his wife, he says, is “creative, so we make a pretty good partnership.”

Both Mercs have extended hours for the season, and after-hours semi-private shopping is available by appointment. The Whittalls are very active on social media and keep their customers up to date on new products, happenings and more.