Elberta Mercantile: Everything Old Is New Again

Elberta Mercantile: Everything Old Is New Again

Very heavy weird old things

By Emily Votruba
Current Contributor

The old Gilmore Township Library on Elberta’s Frankfort Avenue will reopen to the public in mid-July as The Elberta Mercantile Company, a shop full of vintage items, antiques, and collectibles.

Mark and Carol Carlin of Ferndale and Frankfort are your hosts at this renovated and restored mid-century brick building, where one person’s old junk can become someone else’s new treasure (sometimes again and again).

Mark, 32 years an auditor, retired from the State of Michigan in 2010. Carol retired recently from a career in nursing, social work, and research at Wayne State University to take care of her elderly parents and to enjoy every possible minute with the couple’s four grandchildren. The joyful integration of old and new—do you see a pattern here?

The Carlins have spent summers and some winters in Frankfort since 1990, when Carol says she first learned the “Frankfort shuffle” from her sister’s mother-in-law, Marge Grix, during an icy winter visit. Over the years, the Carlins have instigated annual events such as the Rough Art show, at Grix’s house (now occupied by Grix’s grandson, local artist Joe Cissell) during the Fourth of July parade and an annual Memorial Day weekend yard sale at their place on Corning Avenue; that sale has included many of the sorts of curiosities they will now be purveying at Elberta Mercantile.

Things like collectible and one-of-a-kind clothing, classic children’s toys (trains, entire year-runs of Matchbox cars, Fisher-Price matériel), sports and celebrity memorabilia, signage, furniture, fixtures—and very heavy weird old things.

On a sunny day in June, as renovation work continued on the building, Mark and Carol invited me to sit at a table on the Mercantile’s new coffee terrace, next to a planter from Odom’s Reuse with native flowers, a large green steel wheel from somewhere in Thompsonville, and a rotary reception desk phone from a Sheraton in Detroit. Soon we were talking about “party lines” and stretchable phone cords, and I could tell the conversation was going to flow as freely as the coffee.

The first order of business was to show me the antique chiropractor’s table and tell me its story. The chiropractor’s table looks, Mark aptly points out, like something out of Young Frankenstein, with geared adjustment wheels and various panels of cold steel on a huge cast-iron base. It must weigh 300 pounds, I think.

“I like anything really old and heavy and metal that looks like it’s going to run forever,” says Marks, who got started collecting just after college, when he bought a big old cash register. “Whiskey barrels. Tiger Stadium seats. Wheels. Just really old heavy stuff.”

“And you gotta understand,” adds Carol, laughing, “when it’s time to lift something huge and heavy, I’m always the one on the other end of it!”

When Mark showed up with the chiropractor’s table in the back of the couple’s van, Carol decided that this time she was not going to be the one on the other end—they would get help from some of their new next-door neighbors.

“So we broke up the Eco-Building Products staff meeting, and they helped us move the table,” she says.

A little while later, another neighbor, Nancy Gumm, came over and mentioned that she and her family were having an estate sale of her dad’s things and that the Carlins might want to check it out. She walked into the building, saw the chiropractor’s table, and said, “Wow, my dad has one just like that!”

As it turned out, Mark had already been to the sale. It was the same table.

Back when the couple first started coming up to Frankfort, Carol says, it was the Smokestack that really kicked Mark’s collecting into gear. “Because you could sell anything there,” she says.

“And after the Smokestack closed, we started accumulating things,” Mark says. He continued to scour resale shops and garage sales, and Frankfort Cleanup Day produced some scores. “We call it the Frankfort Furniture Exchange.”

They have sold things on consignment at the Emporium in Benzonia, as well as at those humongous Memorial Weekend yard sales, when some people would come three days in a row just to look and hang out.

“We’ve always been intrigued by Elberta,” Carol says. “My preferred beach is over here. I like how wild it is. We didn’t know many people over here before. But just since we’ve started this project, we’ve met more people than we’ve maybe met in the whole previous 20 years of coming up here.”

The Carlins recognize that they are taking over a building and a site with a lot of meaning to current and former Elberta “kids,” some of whom are now well into their golden years. Pulling out his copy of Blacklock’s History of Elberta and several pages of notes, Mark says he hopes that anyone with information and memories about the library or the Buckner garage or the blacksmiths shops—all there prior—or really, anything at all to share, will step forward.

Remediation, Restoration, and Renewal

The Carlins bought the building from the Village of Elberta for $60,000 in April. The Village had decided to sell it as part of paring down its mid-six-figure general-fund-balance deficit. In addition to the proceeds from the sale, Elberta will now receive tax revenue from the property.

“I am thrilled to have a new business in Elberta,” says Diane Jenks, president of the Village Board of Trustees. “The library was a great asset, and I am thrilled they saved the building.”

The Carlins considered other locations for their shop, including the Frankfort Building Supply site, but Mark decided that might prove unwieldy, financially and size-wise.

“When you have a place that big, people start dropping stuff off, and you think you have unlimited space, but you don’t,” he says. “Next thing you know, you can’t move, and then the roof starts to leak. The fact that Elberta had already fixed the roof on the library was a big selling point.”

Still, there was much to be done. The Carlins received an extensive report on what remediation might be required.

“We knew there was no lead-based paint, but there was asbestos in the floor-tile mastic and around the windows,” Mark explains. “What was unexpected was the asbestos in the drywall mudding, which was why all the drywall had to be removed and redone.”

Not to mention that the windowpanes, which they had wanted to save, had to be completely replaced within their original metal frames—they all were cracked or broken during asbestos remediation.

There is certainly heavy-metal contamination in the soil from the garage and the fire, but it is unclear how deep it goes, Mark says. Fortunately there are no underground storage tanks left over from the site’s time as a service station, and it does not seem to be impacting groundwater. Since the building is commercial, the Carlins are not required to get an environmental study or to remediate the ground.

“But we’d love to take care of the back area eventually,” Carol says. “We have an arbor with a swing we found at Frankfort Cleanup Day, and we’d like to set it up back there.”

The Carlins have not only saved the building, they have updated it and restored it to something like its former glory: a fresh coat of stain in a tasteful green with yellow trim, the aforementioned coffee terrace, and—perhaps most spectacularly—the uncovering and restoring of the large windows, long obscured by drywall and bookshelves. The drop ceiling is gone, and a new cool, airy feeling comes from the white-painted steel roof supports high above, the ceiling fans, and the natural light reflecting off the turquoise-colored block walls. With its openness and concrete floor, the Elberta Mercantile will echo the old service station; and in the center of the main room, on wheels so that it can be moved about seasonally, is the old library circulation desk, acting as checkout counter.

Breathe In, Breathe Out

“We don’t specifically buy to sell,” Carol says. “When something good comes along, we’ll have it in the house for a year or two. We’ll enjoy it. And then we’ll let it go… This has always been a dream—probably more so for me—to give Mark an outlet to display and sell. In our house right now, there are things that I’m ready to let go of.”

“Carol says it’s like your body: you’ve got to breathe in and breathe out,” Mark says of their buying and selling. “After we get all our junk in here, then we’ll know more about how much space we have for consignments. But that’s the hope, because people have some nice stuff. And we’ll also take requests, if there’s something you want us to keep our eyes peeled for.”

Both these ideas excite me personally. I, too, have a lot of junk other people might treasure and am addicted to the energy of old things. “Is there any type of thing you won’t consider taking?” I ask.

“I had a colleague at my auditing job who’d say, ‘If it’s not illegal or immoral or fattening, I’ll approve it.’ You just have to use common sense.” Mark says.

“It always bums us out, some of the things people throw away,” Carol adds. “But it means we’ll always have junk!” she says, grinning.

Elberta Mercantile Co., located at 704 Frankfort Avenue/M-22 in Elberta, will be open Tuesdays through Sundays from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. through October. Emily Votruba runs and reports for The Elberta Alert. Additional reporting contributed by Andrew Bolander.

Photo caption: Carol and Mark Carlin at The Elberta Mercantile Company, with Gordie Howe. Trompe l’oeil door painted by Kathleen Baker. Photo by Emily Votruba.

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