At the ‘Merc’ in Schenectady, something handmade for everyone

Home to 33 vendors who make all their wares by hand
Michelle Whittall is co-owner of the Clinton Street Mercantile along with her husband, Brandon.
Michelle Whittall is co-owner of the Clinton Street Mercantile along with her husband, Brandon.

SCHENECTADY — One-stop shopping doesn’t get any better than at the Merc. That’s the Mercantile on Clinton Street — home to 33 vendors who make all their wares by hand.

Where else can you find unique, one-of-a-kind gifts that range from handbags, leather books, jewelry, knit scarves, restored furniture, paintings and skin-care products to candles, hand-dyed silk wraps or wood wall art?

“This is not a flea market or a wholesale market,” said Michelle Whittall, who owns the space with her husband, Brandon. “When we started we had no special criterion in terms of how long a vendor had been in business, only that their product had to be handmade by themselves.”

The Whittalls themselves refinish furniture under the name Uniquely Yours: He handles the constructing or fixing if something is broken, she does the restaining. For a couple of years they’d worked out of their home and sold online, but they outgrew their home space and began thinking about getting a small brick-and-mortar store.

More from Celebrate 2019: Gifts & Memories

“That’s when we began thinking about other small businesses that were having a similar experience and thought, what about if we put everyone under one roof,” Michelle said.

It would be much like an incubator or the step between working from home and having a storefront, Brandon Whittall said. With more visibility, the owners would get experience dealing with retail customers from a fixed space rather than the fluidity of craft fairs, be able to give classes in their techniques and build up a base to eventually move on. 

The Whittalls scoped out the downtown area and found a circa-1913 building that was being refinished that had 4,500 square feet on the ground floor. And then, mostly through social media, were discovered by 24 vendors interested in their business concept. The Mercantile opened last November. Most of the original vendors are still there, along with others who joined in the interim, but there is still room for about 12 more. Of those vendors, The Gazette talked to five about their products and how they got started.

Mary LaFleur: Pinewoods Potters

“I’m always working with clay,” LaFleur said. “It’s malleable, magical and no two pieces are ever the same. I love that.”  

She started in 1970 when she went looking to buy some hanging baskets.

“They were too expensive, so I decided to make my own,” she said. “I went to some adult classes, and after two years the teacher suggested I try other things.”

LaFleur started with mugs, got better, tried watercolor glazes, got more inspired and discovered that by making designs in the clay the texture created was wonderfully lace-like. Vases, small plates, masks, Christmas ornaments and clocks followed, as did working with raku, which is a kind of glaze that is riskier and takes more days to complete.

Now her pieces are sold in Gallery Amp in Saratoga Springs as well as galleries in Troy, in the Finger Lakes region and at the Albany Visitor Center, and she teaches at the Troy Art Center. More new techniques are sure to follow, she said, as she still takes workshops in places like North Carolina, Tennessee, Massachusetts and New York City.

Allison Piracci: Solulu Handmade

Piracci started sewing quilts back in college after a friend’s mother taught her how to use a sewing machine. After years of giving them as gifts to family and friends, she branched out to try making a handbag about a year ago.

“I did it for fun,” she said. “I remember what a lot of stuff I used to lug around, especially when I had kids.

So this was a tote bag with pockets and sturdy.”

She chose material such as waxed canvas or Harris tweed, put zippers in a few or magnetic snaps and began selling them at the local Greenmarket. Then she added a few clutch bags with zippers. Piracci made sure everything was finished off, something she prides herself on. She sees herself as a “bag person,” so every bag she makes is a new design. She “fiddles around” with height or depth, looks for other materials, and sometimes will keep a bag instead of selling it because she loves the result.

“I do batches of two at a time and it is a labor of love,” she said. “But my sewing skills have improved over this last year and it is my therapy. It’s empowering to put your work out there.”

Piracci still does a lot of craft shows, especially in Great Barrington, and has an Etsy store, but said she loves the exposure she’s had at the Mercantile and the community of other creative people.

Jillian Ehrenberg: Petal + Hive

If one of her children hadn’t developed allergies to certain foods, Ehrenberg might not have turned to herbal remedies to make skin-care products.

“It opened me up to the whole natural world,” she said.

PETER R. BARBER/GAZETTE PHOTOGRAPHER Jillian Ehrenberg owner of Petal +Hive at the Clinton Street Merchantile Wednesday, November 20, 2019.

She had two factors that benefitted her early on: a husband who had worked in Clinique’s laboratory and a fabulous flower garden. She began with lip balm and skin lotion, eventually moved on to facial toners, deodorant, eye cream and a bug spray — many created from her organic garden. She uses oils such as coconut or olive. Fragrances, too, are natural, such as lavender or vanilla. 

Now in her fourth year of business, she’s become more adept in the lab. It used to take up to a year to be sure a lotion would be stable enough to market. Now it’s about three months, she said. She sells a lot online, and at stores in Ballston Spa and Schuylerville, but enjoys the “ebb and flow” at the Mercantile.

Marilyn DeMartino: MG Designs

“I was a letter carrier for years, but I got bored after three years of retirement,” DeMartino said. “My twin sister needed a book to paste in our pictures and memorabilia because the binding of the book we had kept breaking, so I decided to make a book.”

She found some leather remnants at the Salvation Army, cut up some leather clothes, read a few books on how to do it and hand stitched a book with old hardware she’d found for that purpose. DeMartino liked the result so much that “I got brave and ordered some hides online.”

PETER R. BARBER/GAZETTE PHOTOGRAPHER Handmade leather journals by MGD Designs owner Marilyn DeMartino at the Clinton Street Merchantile Wednesday, November 20, 2019.

Since that first book, DeMartino has added a kind of diary with parchment paper, or mixe- media paper or watercolor paper for artists; little books or large coffee table-sized books and even a tote bag. One of her books was in the television drama “Midnight Texas.” She also sells on Etsy, Facebook, in Rhode Island, Massachusetts and Oregon galleries.

“I do it all by hand — each hole is poked and stitched. But the books speak to me,” she said. “There’s an energy.”

Jamie Forsyth: Inspire Wanderlust

“Grandma taught me how to knit when I was 14, but I was terrible,” Forsyth said laughing. “I made these atrocities for the family. Then it became my therapy. By my late 20s, I made something decent, but I could only knit in a straight line.”

Scarves became her thing, especially working in jewel tones. “I’d be sad if I only used gray or white.” And she enjoyed trying all kinds of fiber, from wool or acrylics to banana fiber. But eventually she ran out of people she could give them to. That’s when the idea of selling them surfaced. 

More from Celebrate 2019: Gifts & Memories

Forsyth has been at the Mercantile since it opened and she’s branched out to hats, scarves that she adorns with interesting buttons and unusual giant chunky blankets that are woven from a T-shirt material stuffed with cotton. 

“They’re fun to do and shockingly easy to make. I taught myself,” she said.

Categories: Business, Schenectady County

Leave a Reply