By Matthew Barton
Don’t be fooled by its plain exterior and the lack of a prominent sign.
Old Lex Mercantile, at 113 West Nelson St., offers two distinct product lines. A variety of unique, monogrammed products are complemented by specialty olive oil and wine selections sold on the other side of the shop.
But this isn’t a high-end store that has come to Lexington. It’s a new concept in retail, but one that’s as old as an old city marketplace.
Betsy and Lai Lee, the owners of the building, came to Lexington a year and a half ago and opened Old Lex Mercantile. “We came from a corporate background,” he said.
Mr. Lee is originally from the Chinatown area of New York City. He and his wife are the co-founders of High Meadow Strategies, a business strategy consulting firm located in Lexington. However, recently, much of their focus has been to stimulate the economy of downtown Lexington.
Their corporate upbringing has a clear influence in their business model in Lexington. They initially became involved with Main Street Lexington, an organization that focuses on boosting the economy of Lexington as well as supporting local businesses.
“We contributed by buying this building,” Mr. Lee said, laughing. He went on to say that they wanted to provide a space for people looking to find success in retail in Lexington.
“It is hard to take risks in retail because if the business goes under you are still stuck paying off a three-year lease,” Mr. Lee explained. They wanted to make it easier for people to test the waters with minimal risk.
An Old Concept with a new Twist
The Lees used their business background to create a business plan that looks to the history of American business for its fundamentals. They have essentially brought the concept of the old department store to Lexington.
Building on this concept, the building is not occupied by one store at a time; it is divided into four quadrants allowing people to share the space with multiple stores and products. For the shopkeepers or vendors, paying for a piece of the space creates less risk to start a business than if they had to rent an entire building.
The Lees continue to help new retailers by charging on a month-to-month basis. This way, if a business is not doing well, retailers do not have to worry about paying off a long-term lease.
“You only need a business license to approach me…and sometimes not even,” Mr. Lee said.
Occupying half the store is “Initial Inspirations,” a monogram shop founded by Jennifer Ledford.
“Initial Inspirations,” which started in Waynesboro, offers custom monograms on bags, blankets and other items. Ledford decided to open another store in Lexington one year ago after the Lees visited her shop and felt it would be a good fit.
Ledford received an email from the Lees in August and moved in on Sept. 15. There is no end date to her lease.
Still in the Works
The Lees currently occupy the other half of the building with their own olive oil and wine products. The Lees are also connecting with the Washington and Lee University community by offering products created by students and alums, displayed prominently on a rack at the front of the store.
Mr. Lee, after attending an entrepreneurial summit at W&L, decided to offer students an opportunity to have their products sold in the store.
The Lees also invite local artists to sell their work at wholesale within the store.
The Lees’ business concept is not complete with just the main floor of the building. The basement of the building is what separates this business from any other business in Lexington.
The basement, appropriately named “Start Here,” provides businesses a space to start and grow their own brand. Start Here’s mission is “to help businesses incubate and grow,” according to the brochure.
The space includes computers, color printers, white boards, a conference room and a full kitchen. Like the retail space, the Lees rent out this space on both a short-term and long-term basis.
“In order to help businesses grow, they need a space to do it,” Mr. Lee said. With this option, a young business can have the means to be successful.
A start-up, for example, might not have enough money to rent office space long-term until it is certain that the business will be successful.
Ideally, several businesses can use this space simultaneously, which would create an incubator of ideas that can be shared and used to help each other grow.
The Lees also want to offer this space to those who work from home and might need a professional office or conference room in which to meet clients.
Another possibility is to rent to W&L students and parents.
This could be a quiet space where students can get away from the campus frenzy during finals, Mr. Lee explained. He also thinks that parents could take advantage of this space when visiting their children and cannot put their business on hold.
This would further connect downtown Lexington with the W&L community.
“If none of this works out,” he joked, “we can always rent the space out as an apartment.”