In in the midst of their busy filming schedule, I was able to get an exclusive interview with HGTV’s newest renovating duo, Ben and Erin Napier! They’re in the midst of filming season one of their television show, Home Town. Long before the TV crew descended upon their town, long before the filming began, and long before we even knew they were, Ben and Erin had been working tirelessly for 8 years to restore their home town of Laurel, MS to it’s former glory. Their journey didn’t begin when the director yelled “action!” It began with a dream, a prayer, and a few friends.
You didn’t always live in downtown Laurel. What made you want to make downtown your home town?
Erin: I grew up in the country right outside the Laurel city limits with lots of farmland and no neighbors, so coming into town for groceries and errands with my mama was always so exciting for me. I saw kids in movies playing with neighbor kids, walking to school or into town and felt like I was missing out on something romantic and magical about living in “town.” In high school, my friends were city girls and I had loved staying over in their homes built in the 1920s, when my family’s house was so beautiful, but brand new and surrounded by forests. It was the ‘newness’ of the oldness that I was so in love with, the neighborliness, the street lamps. When we graduated from Ole Miss, Ben and I both accepted jobs here and came home. I knew it had to be in town, and we renovated a 1910 loft downtown for our first home.
Ben: I grew up a Methodist minister’s son, moving every 4 years and spending my high school years in North Carolina so I was ready to put down roots somewhere. If this is the place that grew Erin, I wanted to be part of it.
Did you set out from the beginning to revitalize Laurel or did it happen gradually over time? What made both you and Ben decide you wanted to invest your time and energy into helping revitalize the town?
Erin: When we decided to live downtown in our loft, no one was really doing that yet. When we moved home, my best friend/roommate from college, Mallorie, whom I had introduced to my cousin, Jim (who is from Laurel too and shared my romanticized country kid vision), were married shortly after Ben and I were, and also moved to Laurel. We both renovated our lofts, in next-door buildings, and people thought we were kind of crazy. They said, “there’s nothing happening downtown. It’s dead. It’s never coming back.”
Ben: Soon, my college roommate who is also from Laurel, Josh, married his wife Emily and they renovated and moved into a loft across the street. I think for the 6 of us, it was just a matter of proving the naysayers wrong.
You have an incredible group of friends and connections. How did all of your connections come together to help you with your vision for the town, for the show, for your shop? Have you experienced any push back from locals with all the changes you are bringing about?
Erin: Me, Ben, Jim, Mallorie, Josh and Emily have the same vision for this city—we want to see it thrive the way it did in the photos we’ve seen from the 1920s. Laurel was a booming city of culture and industry, and that’s still here. The state’s first and, arguably, best art museum is downtown, some of the world’s leaders in industry are based here, artists and makers and visionaries live on every corner. There are many Laurel families with powerful ties to industry and politics all over the country, and they were tired of the negativity about the housing market, the schools, the image of our city, too. Laurel had its struggles but was still thriving in some ways, but perception had changed for some reason along the way… So we started being bold about being positive, bragging on the things that made Laurel special whenever we could. Those connections all felt part of it too, and they spread the word across the country when word about the HGTV Home Town pilot air date was released. This city feels like a big family in a lot of ways, with cousins all over the country. Every small town in American that’s struggling to find its footing can see itself in Laurel, I think.
How are you balancing married life, family, friends, a TV show, and the opening of your new store?
Erin: After 8 years of self-employment with my heirloom wedding stationery company, Lucky Luxe, adjusting to the schedule of filming a TV series has been tough! We’ve always been crazy flexible and worked till after midnight and would wake up when we woke up, worked, played, and did it all over again, but our lives have had to become super structured so we can manage everything now.
Ben: Erin stepped away from making wedding invitations and that’s eased a lot of the stress. Now, we’re waking up at 5:30 am, going to the gym, filming until supper time, eating dinner with friends or family, watching an episode of 30 Rock on Netflix, then it’s straight to bed by 9:30 pm. The weekends are the time we have set aside for working on all things Laurel Mercantile Co., our new store that’s opening with Jim, Mal, Josh and Em this Christmas. Thankfully, we all have different responsibilities as we’re in the building and development stages of the store and they pick up our slack in a lot of ways since mine and Erin’s schedule is not as flexible as it used to be. There are still a few naysayers out there trying to throw a wet blanket on the progress that’s happening in Laurel, but by and large, everyone in town feels the electricity. Everyone is rallying. Teenagers post #iliveinlaurel on instagram. I think that means this is really happening, right?
Can you tell us about the new store opening in December? The name, what you’ll be selling, the vibe, and your hopes for the store. What does it bring to downtown?
Erin: The Laurel Mercantile Co. opened in Laurel in 1901 and was THE place to buy durable goods until the 1930s when industry changed and they eventually closed the doors. As industry is changing in Laurel again and it’s becoming a city of young entrepreneurs, butchers, bakers, artists, designers, a brewery, and antiques dealers, the time is right to bring back the Mercantile, albeit in a new location on Front Street, a couple blocks over from the original building. Ben’s company, Scotsman Co., started out as as his hobby woodshop, but now he designs and builds one-of-a-kind furniture from wood salvaged most in Mississippi.
Ben: Our store will carry Scotsman Co. furniture, carefully curated collections of vintage items, Scotsman Co. workwear, tools and goods designed by me and the guys then grown and sewn in Mississippi, and signature home items by Laurel Mercantile Co. Most everything in our store will be an original heirloom item that you can’t find anywhere else. They’re meant to be used, loved and passed down to the next generation.
Erin: Think of it as Fish’s Eddy meets Filson meets Bobby From Boston meets the Paris Market. Those are each big inspirations for our store in a lot of ways, and the overwhelming feeling we hope it gives our shoppers is nostalgic Americana. We are starting very small at first with limited quantities of all our products, but it’s going to be very special to each of us. It makes my heart beat fast just talking about it.
***Fish’s Eddy Filson, Bobby from Boston, and Paris Market are all stores***
What advice do you have for others wanting to revitalize and restore their own home towns?
Erin: Use the gifts and talents God gave you specifically to improve your town. Use your own personal sphere of influence to make it the place you dream of. Everyone has different skills and connections, and when they’re all used together, from the creatives who make it look cool, to the finance guys who find ways to fundraise, to the teachers who organize student projects for downtown, to the churches who start free movie nights in the park, to the butchers and breweries who know bands and can start a music festival—we’ve all got a gift. Organize, talk, and put it all together to make your town a vibrant, creative place to live.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this exclusive interview with Ben and Erin Napier from HGTV’s Home Town! Check back soon for more interviews, behind the scenes, and room recreations from the show!