Quality over quantity in Appalachia
Downtown Franklin is all sunshine, but it’s the calm before the storm.
Drifting through an array of stores and restaurants lining Main Street, the scene is quiet, but soon, with Thanksgiving falling into the rearview mirror, shoppers determined and curious will overtake the small town, in search of handmade items from regional artists. Strolling the sidewalk, one soon comes upon North Carolina Mountain Made.
“From now until Christmas, it’s going to be real busy,” said storeowner Linda McKay.
Featuring over 200 artisans and craftspeople from around Western North Carolina, the beloved business is coming into its ninth year, with preparations again being made for the holiday rush.
“There’s something about [handmade crafts] that’s a warm feeling,” McKay said. “I just like knowing it’s made in the area, it’s made with character you cannot find if it’s mass-produced.”
A lifelong resident of the area, McKay has been creating all of her life. Ever since she was a little girl, she has done decorative art, making signs, painting saws or just taking whatever she could find and make something out of it.
“A little bit of everything,” she chuckled. “I love to work with my hands.”
But, with the unexpected death of her husband over 30 years ago, McKay had to find a way to support herself and her children. She was a teacher’s aide at the time and was going back to school to get her teaching certification. But, something just didn’t feel right.
“I didn’t want to teach and didn’t want to do something where I’d be inside all the time,” she said. “So, I just started doing craft shows and I loved it.”
Crisscrossing the south, McKay participated in shows from North Carolina to Florida, selling her work and making friendships along the way with other artists. She was able to find stability in her creations, on top of a feeling of self-satisfaction.
“I get to be my own boss,” she said. “The hours are long, but I love doing it.”
With the idea to open North Carolina Mountain Made with friend Ben Utley (who has since left the company), McKay pulled out her Rolodex of friends and crafters she’d met along her journeys. She wanted something that wasn’t as stiff as a gallery, but more like you were invited into someone’s home. The plan was set in motion and eventually the store opened its doors.
“It just blossomed,” she said. “We had gone around to the shows and I already knew the people and they knew that I knew crafts, that I had integrity to properly display their works.”
Deciding who and what would be sold in her store, McKay philosophy was “If I would display it in my home, then I will take it.” She stressed that the piece had to be decorative, with an emphasis on quality.
“A lot of the things here are ‘Grandma comes to town’ sort of stuff,” she said. “And it’s good stuff to give to your family. We want it to be top quality.”
Downstairs in the store, artist Myrolin McNair is putting the finishing touches on her holiday display. She specializes in matching craft schemes, which can range from kitchen shelves to dishtowels, aprons to napkins, tissue box covers to coasters, amongst other items. The themes reflect the area, with bears, deer and birds covering the pieces.
“[Handmade crafts] are more personal and done with more care,” she said. “When I buy or make something, I want it made right.”
A crafter for over 20 years, McNair and her husband work together, continually collaborating on ideas that come to fruition with their hands. Moving to Franklin 12 years ago from Tampa, she likes living and working in such a unique and special community.
“It’s kind of like going back in time a little bit,” she said. “We wanted to get away from the city. I love the fact we can drive from one end of Franklin to the other in less than five minutes.”
Selling her works in NC Mountain Made for the last few years, McNair, and other crafters, will help out with the business, whether it be working the register or simply aiding customers in their pursuits of local products.
“It’s a very good working relationship with [Linda],” she said. “She’s easy to work with. It’s sort of a business relationship, but it’s also a friendship, too. I enjoy getting to know the other crafters and pitching in together.”
A second-home owner in Franklin, Dee Hall is in town for the holidays and once again is perusing North Carolina Mountain Made for certain gifts she has in mind for loved ones. She comes into the store often, and that’s not by accident.
“I like the variety in this store,” she said. “It’s just nice to see local crafts, everything not only made in the United States, but in North Carolina, and the money stays in the community.”
Proud of her Appalachian roots and the tradition of quality that is sewn deeply into the fabric of Western North Carolina, McKay is grateful to not only work with her hands and talents, but also enjoys keeping alive the passions and creativity that has been at the backbone of this region.
“Mountain people are survivors. There wasn’t a lot of employment here and we did what we could to make a living, which meant working with your hands and making things,” she said. “A lot of us were born with it. It was handed down, but most of us learned it because we had to and I’m proud of that.”