While it may seem romantic that a family of four was living out their version of the American Dream, it wasn’t always that glamorous. “I thought they were crazy for what were they doing to me,” says Lisa Cooper, now 44, about her parents who took her away from her friends and the warmth of Florida for a life living above a creaky old store. “From that perspective, I didn’t love the business at first.”
“We certainly struggled hand-to-mouth for the first few years,” says John Cooper, who had to contend with a 17.5% interest rate and 60-hour workweeks among other obstacles. “We made some mistakes early on in terms of the kind of products we bought. But what began to work for us, and what our vendors helped us with, was focusing on the kinds of seasonal clothing, tools, and gifts you would expect to find in a general store. You won’t find any electronics or flat-screen TVs in a Mast store.”
It’s true. When you walk into any one of the eight Mast stores spread throughout a three-state region of North Carolina, Tennessee and South Carolina, you’ll feel a sense of déjà vu, that somehow the store you’ve entered is just as friendly and cozy as any others you have shopped at. Each time you enter, it’s like taking that same step back in time. “We want people to feel at home when they come into our stores,” says Cooper. “We want them to have a different kind of experience that’s fun. We learned that the three essentials to setting yourself apart from other retailers is to deliver fair prices, good quality merchandise, and great customer service. In this age of centralization with chains and malls, we’ve lost real genuine customer service. But it’s one of the hallmarks of our business. We have a warmth that’s not contrived. It’s why our floors are made of wood and not plastic.”
And yet, hidden behind the rustic hominess of the stores lies the infrastructure of a modern, cutting-edge company that has become an integral part of the communities it operates in.
Today, Mast General Store is a thriving business with 450 full and part-time employees. [quote float=”right”]“We never had plans to grow into more than one location,” says Cooper. “It just happened.”[/quote] The business has grown substantially over the years, albeit in a thoughtful and organic way. The first turning point came in 1982 when the Coopers were offered the opportunity to lease another building in Valle Crucis, just two-tenths of a mile down the street from their other building, which used to house a competing business in the old days. Feeling an itch to expand, they pounced on it and created what’s now called The Annex, which sells clothing, outdoor gear, and lots of candy. “We never had plans to grow into more than one location,” says Cooper. “It just happened.”
Eventually, as the business began to find its groove, the Cooper’s moved out from above their store into a proper house. That didn’t last long, though. The business community in nearby Boone, some seven miles away, had noticed how well the Mast stores were doing in Valle Crucis. They wanted the Coopers to save an old downtown department store in their town by opening up a third Mast store in it. Cooper demurred. It seemed risky and there wasn’t enough parking. But when another merchant in town offered to work together to improve parking in the downtown, Cooper finally agreed. But, to help finance the acquisition, the Coopers sold their house and moved into an old farmhouse in Valle Crucis to help the new store get started. “Opening that store effectively doubled the size of our business,” says Cooper, who has since moved again but still lives in Valle Crucis just a few minutes away from the original store.
As word began to spread about Mast’s success—helped in part by the popularity of a nationally-syndicated story written by Charles Kuralt in 1986 about the store—other towns came calling, too. They were spurred on by the Main Street program, which was driving the revitalization of downtowns throughout the country. That led to the next expansion in 1991 into Waynesville, into Hendersonville in 1995 and Asheville in 1999.
“One of the things Faye and I did early on in these communities was that if someone asked for money like a nonprofit or a school we gave what we could,” says Cooper. “We have always been very intentional about giving back to the communities we are involved in. In addition to giving, we or staff members have also served on boards that dealt with the economic development of the towns we were moving into.”
The business eventually expanded outside of North Carolina in 2003 when it opened a store in Greenville, South Carolina, and then again in 2006 when it opened a store in Knoxville, Tennessee. Another store followed in 2011 in Columbia, South Carolina, with the newest store slated to open in Winston-Salem in 2015. In each case, the business has bought the building it moved into—something that Cooper says has proven to be a great strategy over the years. “We only have to pay for it once rather than having to see increases in our rent based on how well we do,” he says.
Not every store the Coopers opened fared well, however. The store they started in Chapel Hill didn’t last a full year before the Coopers sold the building that now houses the Carolina Brewing Company. Similarly, a candy store in Blowing Rock that opened in 2005 has since been closed.
“It’s been an interesting ride for us,” says Cooper. “We’ve learned from our previous experience about how to treat employees well and also to give back to the community. But we also want to grow conservatively, because we don’t want to overstretch the brand. We don’t want to be perceived as some chain operation that’s only trying to make as much money as we can.”