Bass River Mercantile – A Community Cornerstone

KA_Bass River Mercantile_071216_011A ragtime tune plays on an original Nickelodeon, while children browse an array of glossy, plastic iPhone cases – how eclectic is that?

It’s a daily scene at the Bass River Mercantile, one that has cycled through the store in different iterations for many years.

The “Wolfe pack” – Steve and Madeline Wolfe – have operated the store at the intersection of Route 28 and Main Street, South Yarmouth, since 1999. But after upholding a neighborly community spirit through friendly conversation and unusual objects for nearly 20 years, they’ve decided to retire.

It won’t be for a while yet, so there’s still time to browse the Mercantile’s balanced collection of tenderly-curated antiques, locally-produced crafts and a touch of the contemporary – all housed in a building on the National Registry of Historic Places.

The building, over 200 years old, is what Madeline Wolfe said really draws people. No matter how much the inventory changes to meet the interests of the next generation, the oldest thing the store has to offer is what keeps customers flowing in: the store itself.

From the busy intersection outside, passersby see a saloon-like storefront with large windows, flowerboxes and a set of benches marked “Republican” and “Democrat.” Atop the porch overhang sits a starkly-lettered sign, spelling clearly in gold-on-black the name of the establishment it represents.

Though the intersection where the Mercantile overlooks is one of the busiest on Route 28, the chaos is strangely subdued to the point of non-existence once you are inside the store. It is almost, in co-founder Steve’s words, “magical.”

Steve is no stranger to the business of retail, having operated similar outfits for nearly 50 years. He and his wife have built their business on quality products and support of the artisans around them, and the community has supported them steadily in turn.

“Customers in the community are loyal and respectful,” Madeline said. “All people want you to remember them and feel special, and they remember you when you do that for them.”

It is hard not to feel special inside The Bass River Mercantile. Besides the friendly faces of the owners, the joy of shoppers as they come upon an unexpected treasure, and the overall serenity felt inside, the store offers visitors a variety unmatched by bought-out dime stores and the big retail chains.

At the Mercantile, they say that shopping “upstairs will put you in the past, downstairs will bring you back to the present.” And that’s true, in a way.

The “upstairs,” or main level entrance floor, does feature most of the shop’s supply of candy, artisan crafts, and locally-produced art. These items are hardly antiques, but the real attraction to this section is to observe how the store’s inventory has changed so drastically in only 20 years. If you’re not looking closely, you’ll miss the petite 19th century cabinet, or the exquisitely crafted wooden sailboats sitting on original wood shelves.

One thing you won’t miss, however, is the Nickelodeon. Considering its price marked at $20,000, there’s likely a reason it wasn’t a fast seller. But the Wolfes don’t seem to mind as children plop quarters into the brass-plated slot, prompting the self-playing array of six internal instruments to come to life and hammer out a tune.

Down the short stairway to the right of the main entrance is the more modern section, featuring all things pleasantly kitsch and Cape-y.

Though the store was Steve’s dream, Madeline, a teacher, has made it every bit hers as his. She’s been to trade shows around the country, collecting pieces she thought would best adorn their unique arrangements.
“Even if it is popular, I won’t bring in anything that doesn’t fit our store,” she said proudly.

Though she did say she has enjoyed seeing the occasionally odd pieces that go. She once sold a giant bust of the “ugliest gorilla you’ve ever seen,” as she referred to it.

Steve, on the other hand, has a passion for candy – or at least the old way of selling it. He insists that his variety of hard-to-find sweet treats be sold by the piece and not the pound, despite the latter being much more cost effective. Children will often spend a half an hour picking out their favorite 10 pieces, creating memories as they go. That’s just what Steve intended when he started tossing the candy in baskets and placing them at hip-level (eye level for children with sweet-teeth).

Some of those items still lurk in lonesome corners or along the squeaky original wood floors. A 3 foot tall, intricately decorated sculpture of a mermaid, priced at $1,000, watches over the store from one of the front windows.

Madeline said her time at the Bass River Mercantile is surprisingly connected with her other career in education.

“I always say that there are three things you should do before you die if you want to learn about people: own a retail business, teach school and become a landlord.”

She swears that one of the main missions of the Mercantile isn’t just to sell items, but learn about and support the community.

Some of Madeline’s former students have since had families of their own and visit the Wolfe’s establishment every time they come to the Cape.

“We’ve become the first and last stop for many visiting the Cape each summer,” she said. She recalled times when her gregarious husband would chat with customers, even hours after closing.

Apart from adding to the store’s massive collection with her undeniably savvy taste, the community is what Madeline said she would miss the most.

The Wolfe’s have decided to retire from what can only be considered a huge success story. They’ll spend the next part of their lives spending time with six grandchildren, and will likely find the down-time an opportunity to bond even more deeply with each other.

“I’m proud of this store, but I’m proud of my husband for running it,” Madeline said. “He’s been in the retail business for 46 years, that’s not too common.”

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