Side A Featured Essay: “Mercantile” by Jennifer Fliss


I am in a store that calls itself a mercantile. The floors are a bleached wood. It smells like patchouli with an overlay of dryer sheets. There’s a vast selection of essential oils. I smell them all until I smell them all as I move to the back of the store. I run my fingers along a linen tunic with a kraft paper tag tied on with butcher’s twine that reads, will wrinkle for that extra special unique look. I pick up a small bowl, pottery, white, no glaze, and press it to my cheek and it’s cool like my bathroom floor when I have a migraine and can find no other relief.


The bowl is eighty dollars. The linen shirt is two hundred dollars. But it’s a “mercantile” and there is the assumption that we getting back to roots here. Homemade. Ethical. Sustainable. Sustainable for whom? And whose roots? Because when I think “mercantile,” I think Montana. Because my credit card is down to its last dollar and my pantry is packed with grocery-brand pasta.


Twigs and midwives. Leather and greenhouses. Books line the shelves, covers facing outward alongside delicate blank journals. I stare at an uncanny likeness of myself on one of the covers; it’s a book about minimalism and the woman wears no make-up and looks tired.


These items are so beautiful and I cannot really complain about the things that fill my house. I am fortunate. A fortunate. I have some pretty things. But this store, and its Instagram account! I savor the neutrals and the sparse way they style their photos. Promises of capsule wardrobes, like, just take this pill and the simple life will follow in two to four days—all your problems will disappear.


In the corner of the store, a lush fiddle head fern grow near to the ceiling. Mine at home has three leaves, one of which has gone brown and crisp at the edges. Air Supply is playing through speakers, softly. This I think I appreciate the most. I recall the radio on, always, by my mother’s bedside when I was young. “101. CBSFM. 1010. CBSFM. We play the greatest oldies. CBSFM.” I can still sing the jingle. My mother did not work. She had few friends. And the radio-as-partner was healthier for her than my father.


A store employee asks if I need help. I do not.


It’s not that I want to mock. It’s not that I want to holler and complain about the prices I can’t afford. I genuinely appreciate the work that goes into these products. The store is promoting nothing bad. It’s a good thing, this mercantile. This dry goods store. For artists. For we who struggle with the mass consumption of items and things that we do not need and we will suffocate on it all, if the planet doesn’t first.


There is someone who has been awoken in this store. It is the shopper in me, the one who in my twenties frequented the Barneys’ Warehouse Sale and kept a vast collection of purses to clutch my pre-smartphone cell and wallet and lipstick in when I went out at night. In New York. In my twenties. In the post-9/11, pre-Trump days when almost every night was as long as summer.


I trace the words on letterpress notecards. The indentation tells me it’s something old-school, mercantile-worthy. It’s all feeling here. Tactile. I touch and feel what is being sold. To me. To you. They are beautiful things. Things worth your dollars. Your hard-earned, dollars. No mind that you get paid the minimum-wage.


This is made with recycled water bottles. Recycled bike tires. Old newspapers. Old t-shirts. I think I see a shirt I recognize tied into a rug. All I can see is a snippet that reads “Co-ed Naked Lacrosse.” When I was a kid, at sleepaway camp in the Catskills, these shirts were all the rage. Eight year olds wore oversized punny shirts about playing one sport or other naked, with the other sex. Why didn’t someone stop us? Why did we wear them? And, frankly, I had never even heard of lacrosse until I had that t-shirt. Did my mother buy it for me? I don’t recall. Where did it end up? I only remember that I had it and wore it, tucked into Umbro soccer shorts (I did not play soccer). Was this my t-shirt tied into the rug here at this mercantile in Seattle? Impossible. Possibly? I would never know.


At the check-out counter, which is made of beautiful raw wood, are small knick-knacks. Tchotchkes. Curios. Baubles. Things that don’t go over seven dollars. Matchboxes with poems in simple fonts. Probably Helvetica. Hair ties made of old ribbon. Caramels tied in wax paper. I select two of them. They’re a dollar each. My eyes apologize that that’s all I’m purchasing. I walk back through the light wood space with bare lightbulbs hanging from colorful cords.


Outside I breathe again and compliment myself for not adding to my debt. I open a caramel by holding its ends and allowing the paper to spin open. I take it in three bites—though I could have in one—wanting to luxuriate in it. The confections are creamy with flakes of salt. I save the other one for later.


Eight months later I discover the caramel melted down in the bottom of the woven bag I used that day at the mercantile. I try to rescue it. Digging my fingernails in to pry up bits of sugar. The wax paper and the rattan (Jute? Straw? Raffia?) and the candy have all become one and I have lost that dollar. The bottom of the bag will forever be a little sticky and I’ll forget and then remember every time I put more things in my bag.

Jennifer Fliss is a Seattle-based fiction and essay writer. Her work has appeared in PANK, The Rumpus, Necessary Fiction, Hippocampus, and elsewhere. She can be found on Twitter at @writesforlife or via her website,

Image: TheLiztonSignShop,

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