Shopping nostalgia builds WNC retail businessNov 07, 2023 11:14AM ● By Randee Brown
Mast General Store has a rich retail history in Western North Carolina dating back to the late 1850s.
Originally opened in Valle Crucis by Henry Taylor, his general store was created to offer locals a place to trade for goods made outside of the valley. W.W. Mast bought into the store in 1897, and the Mast family took over ownership in 1913. In 1977, Mast General Store President Lisa Cooper’s parents, John and Faye Cooper, purchased the store.
“The store had been vacant for a couple of years, and it was a labor of love to put it back together,” Cooper said. “My parents wanted to stay true to the idea of a general store, and they stocked items like milk, boots, tools, and cast iron pans. They tried to find all the things that fit into a general store’s philosophy.”
Growth was slow as they determined the right product mix for the store, according to Cooper. Branching out into a variety of footwear and other clothing, they soon began running out of space.
In 1980, they purchased and operated the building next to the original store. The downtown Boone location was purchased in 1988, then an annex that hosted a friend’s candy barrel business was purchased in the mid-1990s.
Seeing Mast Store grow to become a destination for Appalachian State University’s students and their parents, other towns like Waynesville, Asheville, and Hendersonville began reaching out to the Cooper family asking to bring a location to their town. Proposals continued to come in from other downtown organizations, and if the town was determined to be a good fit, work was done to find and remodel a building to host the new Mast Store.
The company now has 11 locations ranging from Roanoke, VA to Greenville, SC but most are in WNC. At the beginning of 2020, Mast Store employed 580 staff across all locations. That number decreased to about 420 when the stores began reopening after COVID, and has bounced back up to about 500 now, but Cooper said she could easily hire another 25 employees at this time.
Mast Store’s employees are a big part of the success of the business, according to Cooper. The company is family- and employee-owned, and she feels proud to have that on each employee’s name tag.
“We have the best team we’ve ever had,” Cooper said. “Everyone has their eye on the ball, and that’s the reward at the end of the day. We pride ourselves on the internal growth of the people in our company; some have worked with us for 38 years. It feels wonderful to be a home for so many long-term employees.”
Cooper attributes a large part of the business’s success to the nostalgia of it all. Online reviews contain sentiments of the creaky wooden floors, the smell of popcorn, and finding cold drinks and Moon Pies. She feels it’s all a way of connecting people to the past.
The toy department used to be exclusively battery-free items and now consists of a more modern mix of merchandise with traditional items. There are large barrels full of nostalgic candy at each store, and Cooper said there is always a variety of new products coming into the store, so customers continue to be excited about items they find on the shelves.
“It’s experiential retail,” Cooper said. “We like to offer an experience for people coming into the store, and we like to have a store where people actually talk to you. People enjoy that local connection and it creates a great overall experience for them. I take a lot of pride in being a company that touches so many. My parents set the bar high, and it’s an honor to carry it forward.”