Independent businesses provide support for locally-branded and locally-made itemsNov 11, 2023 11:53AM ● By Randee Brown
Asheville is a great place and people want to represent it, according to MTN Merch Owner Mariko Walker.
Walker grew up in Asheville, and in 2016 opened an embroidery kiosk in the Asheville Mall. She saw a huge need for businesses to embroider their logos on different merchandise items including T-shirts, and she said this was a great way to get to know different business owners and members of the community.
“I was excited to be able to connect to more people,” Walker said. “Growing up here, I know how the community is and how everyone helps everyone succeed and support each other. It felt like a big family, and it feels like that with all the small businesses here in Asheville.”
Eventually adding more inventory than the kiosk could hold, Walker opened a larger store in the Asheville Outlets, and eventually two MTN Merch locations — one in Biltmore Village and the other downtown on Lexington Avenue. Asheville-branded T-shirts are the most popular item, and Walker said they are all made locally.
“Our prints are drawn by local artists or by employees right here in the store,” Walker said. “A lot of places have shirts that say ‘Asheville’ but are made in Colorado or somewhere else. All of ours are made here — the art, the printing — everything. That gives people jobs here, and we are privileged to be able to do that.”
While T-shirts are the main focus, other items like hats and stickers with designs from local artists are also big sellers. She said some designs change over time to keep new, fresh items in stock for people visiting year after year. Some staple designs stick around for years including the ‘beard man’ design as well as other popular designs that are synonymous with WNC, like anything with bears on it.
Over the years, local vendors have come to Walker asking to sell their items in her MTN Merch stores. She said there are now more than 50 vendors with items in her store, and that helps draw people in because shoppers don’t have to wonder where the items come from.
“At MTN Merch, it’s all Asheville,” Walker said.
While locals often visit Walker’s store to put together gift baskets or to bring visiting guests to shop, many of her customers are visitors to the area. There is a ‘Favorite Places’ board in the store highlighting other retailers, restaurants, and breweries in town, which Walker said helps to keep local owners front and center in the eyes of visitors. She said many local businesses recommend her stores to visitors as well.
“Having multiple people pointing customers in our direction helps,” Walker said. “If people hear the same answer multiple times they are more likely to go there. It’s also a collaborative effort; we are all working together in the travel industry. It speaks to the support of the community. I’m just so grateful for all of the business support and all the referrals; it’s definitely what has kept us going.”
Owners of independent retailers have felt business has dropped over the last year according to Walker; however, she said that’s not exactly the case.
“When we look at the numbers, they are really about the same as last year,” Walker said “There was such an increase in 2021 and 2022, and things are now leveling out but it feels like a drop. We were so busy during those times that it feels different in comparison. It was such a huge uptick and now the leveling out feels like a decrease, but it’s not as bad as we think.”