FILLING A VACUUM – That’s what NRHEG graduate Kellie Steele hopes to do with EJ’s Mercantile at Albert Lea.
Star Eagle photo by Melanie Piltingsrud
By MELANIE PILTINGSRUD
EJ’s Mercantile is that cute little shop you’ve always wanted, where you can find the perfect gift for everyone on your shopping list. Located at 102 W. Clark St., Albert Lea, it is the brainchild of Kellie Steele, an area native who graduated from NRHEG in 1995.
Steele originally had a clothing store called Ellen and Jane Boutique, which borrowed the first names of her daughters. This shop closed due to covid in 2020, but Steele had learned a lot from this failed business about what kind of merchandise, and ultimately what kind of store, people wanted.
When Steele began to see the big chains disappear, she began adding gift items to her clothing store. “The response has been huge,” Steele said. “People wanted more and more, so when [Ellen and Jane Boutique] came out, we just decided that’s mainly where people want to spend their time – with those things that feel good: scone mixes and teas and coffees.
After being forced to close a store, Steele said it took a lot of courage, but, being a go-getter, Steele opened EJ’s Mercantile in September 2020.
Maintaining a downtown presence was important to Steele. “There’s such a need in our community for gifts and goods,” said Steele, who sought to fill that need in both men’s and women’s lines. “With Albert Lea losing Herberger’s and Shop-Ko, [there is] more of a need.
When Albert Lea’s old Convention and Visitors Bureau became available, Steele reclaimed it to house the new business and, with its large windows and corner location, it proved to be the perfect location. for the store. EJ’s Mercantile benefits from being in downtown Albert Lea, which hosts events at various times throughout the year. “It’s still a nice attraction where people can park downtown and walk around and visit different stores,” Steele said, “so that part was very well received for us.”
Steele opened EJ’s Mercantile amid the covid pandemic, but she still got to see what effect it had on her new business. “I feel like more people wanted to buy local,” she said, also observing that people wanted to support small businesses. “We’ve done a lot of online orders, like curbside pickup, but our main business is still in-store shopping.”
Christmas shopping at EJ’s Mercantile is already in full swing. “It’s huge,” Steele said of the uptick in holiday shopping. Popular gifts this year are EJ’s gourmet foods and mixes, like scones, dips, spreads and the ever-popular lingonberry jam, which Steele says, “It sells out as soon as we get it. . The store also carries a wide range of Duke Cannon products, a Minneapolis-based men’s bath and body line that supports veterans. The Mercantile’s women’s spa line is also popular. Steele describes his store’s selection as, “Just good, heartfelt kinds of gifts.”
Customers can find products at EJ’s Mercantile that are not available elsewhere at Albert Lea. “We attend the market probably at least 5 to 6 times a year,” said Steele, who travels to places as far away as Dallas, Texas, to find items she thinks customers will respond to, items she says, “You don’t normally see unless you’re traveling overseas or out of state.
With careful consideration given to merchandise selection, Steele hopes to attract “anyone looking for a thoughtful gift.”
Steele says, “It’s more important than ever to stay in your communities, shop small, and really support your small business owners. Even with an online presence – we offer it – it’s important that people realize that they have to keep supporting us. Just keep us in business, because we want to be there.
EJ’s Mercantile is open Monday through Friday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Saturday. 10 – 4, and everything is currently decorated for Christmas, so if you weren’t already, it will put you in a holiday mood.