This story appears in the May 2021 issue of Town&Gown.
Bellefonte is undergoing a revolution – or at least that’s what many of its small-business owners believe.
More specifically, Bellefonte seems to be enjoying the opening of many community-focused small businesses. One of these small businesses is Belle Mercantile, a collective marketplace described on its website as a “craft fair meets farmers market.”
The store at 135 S. Spring St. is owned by married couple Andrea Skirpan and Brian Bonner, who have lived in Bellefonte for 20 years.
“I think Bellefonte is kind of turning a corner with development,” says Bonner, 47.
Belle Mercantile opened its doors on September 4, 2020, and on Saturday will finally hold its grand opening celebration that was postponed because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The event, 10 a.m.-5 p.m., will include music from RamaLama on the porch, giveaways throughout the day, complimentary drinks and pop up vendors.
Though the store just opened last fall, the couple says the idea had long been in the works.
Skirpan, 46, says the couple primarily started the marketplace because they felt it was a needed addition to Bellefonte, which was lacking an “all-purpose place” for products like gifts and home renovations.
Belle Mercantile operates out of two rooms, encompassing 7,500 square feet. The store has about 50 vendors. Unlike craft fairs or other shows, the vendors leave their items here as permanent additions to the store, switching out and updating products seasonally or weekly.
With a variety of vendors comes a variety of products, as Belle Mercantile sells locally-sourced goods like aromatherapy products, candles, kombucha, pickles, hot sauce, succulents and other plants, jewelry, wine tumblers, greeting cards, and chandeliers – just to name a few.
“My goal is to reach every single demographic,” Skirpan says.
The couple also started the business because it provided somewhere for people visiting Bellefonte to look around, as well as providing an opportunity for local businesses that had been searching for a permanent venue, she says.
The duo have their own craft hobbies, Skirpan says, with Bonner doing leatherwork and her focusing on furniture restoration. They experienced their own struggles trying to sell their work, she adds.
Belle Mercantile “is a nice place for people who want to start a business, but don’t want to shell out all the money for overhead and electricity and rent, so we could provide a comparable cost per square foot,” Bonner says.
Since the family bought the building in 2018, the couple has done nearly all of their own renovations, as well as trudging through a global pandemic right before they planned to open.
Skirpan and Bonner had planned to start advertising the store in January 2020 and open shortly after, but the couple lost about six months to the coronavirus pandemic.
“It was a lot of work just to get it open by September,” Skirpan says. “Even just days before we opened, we were like, ‘Are we gonna have anything to sell?’ Because you know, most people open a store, they know what they’re going to sell, but we have to rely on whether or not [the vendors] were really gonna bring stuff in when we opened.”
Despite this stress, Skirpan says the opening was a success, though the store was much more “sparse” than it is now; it featured 20-30 vendors at that time.
“We just really needed to get open, because once we opened and people can come in to see what we have, we knew we would get more people,” she says.
Skirpan is primarily the one who runs the store, as Bonner works full-time as a civil engineering project manager on weekdays.
Skirpan acts as a representative for her vendors, she says, taking customer questions or requests for custom orders if the vendors are not around. She notes that this space works as a marketplace, but also as a means of advertisement for those vendors.
“We didn’t have retail experience when we started this,” she says, “so it’s all been just trial and error, but not much error.”
‘A fun experience’
Skirpan has received guidance from some of her own vendors who have experience in retail, such as Cathy Horner, the owner of Tadpole Crossing, who Skirpan describes as a “mentor.”
Tadpole Crossing is a marketplace featuring primarily women-owned businesses. The store originally opened in downtown State College in 1991. It closed in 2005, and Horner relaunched the business online last year. Now, she sells a selection of her products at Belle Mercantile.
Horner says she really enjoys helping Skirpan and is having a great time being a part of the marketplace.
“I’m just really proud of [Andrea and Brian],” Horner says. “And I have to keep telling Andrea that when she’ll have a slow day or be worried about something, I’ll say, ‘Andrea, we’re still in a pandemic. You’re doing great.’”
Horner says she admires the concept of the marketplace, comparing it to a “21st-century department store.”
Working and shopping at the marketplace is “meant to be a fun experience,” Skirpan says.
“We wanted a large marketplace so that people would just walk in not even knowing what they’re looking for, but then they find it,” she says. “We don’t even know what we have half the time. Our vendors bring the stuff in, and people come up to the register, and I’m like, ‘Where did you get this from?’”
The market tries to stock items that are unique, including local food items “you can’t necessarily get within walking distance” in Bellefonte, Bonner says.
There is an application process to become a vendor, Skirpan says, and they prefer to work with business-minded vendors who are serious about their work.
“[Our vendors] really do provide a lot of energy to the place,” she says. “They only have to worry about their little space, so they can focus and really work on that and bring in the best products.”
It feels good to be a part of the movement reshaping Bellefonte, Skirpan says.
“One thing I’m actually happy about and proud of is that people are coming [to Bellefonte] to come to our store,” she says. “I get people to come up from Harrisburg, all these different cities.”
The couple says their success is partially because of the support they’ve received from organizations like Downtown Bellefonte Inc.
“Downtown Bellefonte Inc. is really trying to help the businesses,” Skirpan says. “That’s a big plus. … I think these are new organizations that are coming along to really try to help downtown survive.”
In the future, the couple hopes to hold more “fun” events such as happy hours at the store, add more vendors, and potentially expand into other parts of the building.
“We’re starting in the worst possible time,” Skirpan says. “I guess there’s a sort of relief that hopefully there’s no place to go but up from here.”
For more information, visit bellemercantile.com.