12 Questions with Becca Cooke of Red's Mercantile
Before moving to Eau Claire in 2016, I admired the Instagram and online shop of Red’s Mercantile from afar. There were plenty of places to shop where I was living in Portland, OR, but something about Red’s was different and captivating. Though I had never met Becca Cooke, the owner of Red’s, I emailed her before my move and asked to start and host a book club in the store.
Looking back, I see how the odds were pretty high that it could fail spectacularly. I had tried twice in Portland to start a book club and everyone I knew was too busy or too cool for it. Becca didn’t know me at all, so she could’ve easily said “no thanks.” Not only was Becca into the idea, she also made time to meet me for coffee, welcome me to the city, and introduce me to people who became good friends. She was a warm beacon on a cold January day in a new town.
Her openness to connection and support of the community is evident in all Becca does—from the American made goods she carries, to the workshops Red’s runs, to the Red Letter Grant she founded to help empower women businesses in the Chippewa Valley. She was even named an inaugural Vanguard Award winner in 2018 for her uplifting and necessary work in the community.
Becca’s willingness to host a book club in the store lead to the founding of Dotters Books, and if it wasn’t for Becca’s invitation to participate in the Back Alley Market this summer, CEDE would not exist. I’m sure there are other individuals in the community who might say the same about Becca’s involvement (directly or indirectly) in their business. She leads by example to show women how to run their own companies, works with the city to encourage small business growth, and her boundless encouragement, kindness, and support tangibly helps women in the Chippewa Valley realize their dreams. What makes Red’s Mercantile look and feel different from most shops is that its owner embodies and leads with the adage of “We all do better when we all do better” (a quote from the late US Sen. Paul Wellstone).
Pictured at the shop, Becca is wearing a custom Fenwick pullover in lamb’s wool. The longsleeve, boatneck sweater is a one-of-a-kind piece. A similar style can be made to order.
What role does clothing play in your life? Function above high fashion always. I am moving from one thing to the next constantly and I need clothes that flow with my lifestyle. From working at the shop to running off to an event - comfort is key. Love pieces with deep pockets, breathable fabric and room to move.
Favorite piece of clothing you own / owned? I had these great pair of jeans that I did ceramics in, camped in and wore from high school until last year. The butt totally busted in them and it was time to let go, but I could have lived in those forever. New pieces I own + love: this backless jumpsuit from Winsome Goods that's linen + so cool for humid days and desert climates. It's also like wearing pajamas. I also love this rust-colored wool split jacket from ACG of Minneapolis. I can wear it with a dress or jeans or anything. A buttery wool.
Style icon or inspiration for you (a person, a time period, etc.)? The fall. Yes the season. The natural hues that are incorporated in pieces produced in this time frame are incredible.
One thing you almost always wear or carry with you? My big brown tote - made by Cuyana. It's full of a handful of essentials. Inside are two wallets. One is for business and made by Spring & Finn (MPLS based) - gifted to me by my best friend. I keep all my business cards and receipts there. The other wallet is my personal billfold. Made by my friend Sam Fiore who owns Dead Beat Leather, formerly Low Roads. Sprinkled with bobby pins, Herbivore lip balm, 2 sets of headphones (ugh, Apple) and always my laptop.
If you didn’t have to sleep, what would you do with the extra time? Travel. Far and often.
One thing you really want (practical or impractical) but can’t afford? See above! > Travel. Far and often. Ha. But really, I love stealing time away from the shop to be re-inspired. Places I want to go, but haven't been: Finland, Santa Fe, Greece and Japan. Oh and this crazy resort in Utah - Amangiri.
When you were a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up? I read all 56 of the Nancy Drew books in a year in 3rd grade. I was bound and determined to be a detective or criminologist. A rock hound, my 2nd sights were set on geology. I went to geology summer camp. I was really just a big nerd.
Best part about starting and owning your own business? Being in control of my own schedule, which feels like I'm in control of my own life. Time is life! Running my own schedule is both a blessing and a curse since I'm kind of a workaholic. But I love being able to grind down when I feel on and creative, but to check-out if I'm not being productive. I'm highly driven, but don't ever like to force it.
Biggest learning lesson or obstacle that came with starting your own business? I was the subject of a lot of internet trolls this past year on my business social media and via email. Definitely makes you want to go inward and makes you question what you're putting out there - even your very personhood. I think there is a lot of weird perceptions people have about what's online versus who you really are. Perceptions that can conjure resentment, jealousy and misunderstandings. Real life, is real life. I'm learning to laugh that stuff off and keep moving, but I have become more private. Life is freaking short. As long as you keep your side of the street clean (as my mom says) and when they go low you go high (as Michelle Obama says) it's easier to find peace in knowing it's not really about you. Just keep doing your thang girlfriends. Haters gonna hate (as 3LW says) ha!
Words of advice to someone starting a business? Follow your gut. I never worked in retail, didn’t know a damn thing about it. But I had a background in business and knew how to manage money. You can read 1,000 business books or go to a prestigious business school, but in the end you're going to need to find what works for you. Someone I admire recently said "it's hard to turn off the subconscious voices that are still stuck in the capitalist linear business model many of us are ultimately surrounded by and grew up thinking defined success." But you have to. That's how you'll make something new and not shrouded in convention.
Favorite quote or words to live by? "Wherever you are, be all there."
Question you wish people would ask you? Can I treat you to Culver's?