TAKING A RIGHT off Interstate 55, about half a Johnny Cash album north of Memphis, you’ll find yourself on what seems, at first glance, like any other Delta back road. Flat and farm-y, sky for days, miles of soybeans (or is that cotton?). But then, slowly, the trees start to rise, their canopies spreading to shade the blacktop. Then you reach “town,” and you’ve got to blink to make sure you’re actually seeing what you’re seeing: a pristine square bordered by dark-bricked Tudor storefronts, the greenest grass you’ve ever seen and a trio of towering, whitewashed agri buildings, handpainted with signs welcoming you to Wilson.
You’ve likely heard of it, this Wilson, the teensy company town (pop. 903) that was purchased back in 2010 by Gaylon Lawrence Jr. (as in, he bought the majority of the commercial real estate and some 40,000 acres of surrounding farmland to the tune of $110 million). Since acquiring the place, he’s been hard at work ticking Every-Great-Town-Needs-These-Things boxes. Charming farm-to-table cafe? Check. Progressive school? Check. Sustainable gardens? Check. Sweetly Southern boutique that’s well worth a two-hour drive from the state’s capital? Check.
That last one’s the recently opened White’s Mercantile, a general store of sorts owned by Nashville-based Holly Williams, a singer-songwriter-slash-boutique-owner and the daughter of one Hank Williams Jr.) Housed in the old Wilson service station, Holly’s first store outside the metro Nashville area is chockablock with goods and wares that either feel right Southern (raw-comb honey, hand-turned cutting boards, “Jesus Loves Me” onesies and the like) or lean big-city (Turkish towels, high-brow cosmetics, gochujang Sriracha). The space, though? All Wilson.
“People come in and say, I remember when my grandpa was changing tires here,” says employee Taylor Maharrey as she gives an impromptu tour of the space, all perfectly curated vignettes and found objects and vintage furniture. There are little hints at Wilson’s past scattered throughout the store, she tells me. The WHISKEY sign displayed above a rack of tees bearing Southernly slogans used to hang out front (the side building was once the town’s liquor store). The ornate iron lights by the cash register were salvaged from the original exterior. Holly and her crew even picked up the tables and chairs and casegoods at roadside places in the area.
“And these pictures are all of people who lived in Wilson,” store manager Kerri Snead adds, motioning to the black-and-white photos hanging on the cinder-block walls, displayed alongside framed sketches done by Holly’s artist husband, Chris Coleman. “I’m just dying for someone to come in and tell me who they are. Wilson was once a booming town, you know, and it was all about farming and family. We’re still trying to be that kind of community.”
As she says this, a beautiful brunette and a leashless black hound stroll in from across the square. It’s Sean Haley, the sister of the Wilson Cafe owner, and her pup, Harper. After making introductions—as one does in the small-town South—Taylor looks at her watch, panic-stricken. We’re ready to leave, she’s noticed, but the cafe doesn’t open for another 45 minutes.
“Y’all really need to try Shari’s pie,” she tells us in her sweet-as-honey Southern accent. “Holly loves it.”
We wish we could, we say, but it’s time to head home, much as we’d like to linger. But as we head back towards Interstate 55, the trees thick and then all of a sudden behind us, we know, just like anyone who’s visited Wilson before us, that we’ve found something worth coming back for.
1. Herbivore Brighten mask Sure to come in handy this winter. $55
2. No. 04 Bois de Balincourt perfume oil by Maison Louis Marie Seriously: the best fragrance we ever laid nose on. $65
3. FashionABLE’s Tadesse bucket bag A gorgeous bag on a mission, made by women who’ve overcome poverty. $148
4. FashionABLE’s Druzy ring Sparkly-yet-simple and crafted by hand in Nashville. $78
5. Olive & Sinclair chocolate Yes, please. $7
6. Southern Socks For folks who are country from head to toe. $15
7. Milk Jar onesie by Y’allsome Our new go-to for baby showers. $28
8. Howdy doormat by Reed Wilson Design Because Southern hospitality starts at the front door. $50
9. Kilim throw by Turkish T Pretty for picnics, or, you know, naps. $70