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Hardy Works To Rebound From Years Of Recession

A new product and “micro-manufacturing” has Marc Herring’s Ozark Classic Craft Mall back on track, and Herring sees new business activity in Hardy as a sign the town is finally bouncing back from years of recession. Photo/Richard Irby

“Five years ago, it was my dream come true. I was leaving the corporate world to be my own boss and own a cool business, then the economy tanked.”

That is Marc Herring’s to-the-point description of the challenges he has faced since buying the Ozark Classic Crafts Mall in 2007.

“The recession has hit us hard,” Herring said, referring to the painful process of watching businesses struggle, and some fail, on Main Street, where an eclectic mix of shops in unique old buildings have long been a popular tourist destination.

“In February, I was running out of money, and close to bankruptcy,” Herring said of his own circumstances last winter, when tourists were gone and customers were few. “I said, ‘Lord, I need some help.'”

Herring believes he received an answer to that prayer, when he saw an advertisement for a prayer cross, a small wooden cross people could buy to hold in their hands for comfort.

Herring, a woodworker, made his own version using scrap pine he had laying around, featuring a curved handle with built-in finger grips. He got a good reaction to ones he gave away, and they began selling well in his store. That led to interest from an outside vendor who inquired about placing an order for some Calming Crosses, the name Herring gave his product.

“Suddenly, I had $6,000 in wholesale orders, and am selling Calming Crosses in 22 stores in nine states.” said Herring.

That led to a new problem. There was no way Herring could quickly make dozens of the crosses, cutting them out one by one on a bandsaw — the method he had been using. After doing some research, Herring found he could buy a computerized cutting system which could produce a number of crosses at once from one piece of wood — but the system cost $22,000. More research led to the discovery of “The Shark,” an automated wood cutter available for just $3,000.

After Herring hooked up the machine and turned his first boards into crosses, he realized sawdust from his shop, at the rear of the craft mall, was going everywhere, covering merchandise all over the store.

“We spent a couple days cleaning up the mess, and I rigged up a dust collection system to catch the sawdust at the saw,” Herring explained. “Now, the calming crosses are coming out six at a time, and orders are still coming in.”

Herring has also noticed an increase in business at the craft mall in recent weeks, despite the hot, uninviting weather.

“We’ve never stopped greeting visitors. There has just been fewer of them during these tough years,” Herring said, “but I and others think the town is on the upswing again.” Herring, who had 33 booths in the store when he took over, now has art and crafts on display from 122 artists, and recently held an anniversary party.

“I’ve only owned the mall for five years, but Karen and Wayne Lowder opened it 28-years ago. This business has been a part of Hardy for a long time and we decided to celebrate that,” Herring said.

Herring said the fact that new businesses are coming along to fill long vacant Main Street storefronts is another sign Hardy is making a come back.

Across from the mall in the old Hardy Cafe building, Rebecca and Phillip Ashcroft have opened the Pig ‘n Whistle, a restaurant with a British theme. Phillip Ashcroft is English, and fish and chips (potato fries), Shepherd’s Pie and other dishes you’d find on London menus are being offered. The restaurant’s mascot is a Mini-Cooper car with a British flag on the roof.

The Spotted Fin Restaurant, which replaced the Garlic Rose restaurant last winter, is still serving, and the building which used to house the Tall Cotton store may soon become another eatery, offering bakery goods and sandwiches.

Horton Music remains in the Main Street spot it filled last year.

Jade’s Home Decor, Mandy’s on Main, Hippie Chix, Native Way, and the Hardy Knife Shop are other new shops that have opened on Main Street in recent months. They join Hardy Pottery, which just got a beautiful, detailed exterior paint job, and other Main Street “old timers.”

Around the corner on Spring Street, the Words and Afterwords bookstore and coffeehouse is undergoing a big change. Because of the drop in demand for books in this e-book era, book space has been reduced. The living and dining room of the house, which had been the bookstore has been converted into private meeting and event space, available for business and club meetings, weddings, parties and other private functions. Buffet service and other food and drink options are offered for the event space, and Afterwords has had great response since opening for Sunday breakfast a while back.

Outside of Hardy, Mark and Robin Gordon have opened the Highlander Restaurant, in the old Arkansas Traveler Dinner Theater, on Arkansas Traveler Road.

“It might take another 18 to 20 months for the dust to settle, but we have a determined group of business owners in Hardy, who are committed to the community and intend to stay here for the long term,” Herring said. “We are using every ounce of energy and creativity we have to keep things going, and see them get better.”

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