East Texas’ Most Exciting New Store Is Hidden In A Small-Town Mansion
As I pull up in front of the grand estate, I can see several fireplaces, Juliet balconies, and a brick path leading to a massive set of French doors. The scene looks like something out of a fairy tale, but the towering loblolly pines lining the driveway bring me back to reality: I’m in Texas, two hours east of Dallas and halfway between Longview and small town of Gilmer. Josh Smallwood, dressed in a T-shirt and jeans, greets me with a smile and escorts me inside his former home, now the headquarters of 80 Acre Market.
Smallwood is an optimist with the kind of business acumen that would suggest he’s well over thirty, but when 80 Acre Market kicked off as a bi-monthly event last October, he wasn’t quite sure what to expect. . Within weeks, his team transformed the seven-bedroom home he shared with his wife, Holly, and their five children into a housewares store, buyable by the piece and stocked to the brim with dishcloths, pillows, pottery and Suite. They trucked in fall-colored mums and forty tubs of pumpkins from Floydada, a seven-hour drive. They had lawn games, live music and a food truck. They were ready. The question was whether the community was ready for them.
80 Acre Market was inspired by the gathering places the Smallwoods enjoyed on family trips across the state. They knew that Chip and Joanna Gaines had transformed Waco in part with the couple’s Magnolia Market. Still, Smallwood was skeptical whether his sleepy, industrial hometown would embrace this foreign concept.
“Holly and I wanted to solve a problem that we were having ourselves, and that was that there was nowhere in town to eat that wasn’t a chain, and there was nowhere to go out with the family on weekends where you don’t have to pay,” says Smallwood. “I think people didn’t even know they wanted something like 80 Acre Market until it be presented as an option.” Turns out, Smallwood had nothing to worry about. On opening day, more than two thousand guests thronged the wrought-iron gates, some from as far away as Houston.
Before things went right for Smallwood, a lot of things must have gone wrong. Born in Longview, he had a father who was in and out of prison and a mother who “made drugs”.
“The straw that broke the camel’s back came when I was in fifth grade and a drug bust happened,” Smallwood says. “All the [local] the parents were taken out of that meth lab they had right next to our trailer. My older brother and I were sitting on the steps wondering what happens now when everyone we know is locked in that car.
The boys went to live with their grandparents, who didn’t have much but were consistent. Townspeople also participated, giving food to the brothers and transporting them to and from after-school activities. As high school graduation neared, Smallwood was eager to start afresh and he set his sights on California. Then Holly got pregnant, so they got married and bought a modest shotgun-style house. Smallwood worked three jobs while earning an MBA from the University of Texas at Tyler. Eventually, the couple decided to reinvest in their hometown instead of moving.
When an opportunity arose to buy a rustic framing business, Smallwood wasn’t interested in the product – pictures of Western icons like John Wayne in barn wood frames – but thought that he could make it his own. In 2012, his eponymous custom decor business, Smallwoods, was born. His brother, Dustin, signed on as general manager.
The first order of the day? Bring the production home. Instead of sourcing materials from New York and Indiana, Smallwood wanted something the company could manufacture almost exclusively in Texas and sell directly to consumers. He opted for wooden signs with inspirational quotes and had a local waterjet cutting factory create a metal stencil that he could spray paint.
“It was extremely artisanal, but not in a good way,” Smallwood says with a laugh.
Soon after, he discovered large format printing and began allowing customers to upload their own quotes, artwork and photos for custom framing. In 2015, the company moved into its new headquarters in Diana, Texas, and was preparing for a busy holiday season in 2017 when a fire destroyed everything.
“In a weird way, it was re-energizing,” Smallwood says. “It was an incredible example of what happens when all material things are gone and the only thing left is your people.”
After the fire, Smallwood was ready to fulfill a new dream: to build a campus for Smallwoods on the eighty acres where he lived. He first bought the property because it reminded him of his grandfather’s farm, a bright spot in his otherwise difficult childhood. 80 Acre Market would be part of the larger campus and provide another way to sell Smallwoods products. More importantly, it was a way for Smallwood to give back to the community that helped raise him.
When I arrive on the Sunday before Easter, Market Events Coordinator Jo Swanson is preparing for the Easter Egg Hunt, one of many free events she’s been hosting since her niece, Holly, asked her to go. join the team. Other activities that fall under its purview include two bouncy houses, face painting, and a craft station that recycles discarded Smallwoods canvases into DIY art. The weekend I visit there is also a petting zoo with rabbits. But what really excites Swanson is the new pile of dirt they’re building with multiple diggers and “dinosaur bones.”
“My goal is to kind of roll things back — to get kids off the tablets and into the woods,” she says. “We’re in the countryside, in this beautiful setting – why make it something it’s not?”
Offers change with the season. For Father’s Day, there will be a cornhole tournament and a vintage car show. Hayrides will debut this fall, and a piano player is ready to serenade shoppers during the decorated Christmas market. There’s never any pressure to buy anything, but you’d be remiss not to peek inside the store. And even if you’ve been there before, it’s worth the detour.
“Every two weeks we change everything,” lead designer Sheila Madden tells me as I look at a sweet tea light in a vintage tumbler for $18. “We don’t want anyone to feel like, ‘Oh, we went there last time. We saw it all. ”
Madden’s approach to designing displays is nuanced. “A lot of store managers might think, ‘What’s our premium real estate zone? Where are we getting the most sales?'” she says. “It’s hard for me to know what it is because we change every two weeks, but I also want the products to fit the room so people can see what they could do with them at home. them.”
That means in the kitchen, you’ll find serving dishes and cutting boards starting around $40. Above the fireplace mantel is a giant black and white map of East Texas in a Smallwoods frame for $125. Pillows and duvets are piled to the ceiling in what were once walk-in closets. The master bathroom features an exclusive line of products, including body creams, bath bombs and Texas-shaped soaps, all made on the property in a converted barn aptly called the Bath Barn.
Madden takes me to the patio, where a tent features other local artisans selling everything from flowers to coffee to mocktails. She tells me that it’s not uncommon for sellers to sell out, and since the marketplace doesn’t charge sellers a fee, it’s an easy way to get discovered. A vendor representing Rowdy Creek Ranch, a new winery and glamping experience just up the road, hints at the possible impact 80 Acre Market could have on the surrounding area, which is still mostly farmland. In other words, there is room for growth.
When I catch up with Smallwood later that day, he shows me where he puts a swimming hole the size of a football field. A visit to the Blanco River inspired him to line the bottom so the water was crystal clear. Around the swimming hole there will be hills that mimic New York’s Central Park. Other plans include a separate pond stocked with bass and catfish, a two-mile walking trail, and an orchard and farm that will provide fresh produce for Smallwoods’ nearly four hundred employees. It’s a playground for kids and kids at heart, and it’s funded solely by the company’s $100 million in annual revenue.
“We were invited to this chic event in New York [for e-commerce disruptors]and people kept saying, ‘Oh, you’re getting started,’ and we didn’t even know what the term meant,” Smallwood says. “We never took outside money and we never intend to do that.”
Creative control is important to Smallwood, so much so that he once turned down reality show offers from Lionsgate and Magnolia Network. But he’s not against the cameras documenting his business: He’s assembled his own production team and plans to film behind the scenes, streaming ten-to-twenty-minute episodes of a reality show via social media. the company.
“We’re going to deliver it in a super authentic way,” says Smallwood. “If then a network wants it, there is no speculation as to what it will be. It’s like, ‘Here he is; you like it or you don’t. ”
Smallwood knows it would be easier to follow in the footsteps of, say, Chip and Joanna Gaines. He’s never been to Magnolia Market in Waco, and while he’s flattered when people compare it to 80 Acre Market, he’s not looking for his market to become a huge business venture. He tells me that he measures success not by the number of products sold, but by whether or not they provide value to the community. Yet “community” has become such a corporate buzzword that I feel the need to pressure Smallwood about his altruistic intentions.
“My brother and I were able to find success, not because we were exceptionally talented, but because people helped us when we had nothing to give them in return. It was the best crash course in your value as an individual versus your value in a community if you applied yourself to it,” says Smallwood. “Since focusing on this axiom, we’ve only gotten better and have had nothing but success, so it seems like a no-brainer.”
I still ponder his philosophy when I dig into the banana pudding and a really tasty invention the food truck chef calls a “breast parfait.” My companion, mother of three, makes the astute observation that “it’s the kind of place where parents can finish a meal”, which means there’s enough to keep the kids entertained long enough for the adults let go. Honestly, it’s hard to describe 80 Acre Market. It may look a bit like a French chateau or the mecca of Upper fixator fans, but 80 Acre Market doesn’t try to be anything other than what it is – and that’s exactly what its community needs.