On Location: How four women wielding crowbars rebuilt a derelict Mississippi town to fit their lives.
WATER VALLEY, Miss. — Over lunch at the B.T.C. Old-Fashioned Grocery here one day last month — pear zucchini soup and cornbread madeleines — the women of Water Valley were talking demolition.
Coulter Fussell, 34, an artist and an owner of Yalo Studio, a gallery a couple of doors down the block on the town’s picturesque Main Street, favors a crowbar. Megan Patton, 34, an artist, waitress and Fussell’s gallery partner, likes to use a hammer and a screwdriver. Erin Austen Abbott, 36, a photographer, gift shop owner, pop-up gallery impresario and travel nanny, doesn’t care what tool she uses, as long as she has company.
All are particularly skilled at renovation, having stripped and rebuilt, among them, three houses and one storefront. That their husbands are in the music business and on the road for months at a time has only accelerated their prowess with hand tools. They prefer to work alone or with one another.
“Let’s just say it’s better that way,” Fussell said later.
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These women, along with Alexe van Beuren, 28, B.T.C.’s owner, are emblematic of a new wave of business and house owners, many of them female, who are revitalizing this small town of just under 4,000.
They are drawn here by the low commercial rents and inexpensive housing stock: a 25-foot-wide storefront on Main Street can rent for less than $600; a century-old clapboard house might cost $85,000. (Van Beuren’s was $6,000, although it was a total wreck, and she and her husband, Kagan Coughlin, who works in mortgage technology in nearby Oxford, Miss., paid an extra $1,000 to the squatters living there to get them to leave.)
What is especially appealing about Water Valley, besides its proximity to Oxford, home to the University of Mississippi and a 25-minute drive away, is that properties haven’t been altered much since the lion’s share of them were built between 1885 and the 1920s.
To be sure, a fair amount of shag carpeting, dropped ceilings and fake wood paneling has accumulated, but such things can be removed.
Many of these houses have changed hands only once or twice. That’s because economic stasis or outright depression can result in a population that plateaus, as Mickey Howley, an affable New Orleans transplant and the director of the Water Valley Main Street Association, pointed out, which means the existing structures have been able to handle the housing, retail and commercial needs of the place.
“The 1920s were the high point here,” Howley said wryly.
Like many small Southern towns, Water Valley was a railroad hub and a business center for the surrounding agricultural community. When the railroad left for good midcentury, and agriculture became more mechanized or focused on timber, a crop that “takes patience but not many people,” said Ted Ownby, the director of the Center for the Study of Southern Culture at the University of Mississippi, Water Valley stopped growing.
“All through Mississippi there are these beautiful little towns,” Ownby said, “and too many of them, sadly, are empty storefronts and decaying housing. A few of them, like Water Valley, have had a revival because of a good idea or a few good ideas. Artists moving in is one option.”
Howley, a former history teacher and shrimp boat captain, and his wife, Annette Trefzer, a professor of American literature at the University of Mississippi, arrived in 2002. They are the third owners of their 1906 house, which sits on two acres, has four fireplaces and a wraparound porch and cost $80,000. When they opened an art gallery and artists’ collective on Main Street in 2008 — called, winningly, Bozarts Gallery — there were 18 empty storefronts.
Now there are six, but even that figure belies a healthier reality, Howley said. Two of those six buildings have recently been purchased and restored, and are awaiting tenants. It is worth remembering that during the same period, the rest of the country has been mired in a recession. Water Valley’s stories are running counter to the national narrative.
Fussell and her husband, Amos Harvey, whom she met while waiting tables at the Ajax Diner in Oxford, moved to Water Valley in 2004. Harvey was a little reluctant because until 2008 Water Valley, like many small towns in Mississippi, had a beer prohibition. (Hard alcohol has been legal since 1966.) In any case, Harvey likes to brew beer at home, not to mention drink it there. So he took the law personally, Fussell said.
But Water Valley’s economic calculus was just too good. Their house, which was built in 1921, cost $80,000. It needed this and that but nothing that some muscle couldn’t fix.
Its roof leaked, the furnace was shot, and there was that shag carpeting everywhere, issues the two tackled together. (The carpet repulsed them enough, Fussell recalled, that after she and Harvey closed on the house, they drove over and ripped it out in the dark, with only their flashlights as illumination, alarming the neighbors who hurried over thinking the place was being robbed.)
The rest of the work, including removing the wallpaper, the dropped ceilings, the fake wood paneling and the old fixtures, Fussell did by herself, with her trusty crowbar. Harvey, a tour manager for LCD Soundsystem, among other bands, and a producer of blues singers like Precious Bryant, whom Fussell, a native Georgian, introduced him to, is on tour more than half of each year.
Abbott bought her house in 2005. Born in Oxford, she had been on the road for more than a decade, touring with various bands as a merchandiser, and then with other bands, like the Flaming Lips, as a travel nanny. (Travel nannies occupy a curious professional niche, accompanying band members who want to bring their families on the road and also have some alone time with their spouses.)
Abbott, who had lived in eight cities in 11 years, said the rent she paid during that time added up to $80,000; her house cost $65,000. She renovated the place on her own, with a little help from Fussell, filling it with the midcentury vintage furniture she has collected over the years. (Abbott seems to be preternaturally energetic; this week, she started a travel nanny business with three other women.)
Three years later she met Sean Kirkpatrick, the guitarist with Colour Revolt, while both were on tour. He moved in when they married in 2010, bringing only his guitar and a framed map. “Aren’t you lucky,” Fussell likes to tell her.
In 2007, Patton — then Kingery — left Oxford for Water Valley and bought her house for $85,000, no money down. Her monthly mortgage payments are $597, $3 less than her Oxford rent was. She has gutted her house herself, because until last June, her husband, Matt Patton, whom she married more than a year ago, lived in Alabama, where he had a job as a state health inspector. He’s also a bass player for a couple of bands and, since June, an environmental scientist for the state of Mississippi.
A year and a half ago, Patton and Fussell, who are painters, rented a 10-foot-wide storefront that had housed a barbershop since 1880 and demolished its innards — the by-now-familiar dropped ceiling, fake paneling and so forth. To renovate, they borrowed a couple of thousand dollars from Harvey (since repaid) and received a low-interest loan from Howley’s organization, which also gave them a facade grant of $500.
The rent is $200 a month. They were going to call their gallery the Ex-Waitress Portrait Studio, since they met at Ajax Diner in Oxford, but settled for Yalo, a diminutive of Yalobusha, the name of Water Valley’s county. In Choctaw, Yalobusha means “the tadpole place,” which seemed a fitting title for their skinny storefront.
Yalo Studio opened last April. With its swirly vintage-looking sign and awning, it was another bright spot on Main Street and another locus for community doings. Its sign, designed by Fussell, was painted by Bill Warren, an artist who moved here from New Orleans with his wife, the artist Pati D’Amico, in 2008.
With creative immigration like this comes much civic cross-pollination. Warren has painted many of Main Street’s new storefront signs. Fussell designs the graphics for all sorts of town boosterisms, including the World’s Largest Crappie Festival, held here each May. (Harvey is booking the music.) Crappies are speckled freshwater fish that, as it happens, taste best fried in a beer batter, which made the beer prohibition even more confounding to some.
But the real game changer for Water Valley, Howley said, was the opening of the B.T.C. Old-Fashioned Grocery in 2010. Van Beuren and Coughlin moved to town in 2007 and for $110,000 bought an elegant but derelict 140-year-old brick building that was a visual anchor to Main Street. It was about to be razed by a developer who had bought it for its bricks but was happy to offload the place.
Coughlin spent three years clearing and renovating all 10,000 square feet, working weeknights and Saturdays. Meanwhile, van Beuren had two babies and started a farmers’ market. Opening a grocery seemed like the next logical step for someone interested in food and the sort of community that food can create.
“It was really dumb, in retrospect,” she said. “I had no retail experience. I had never worked a cash register. I’d been working as a freelance writer-slash-mother.”
But data from Howley supported her intuition that a specialty grocery, with seasonal local produce, could succeed. As he said, “We lose a lot of revenue to Oxford. A lot of my work is trying to figure out how to get it back.”
Van Beuren, who had no plans to include a kitchen and prepared foods among her offerings, now has both. The initials of her store stand for the Gandhi quote, “Be the change you want to see in the world.”
Not everyone gets the shorthand, she said. “Beans, tomatoes and corn” was one resident’s guess; another was “better than country.” In a nice piece of serendipity, Dixie Grimes, a talented chef who had been working at a high-end restaurant in Oxford and who showed up one day and asked if van Beuren needed a cook, has the quote on her key chain.
Last year, B.T.C. won a Mississippi Main Street award “for the best adaptive reuse of a building that has outlived its former use.” And Grimes’ food is packing the place. Her pear zucchini soup has been a blockbuster, van Beuren said. In a town whose residents eat chicken-fried steak three nights a week, that’s no small feat.
Howley sees B.T.C. as a template for others. He is collaborating with an architect for the Mississippi Development Authority trying to jump-start Jackson, which, he said, “has 300 downtown apartments but no grocery store. I told him to find a smart, young, hard-working crunchy Vandy grad like Alexe and set her free.”
“No other Mississippi town has a place like the B.T.C.,” he added. “That store has put us over the hump. For a few years, I was not quite sure if Water Valley would come back, but I am now. The store has literally bought a daily life to the center of town. It stays open when we have art openings. Both Coulter and I coordinated with Alexe — she pushes our shows to her customers — and people will shop groceries and do an art opening at the same time.”
On the last Friday in February, 200 people jammed into Yalo Studio for a reception. To be honest, it doesn’t take much to jam the place. There was work by Chris Sullivan, a photographer who has collaged photographs of New Orleans po-boys, and also by Jake Fussell, Fussell’s brother, whose collection of hair weaves she had framed. (Jake Fussell is the guitarist for the blues musician the Rev. John Wilkins, whose tours Harvey manages.)
Jake Fussell doesn’t wear hair weaves, he finds them. In their frames, they looked winsome and curious, like Victorian specimens or artwork by Kiki Smith, and they seemed to fascinate some longtime Water Valley residents at the show.
One such guest was M.B. (Snooky) Williams, who wore a fake ponytail attached to a baseball cap, clearly getting into the spirit of the event, Coulter Fussell reported.
Williams, 80, said later that he has lived in Water Valley for 57 years. He described himself as an avid cheerleader for Fussell and her sisters on Main Street, and an expert in the ecosystem of small-town businesses, having run a clothing store and an insurance agency through the “Walmarting of America,” as he put it.
“I think right now in Water Valley, it’s the greatest opportunity since I moved here,” he said with gusto. “If I was younger, I’d be buying property. These young girls, they’ve got spunk, they’re going to make it.”
He added: “So I was at Coulter’s art opening. She sold 15 of those framed hair pieces. This is unheard-of to me. My wife even bought one. These girls, they are jumping on the tide, they are adjusting, finding a niche, they’re opening eyes. Even a month ago, if you had told me my wife would have bought a framed hair piece at an art gallery, I would have thought you were crazy.”