The congregation of the Christ Reformed United Church of Christ donated the historic building to the Contemporary American Theater Festival (CATF), which produces and develops new plays for worldwide audiences.
In 2006, Mercer Street in Princeton was not a place you wanted to take children. It’s the ‘old downtown’ or ‘Main Street’ of the city. West Virginians have seen the story over and over again. And visitors found boarded up storefronts and dilapidated buildings, remnants of a bustling and more prosperous time.
“It’s definitely been a fun process to enjoy,” said small business co-owner Holley Odle. ‘When I was in high school — I graduated from Princeton — this street was a very unsavory place to be. A lot of trouble, a lot of things that, you know, we’ve pushed out of here.”
Odle’s business is called Hammer and Stain DIY Workshop. The business model is based on hosting events and providing a space with supplies for people to create crafty projects with a little guidance.
“We thrive on people coming in here and doing projects with us to create an experience,” Odle said. “The fact that you got to get out of your house and be with your friends and your family and come in and actually put your hands on and get away from your phone or get away from your TV and have an experience was really something.”
Co-Owner Lisa Christian said she was inspired and motivated by how successful the workshop had become.
“One evening we would have close to 100 people in and out of here doing projects, and it was just fun,” Christian said. “The Golden Girls Workshops, we had about 40 people in here singing, eating cheesecake and singing (the show’s theme song) ‘Thank You For Being a Friend.’”
Christian refused to just let go of that community togetherness during lockdown. Instead of hosting people on location for guided crafting workshops using the supplies on site, she and Odle created kits with instructions and supplies to take home.
“And I think it kept some sanity in the community,” Christian said. “You know, it gave us things to do. It gave our customers things to do to occupy their time.”
She says the kits kept the business going during lockdown and also helped maintain a sense of belonging.
“It felt really good,” Christian said. “It felt like we were able to contribute to the community. You know, a community that we love so much and we love to give back. And you know, we’ve enjoyed watching Mercer Street come to life and see the different businesses flourish. So it was an experience.”
These owners said they’re willing to try just about anything to keep their business open. They also hosted instructional Zoom meetings, switched up the timing of the workshop,s and of course, began an intense cleaning regimen while wearing masks.
New guidelines don’t allow as many people in the workshop but that creates opportunities for immune-compromised community members like Bernadette Dragich. On this day, the empty studio is a valuable way for Dragich to engage in a little art therapy. Less people means it’s safer for her.
“I’ve had cancer and treatment for cancer,” Dragich said. “I’m on the upside of that. So it just keeps me busy and gives me a chance to have creativity and these ladies are really nice.”
Dragich is sitting at a table in the studio. Finished projects speckle the walls, framing two rows of large tables holding pencils, pens and other crafting utensils. She dabs black paint over a stencilled wooden round.
“I think it helps individuals and some of them do some really beautiful work,” Dragich said. “Sometimes things are more meaningful when it’s something homemade.”
After finishing the paint, co-owner Lisa Christian walks across the workshop to help Dragich reveal an image of a dog on the wooden circle.
“Actually, this dog is from one of my co-workers who gave me this dog, when I just found out I had cancer,” Dragich said. “He used to show her and she’s been really meaningful and helpful to me.” Now, she has a handmade wall hanging that’s meaningful as well — a project marking a wellness milestone that allowed her creativity to flourish.
Just across the workshop and closer to the door sits a wooden cabinet. Inside is another silver lining to the COVID business model. Hammer and Stain co-owner Holley Odle says when it was nearly impossible to find cleaning supplies and they needed to meet more stringent standards, she turned to new technology that’s faster and better for the environment, ultraviolet sanitization.
“So after every workshop, we take everything that anybody’s touched, and we put them in the closet, and we cut the UV on and get it through a 10-minute cycle,” Odle said. “That way, so many harsh chemicals aren’t being used. It gets everything clean for the next person and we don’t miss anything.”
There are still some projects that just don’t fit into the “take home” model but Odle says they plan to adopt all of these changes, even after COVID.
“I believe that a lot of this is going to be our new normal for now,” Odle says. “As far as keeping workshop attendance low, making sure everything is extra clean, I don’t think we’ll ever go back to the way that it was.”
Odle says she’s thankful for what she’s learned through the pandemic, especially just how much the community appreciates the business and the DIY project opportunities. As things continue to evolve, she hopes the community won’t forget them.
“If there is a business that you love, and that you want to see it survive and be able to patronize that business after COVID, we really encourage you to go take time and visit that business now,” Odle said. “Whatever they’re doing, find their Facebook page, call and say ‘what are you guys doing?’ Give them a little bit of what you’ve got right now. So that they will be here when our new normal settles.”