Location: Black Mountain, N.C.
Owners: Michael and Marcia Liss
Square footage: 1,500 sq. ft.
Rent or Own: Own
Michael Liss likes to joke that his store, The Common Housefly, has 3,000 square feet of product “crammed” into 1,500-square feet of space. That sort of abundance lends well to the store’s tagline “A Toy Store for Foodies.” Or as Liss describes it a “treasure hunt.”
Though the store has a well-honed cutlery department, a major cookware section and a strong coffee business, “by far the best product category is gadgets,” Liss says. “People will spend an hour in the store poking around and will spend $7.99 on a gadget and leave with a big smile on their face. It is a treasure hunt sort of place.”
A smile may also be on their faces because of the store’s quirky name.
“The former owner wanted something unusual and descriptive,” Liss says. Being somewhat artistic, then-owner Kerryn Davis also drew up the store’s logo which features—wait for it—a housefly.
Michael and Marcia Liss bought the store four years ago after deciding to leave the cold winters of their former home in Pennsylvania behind. After traveling around the East Coast, the couple “fell in love” with the Black Mountain/Asheville, N.C. area. When Marcia found that The Common Housefly was for sale, Michael left his B2B marketing career, exchanging it for a new role as a shop owner.
“I love to cook, so this is a passion of mine,” he says. “Retail and marketing are related so the work was in my wheel house,” he says of the decision to make a career change. “We pulled the trigger and moved to Black Mountain and bought the store the same week.”
That was the week before Thanksgiving, which was an abrupt debut for the new store owner. “The previous owner gave me the keys and said ‘Have fun’,” Liss remembers. “I was a deer in the headlights. But we made it through.”
The store sits on State St. in an historic, 150-year old town that is a popular second home and vacation spot. “It is absolutely gorgeous here, and we pinch ourselves every morning that we made the move,” Liss says. “Old towns ebb and flow, and right now this one is on an upswing, with new restaurants and breweries and the like opening up.”
Liss describes the atmosphere as an “outdoor mall where people get out of their cars and walk around visiting the stores.” He estimates that the customer base is split “50/50” between folks passing through and those who are locals.
“The store is beloved,” Liss says. “We get so many customers who come back to visit the area each year and they say that the store is their first stop. They want to see what is new.”
As the “new” owner, Liss says of the customer trust, “I am trying not to screw that up.”
He helps the store standout by focusing on local products: building a coffee section that sells coffee from Black Mountain supplier Dynamite Roasting Co. and hosting customer coffee tastings and trainings—such as how to master the pour over.
“Asheville is a big coffee area, and how we differentiate ourselves from the big box stores is by emphasizing local businesses,” Liss says. “We only sell one coffee brand, but it is roasted here in Black Mountain. We sell tea from the Asheville Tea Company. We are starting a deal with a printer in Asheville for mugs and textiles; plus, we carry local jams, hot sauces and barbecue sauces. People resonate with local.”
Liss underscores that by having the local producers set up tastings in the store. “When people interact with the producer, they get a different feel than if we are the ones doing the demo,” he explains. “Then there is the marketing theme that the store should be an experience rather than a shopping destination and the tastings border on entertainment.”
Cutlery is another product category that Liss has focused on, building its assortment of high-end knives. Food prep tools are the store’s largest category, but Liss says that to his surprise, the storage and cleaning category is rapidly expanding.
“Storage and cleaning has become so consistent recently that I have started to focus on it. People are looking for reusable storage and healthy cleaners,” he says, admitting, “I didn’t pay any attention to the category before.”
He lists Bees Wrap as one product line that took off early. “We used to have to demo it, but now people walk in and say, ‘Oh, they have Bee’s Wrap here.’”
Amazon also carries Bee’s Wrap, but Liss’s reaction to Amazon? Pish. “Amazon doesn’t impact me directly,” he says. “Customers come into the store, take their phones out and check pricing, but my pricing is good and I don’t give them a reason to go to Amazon over pricing.”
His customers, he says, want something that Amazon can’t provide.
“Our staff is trained to greet everyone with a sincere hello. They know the products we sell,” Liss says. “We have over 2,000 skus, but someone on the staff has tried everything here. We put up signs, ‘This is Mike’s favorite pan’ or ‘This is Marcia’s favorite lemon squeezer,’” he adds.
“The people I deal with prefer a local presence.”