Gwen Tomlinson always says, “Hey,” when I walk into the Mercantile. She’s been saying that to me for two of the thirteen years the Tomlinson Mercantile has been open. The building and the business are synonymous. “It was an empty lot when we started. A used car lot before that.”
How did she get the idea for a mercantile? “Well, we did a lot of flea markets most every weekend when Tom worked in Las Vegas. Then, a friend encouraged us to get started selling. I always loved a garage sale.”
“While we were in Las Vegas we went to storage shed auctions. People go to Vegas and lose all their money and leave their stuff in storage sheds.” After three months of non-payment of rent the storage items in a shed go up for sale.
“You get the whole shed. We bought our first shed for $100. We made a lot of money on that one. Tom’s brother bought a shed and found a whole box of money in it. Nowadays, storage owners look first (and pick over the good stuff). It used to be that at auction, bolt cutters opened the shed for the first time to new eyes.”
The Tomlinsons got used to big crowds and, sometimes, big prices for sheds. The most they ever paid for a shed was $700. They sold their goods at Broad Acres Swap Meet on Las Vegas Boulevard. “It was kind of fun when we were first there. But, it was changing before we left.”
The Tomlinsons moved from Las Vegas to Harlowton in 1983 with Tom’s work as a mechanic for Commonwealth Electric. (Tom retired in 1990.) They moved when their youngest, Kelli, was in high school. “We liked Montana and Harlowton and we still do.”
Bryan and Teri were living in North Dakota when Gwen and Tom moved to Harlow. Teri came worked at the sheriff’s office before she met and married Jeff Sell. Not long after, Bryan, who was working as an electrician for a power plant, moved out and first worked for Tech Electric.
Gwen seems to have three partners. Tom Tomlinson, partner of 47 years. Karen Tomlinson, Bryan’s wife, is her partner in the Mercantile. “She likes junk as much as I do. So we decided we should try a store and it has been a great store. But these days, she is always pressed for time with her ‘other job’ at the hospital lab.” And, Teri is Gwen’s ‘partner-in-crime.’
Gwen and Tom have been going to Quartzite, Arizona, for the last four or five years. This spot in the desert sees over a million visitors in the winter months when they come to look at gems and stones and shop at flea markets. “The town is about as big as Two Dot. But when the shows open in January and February, the desert is full of RVs. And every year, it gets bigger.”
The Tomlinsons store their RV throughout the year in Quartzite and then in January, they pull it out for their home and business place. Tom sells obsidian and deerhorn knives and diamond willow walking sticks. Gwen proffers jewelry - and buys jewelry.
“Tom looks forward to seeing the same people year after year. He spends a lot of time BSing. I just like being there for that month and going to the jewelry shows. We don’t make a lot of money, but we pay for our trip and that’s all we care about.”
Gwen and Tom began “heading” towards Quartzite after they started rock and crystal hunting. Rock hunting at Crystal Park near Butte led them to the annual Rock Show in Tucson, five or six years ago. “But, the show is expensive. We made money on that trip when the metaphysical thing was really big. It has tailed off since. We still have some collector pieces of crystal. But, we are just keeping them, for now.”
Crystal Park is - or was - the place for digging crystals in Montana. It is open to the public for digging. “But, the area is so dug up, anymore. They’re just harder too find.” The Tomlinsons also used to dig sapphires and garnets on the Missouri River near Helena and Missoula.
The 4th or 5th Annual City Wide Garage Sale is on top right now and scheduled for Saturday, May 12. Gwen and Teri have about 20 signed up so far, this year. “We may have a few less sales this year, because a lot of people who had sales in the past want to be able to garage sale themselves. Last year, we had 50 sales. The first year, we had 30.”
“Teri and I heard about such sales in other towns. So, we decided to give it a try. She’s my ‘partner-in-crime,’ you know.”
Gwen says that Teri is the one who has the good ideas. “Why don’t we do this?” Gwen says, “Hey, yeah. Let’s do it.”
It was Teri’s idea to do the recent and well-received Walleye Fry at the Federated Church. Gwen jumped in and helped make it happen.
Gwen says, “No new ideas in the offing. But, we need to do some running around and some shopping. We are planning a treasure shopping trip to Spokane for collectibles and other merchandise.”
Last September, Gwen and Teri took off for a few days to central Nebraska for the 200-Mile Junk Jaunt. A 200-mile long garage sale which includes items in a large number of towns and in-between, in garages and barns and shops over a three-day weekend. It may cover 400 miles, some day. “It was fun. We stayed with family. We got a lot of craft ideas. They had a lot of neat things for sale. But, it was expensive because of gas. It would be nice to have a sale like that from White Sulphur to Roundup. Ah, but, I don’t want to get it started.” But, if anyone does, you know who to talk to.
The Mercantile rarely sells new items. “We don’t want to get into that. People don’t want to buy that stuff in a junk shop.”
Customers like the variety at the Tomlinson Mercantile. “What a fun store!” They comment on how well things are displayed and cared for.
Gwen Tomlinson grew up in Velva, (north central) North Dakota. Tom is from Benedict - 35 miles from Velva. Her mother and two sisters still live in Velva and another sister is in North Dakota. Gwen has two brothers and sister living in Washington. She remembers the snow and cold and the family bike. ”When I was a kid, we had one bike for eight of us and we did everything on it.”
After moving to Harlowton, Gwen worked for CA Buckley at the Clothes Rack and Bruce Painter at Painter’s Grocery Store. She also was a waitress at the Graves Hotel and eventually worked for Marge Stevens at the Trash and Treasure Shop. During all that time, she was still garage saling. “We always garage saled. We always garage saled.”
Teri says, “She garage saled when we were kids.”
Gwen laughs and adds, “It’s a sickness, probably. But, we always garage saled.”
Does Tom garage sale? “Oh, yeah. He’s as bad as I am. He just looks for different things.”
But, what tripped her over the edge and caused her to open the Tomlinson Mercantile? “When I worked at the Trash and Treasure, I found out that you can make some money at it. Karen liked the idea. So, we decided to go ahead.”
Still, putting up the mercantile building was a bit of a test. “It was a LOT of work. People got grumpy. But, we did it ourselves and got it done.” Gwen had plenty of merchandise on hand to put on the shelves and tables.
“People were excited when we opened. The Merc was something new and different.” It still is.
“People come agan and again, once they have shopped here once. Prices are reasonable and it’s a fun place to shop. We have people come from all over the state and even from Wyoming and Washington.”
Mrs. Tomlinson is alway busy, even when there are no garage sales. Gwen has time for 8 grandkids and their school events and ball games. Tom and Gwen are part owners of the Carwash and Laudromat. Gwen put in a recent stint on the Chamber of Commerce Board and is presently sitting and working at the Board of the Federated Church. But, Gwen likes junk a lot more than boards.
Tomlinson talks about getting tired sometimes (“We need a break”). But, Gwen is still looking for new ideas. “Karen is coming up with some.”
And then, there is always another garage sale. “The thrill of the hunt is almost as much fun as selling things. Teri and I will hunt up another sale and take off. She’s my getaway driver, too, you know.”
Gwen says, “Shop at our City Wide Garage Sale on May 12. It'll be a whole lot of fun.”
Contact her at 632-4405 or drop in at Tomlinson Merc for a visit and a look at the latest junk.
“Life is like a garage sale. There's lots of good junk in it.”