They Made Main Street Their Own

March 8, 2012 12:00 am

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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 Main Street, favors a crowbar. Megan Patton, also 34, an artist, waitress and Ms. 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," Ms. Fussell said later.

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. (Ms. van Beuren's was $6,000, though 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. (See demolition, above.)

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," Mr. 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.

First Published 2012-03-07 23:06:24

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