By Lexi Ehlenbeck
Becca Cooke stood behind the counter. Her hands moved back and forth methodically as she prepared pieces of jewelry for display in her store. She spoke as she worked; eyes watching the store, hands on the merchandise.
“I had always had this desire to be my own boss,” said Cooke.
This dream came true in November of 2015 when Cooke officially opened her own store, Red’s Mercantile, located on North Dewey Street in Eau Claire. The home goods store has been in business for over two years, drawing in the community through its unique merchandise and its wide variety of events, and allowing Cooke the opportunity to help future women-owned businesses.
“It offers Eau Claire something that it didn’t have before,” said Josh Wurzer, Cooke’s boyfriend, about Red’s Mercantile.
Cooke, an Eau Claire native, graduated from the University of St. Thomas with a double major in marketing and public relations. She has worked in a variety of fields, including politics and marketing, but they weren’t quite what Cooke saw herself doing in the long run.
“I like to live a fluid lifestyle, one that allows me to be creative,” said Cooke.
Cooke saw the creative energy in Eau Claire and wanted to be a part of it. She captured this creativity by working with artists who produce the merchandise that she saw Red’s Mercantile selling.
“Becca is a lovely, passionate human and working with her was inspiring,” said former retail associate, Cassie Okamoto. “She did such a good job choosing each artist and getting to know each one.”
She works with local artists as well as artists across the country on a personal level. Eau Claire artist, Sarah Willger said that working with Cooke made her a better business owner, and that she inspired her to give back to the community.
“She is all about helping others succeed and has been involved in our community,” said Willger.
Cooke’s latest project to help others succeed is what she calls the Red Letter Grant. This is a $2,000 grant for women who wish to start up a business of their own. This grant is given to two different recipients two times a year.
“Two thousand dollars could stretch a long way concerning business,” said Cooke.
This idea stemmed from her own experience starting Red’s Mercantile.
Cooke did not get any financial help when she started Red’s Mercantile. She saved her own money with the intent of one day owning her own business.
“I didn’t take out any bank loans,” said Cooke. “I don’t come from an affluent family or anything like that. There also wasn’t anything that was super helpful by way of getting started.”
Cooke decided to make this grant exclusive to women because she felt that her women customers expressed more of a desire to open their own business, and grow creatively. She also noticed that there are a limited number of women business owners in the Chippewa Valley area, and wanted to close this gap.
Fifteen percent of sales from the Red’s Mercantile brand goods go toward the Red Letter Grant, as well as, money raised at events held in the store specifically for the grant. Cooke praised the community for its support and willingness to buy these products, and attend events in order to make the grant possible.
Cooke said she was able to raise $2,000 in less than six months.
Thanks to a donation from Zach Halmstad, the owner of Jamf, a management system for apple computers and iOS devices, she surpassed her fundraising goal. Halmstad agreed to match the money raised for the Red Letter Grant. Because of his donation, Red’s Mercantile will be able to award the grant to two recipients instead of just one, which Cooke originally envisioned.
Cooke, once a 16-year-old working two different waitress jobs, is now the owner of her own business in the same town she grew up in, and she has larger ambitions yet.
In the future, Cooke hopes to open more stores in places such as Duluth, MN, and Des Moines, Iowa. She also aims to grow Red’s Mercantile online to reach more people throughout the Midwest and the country, in order to expand sales.