BLACKSBURG — Jessica Jones said she was heartbroken earlier this year when she learned Mish Mish, the downtown art store she called a second home, was closing after 49 years.
First, she said she cried. Then she said she questioned her future in the town. And finally she said she got to work.
If Mish Mish could no longer serve as the central hub for Blacksburg’s artists — and Virginia Tech’s freshmen in need of school supplies — then she would find a way to fill that void.
“Really, this whole thing has happened so fast, I’m just kind of playing everything by ear,” she said.
Jones has tentatively secured a new storefront on Main Street. She’s begun working with Tech professors to put together kits that include all the materials students need for various classes. She’s thought about inventory and store design.
Jones already owns New River Fiber Co. She’s planning to triple the footprint of that business, add art supplies and change the name to New River Art and Fiber.
There’s some light remodeling to be done before it can open, but Jones said she’s aiming to have something ready by early next year.
She’s sensitive to the fact that she’s building this business — at least in large part — off the legacy that Mish Mish and its owners Steve and Debbie Miller left behind.
She says she’s grateful for that and has been coordinating closely with them.
The Millers have given Jones their blessing — and a slew of old fixtures and display cases from their shuttered store.
When customers checkout in Blacksburg’s new art shop, they’ll be doing it on the same counter that sat by Mish Mish’s front door for decades.
“I’m super excited about that,” Jones said. “They were so generous with information, making introductions to different vendors, letting me come in and pick out whatever fixtures I wanted.”
The Millers hoped to reach 50 years with Mish Mish, but a confluence of rising rents and declining health made that impossible. They announced in March that they would close this summer, news that landed with a thud in the Blacksburg art community.
Steve Miller said he heard some of those rumblings as things were winding down at Mish Mish. But between local hardware stores and New River Art and Fiber, he said it looks like that void will be mostly filled by January.
“It’s good to have someone who has the knowledge on the art supplies side, rather than Michaels and Hobby Lobby,” Miller said. “They have product, but they don’t know anything about it.”
Jones, 37, is a longtime local, a knitter and experienced businesswoman.
She said she first started shopping at Mish Mish around 2001, when she was an art student at Virginia Tech. She left town when her husband took an internship in 2007, moved to New York and managed an art store there.
She returned to Blacksburg the following year and took a job at Mish Mish.
The Millers were always hands-on with the family business, but Jones eventually became a sort of unofficial store manager.
In 2017, Jones took over a different downtown Blacksburg store focused on yarn and knitting supplies, called New River Fiber Co. She ran that shop for years, and earlier this summer reached an agreement with the owner to purchase the business outright.
The yarn store sits directly behind the space that she plans to convert into the art supply shop, but an awkward hallway divides the facilities and makes it almost impossible to connect them.
So, at least for now, Jones plans to have two front doors. The fiber art community can continue to coalesce in the yarn store, while the art supplies will have a bigger space facing Main Street. The business will have one name, but two spaces sitting side-by-side.
“I was really more interested in the gallery scene than being an artist myself,” Jones said of her foray into the art word. “And then working at Mish Mish, I really kind of fell in love with retail — which was unexpected.”
Jones says she’s passionate about downtown Blacksburg and supporting local retail and manufacturing — even if that’s not always the cheapest route.
When Mish Mish closed, she felt the unmet need in her own home.
“I can’t imagine my life without a store like that,” she said. “Going to Target for my kids’ school supplies just broke my heart.”
For her new store, Jones plans to do many of the same things that made Mish Mish a Blacksburg institution. She’ll make sure she’s meeting the needs of the university’s art and architecture students, as well as local artists. She’ll make customer service her top priority and will try not to push sales on customers.
But Jones is also planning to bring some lessons from her time at the art store in New York. She wants to carry more boutique-style supplies, like hand-rolled pastel crayons from a small company she knows in New York.
“It’s hard for us to compete cost-wise with the bigger companies,” Jones said. “So customer service is where it all lands. I make it my business to know the product I carry, to be able to stand behind it, give advice on it, demonstrate how it behaves.”
Miller was a little skeptical of the plan for pricey specialty products. He didn’t rule anything out, but after nearly five decades of research he has a pretty good handle on what sells in Blacksburg.
Tech students will generate most of the revenue, Miller said. At-home artists simply don’t require enough supplies to keep a store like this afloat. The trick is keeping a balance of the two demographics.
No matter what, he’s rooting for Jones.
“Business is a risk, and she’s taking a big one here,” Miller said.