Meet your merchant: Sweetland Garden Mercantile now a hardware store, gift shop
By now, Darlene Markey is used to her former students dropping in to her North San Juan store, Sweetland Garden Mercantile, just to say hi.
The former elementary school teacher, who taught for eight years at Grizzly Hill School, one year in the little town of Washington and two in Guatemala, says sometimes it takes her a minute to recognize a much-older student behind a beard, a different hairstyle or a new tattoo, but the memories come back when she takes a closer look at their eyes.
Darlene loved working with children, but the workload of prepping for multiple grades due to small school sizes took its toll. Then, when the No Child Left Behind Act was implemented, Darlene said she found herself working 12- to 14-hour days, with seemingly endless meetings and prep time. It was getting to be too much.
In the summer of 2005, Darlene noticed that the old post office on Highway 49 had become a small garden store. Being an avid summer gardener, Darlene was frustrated because the store never seemed to be open. One day, however, she was able to track down the owner, Mike Schreiber, known to many on the Ridge as “Super Cool.”
“I asked him if he would hire me for the summer,” said Darlene. “He said he wasn’t interested in having employees, but he’d like to have a business partner. Well that was it — I was in.”
Darlene let go of her teaching job, and within six months, Super Cool was ready to sell his half of the business to Darlene.
“It was amazing — I called a friend and said I needed help,” she said. “Then I hired a bookkeeper. Within two years we became a multimillion-dollar business.”
Darlene was eager to expand the 400-square-foot retail space. In a little more than a year the store grew to 600 square feet, and Darlene was able to remodel and buy the land. She brought on her son, Mike Puetz, to co-manage the store with her.
Catering primarily to cannabis growers and organic farmers, Darlene took an academic approach to her business.
“People grew to trust me because I’m a natural educator,” she said. “I learned early on how to grow things organically. I studied and researched. I learned about compost tea and using biology in gardening to avoid pathogens. Then we began offering gardening classes.”
But Darlene didn’t stop there. In talking to her customers she began to see just how badly San Juan Ridge needed a hardware store.
“It made sense to target the do-it-yourselfers who didn’t want to drive to town,” she said. “So I expanded and changed the name from Sweetland Garden Supply to Sweetland Garden Mercantile.”
With fluctuations in the cannabis market, adding a hardware store to the business turned out to be a savvy business move. Today, the store boasts 2,000 square feet of retail space, a nursery, a greenhouse and more than 10,000 products. The store has clearly become a community hub. Classes, such as fruit tree pruning, irrigation design, soil amending, canning, making compost tea and a women’s chainsaw instruction are regular offerings. Knowledgeable staffers have been trained on the merits and intricacies of growing organically, said Darlene.
“It’s hysterical, we’ve become a very full spectrum store,” she said. “Now we even have a gift section featuring items made by local craftspeople. I tell people, if you want to meet a partner in life, just hang out in our yard. We’re a very social community, people bring their dogs in.”
A new recreational component has also been added to the store, featuring camping supplies, sleds and “river rat tubes.”
Next, Darlene wants to add fishing supplies.
“We’ve got 2,000 square feet now but we’re already overflowing again,” said Darlene, with a laugh.
Current employees now include Samantha Hindrichs, Taylor Harvey, Chris Stokes and Tina Tesene.
“I work with great human beings,” said Darlene. “I surprised myself when I decided to quit teaching — but it all seemed serendipitous. I am very grateful to this community and the chance to get to know people on a whole different level.”
To contact Staff Writer Cory Fisher, email her at Cory@theunion.com.
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