Madison Mercantile was built to provide what rural communities need most


— Kris Shelstad may have invented something that every rural community needs.

She calls it the Madison Mercantile, and sometimes, the Madison Arts and Innovation Center.

The publisher of the local newspaper originally called it a "Swiss Army knife" style solution to the city's needs, and rightly so.

The Madison Mercantile offers a coffee house and community gathering place — with everything from quiet places for friends to gather to an area for kids' parties, as messy and noisy as they may be.

It is a popular venue for the arts in the community as well, with a stage for music and performing arts and a gallery for exhibits.

And it offers the perfect space for that other community need — a place to grow businesses.

Shelstad is in the process of developing office spaces for remote workers, and offers separate areas for small business operations, including everything from cutting-edge manufacturing to bitcoin mining and retail.

The Madison Mercantile is now celebrating its first anniversary, and Shelstad remembers well the work that went into opening it.

"We'd literally be here working and people would wander in, wondering 'what are you doing?' Most of them thought I was crazy, including the city council, I think," she said with a laugh.

No matter what they may have initially thought, the city council and the community have been very supportive, according to Shelstad.

And that's important, as Shelstad has all of 15,000 square feet of enclosed space on the south end of Main Street to develop.

A Madison native, Shelstad had retired from a 30-year career with the National Guard and was living in Texas with her husband when he died unexpectedly. She returned home and purchased the vacant former Brehmer Hardware building, which is now the Mercantile.

She took the name from the coffee house her mother once operated on Madison's Main Street. Her first goal was to open her own coffee house as a gathering place with a live stage and arts gallery.

She's now moving on to what she terms phases two, three and four. Phase two is focused on making space for remote work and entrepreneurial efforts.

Connor Peoples is among the first to take advantage of it.

Peoples and his wife moved with their children from the Twin Cities to a rural farm place outside of Madison. He was operating his internet security business from his home, until one day he stopped at the Mercantile to pick up apples from a Community Supported Agriculture venture that used the location as its drop site.

Now he operates his company in an office in the Mercantile. He's just steps away from a steady stream of fresh-brewed coffee and the opportunity to take a break and chat with coffee house patrons whenever he wants.

"A lot of people in tech dream of quitting and living on a farm and starting a coffee house," Peoples said. Now, he has it all.

Shelstad is preparing space for two other high-tech ventures. An entrepreneur operating a Bitcoin mine in Arizona is planning to move into the Mercantile later this year. He was looking for a new location and discovered the Mercantile while visiting a relative in the Madison area.

An engineer with a start-up business that uses computer-guided cutting machines to make custom inserts for fishing tackle is preparing to move in as well.

The Mercantile is also home to a

massage therapist

, and serves as a retail annex for The Country Butcher of Dawson.

Shelstad said she is especially interested in promoting local foods at the Mercantile.

One of her underlying goals in opening the Mercantile was to provide a place for people to connect and belong.

It's happening.

On a daily basis, Shelstad enjoys watching different groups of like-minded people who gather — everything from a quilting group to a men's Bible study.

New groups have formed as well, thanks to the opportunity the Mercantile represents.

One group of residents formed a Welcoming Committee to promote diversity and inclusion. Another group started Prairie Eco-links, and promotes discussions on issues such as climate change and soil health.

The Mercantile is already equipped with donated tools and equipment for those who enjoy woodworking. Shelstad is developing an audio room for producing podcasts. It already serves as the classroom for a visiting guitar instructor.

Best of all, Shelstad said she has discovered that western Minnesota is home to many talented artists and musicians. A recent performance by the Kindred Spirits attracted a crowd of more than 80 people to the Mercantile on a winter night.

The Mercantile's gallery is currently hosting an exhibit of Japanese Kumiko carvings by local artist Vince Cook.

But of course, the gateway to all that the Mercantile offers is the coffee house itself.

"I could not have been luckier," said Shelstad of the three women who stepped forward and now share the duties of operating the coffee house.

The Mercantile is very much a work in progress, a "controlled chaos" in the words of Shelstad.

But, one year after opening the doors, she is even more optimistic about the venture, as well as her home community. She said her return home has shown her that there are many people looking for opportunities to move to rural areas to raise their children or enjoy a rural lifestyle.