MARSHALL - When they opened Vanlife Conversions in January 2020, owner Jeff Flake and his wife Samantha Flake always planned to open a retail store to offer all-things off-grid living.
Now, with the opening of Modern Off-Grid Store in downtown Marshall, that goal has been realized, as the stir celebrated its opening during Third Thursday in Marshall in July.
According to Samantha Flake, who owns Modern Off-Grid, the store's main focus is solar panels, though she is constantly seeking new inventory to bring in to keep up with the ever-changing demands of the Madison County community.
Prior to Modern Off-Grid's opening, the pair was forced to attempt to conduct its burgeoning business from Vanlife Conversions, a van- and school bus-conversion business located down the street, which had a number of limitations, the owner said.
"(The storefront) is very useful because that's a shack," she said. "It was very hard to sell the things that we were selling out of there, and sit down and have meetings with people. It just wasn't really conducive to that. This space is really set up for that."
As with Vanlife, the business has already attracted customers from around the globe, Flake said.
"Recently we got a call from New York," she said. "We've got people from Florida who contacted us about our power systems."
Flake attributes the store's wide reach to a lack of retail options for off-grid lifestyle products.
"There aren't any real retail environments with these kinds of products. It's an online business for most," she said. "Being able to walk into a store and physically see these things is not something that exists, really. That's what a lot of people tell us when they come in - they just think it's amazing that we've opened a store where they can actually come in and see these things and learn about it."
According to Flake, the shop is also offering consignment.
"Currently we have an old wood stove in here, a rooftop AC unit, (solar) converters, (solar) charge controllers and stuff like that, as well as, of course, the solar panels in various sizes," she said. "We also have Berkey water filters."
According to Flake, the filters can effectively filter water gathered from the French Broad, though she cautions users to filter it twice.
The business also offers solar panel installation services.
"If you purchase the power, we'll install it," she said.
Since the store's opening, it has provided services to a number of local residents seeking to transition to a more off-grid lifestyle, she said.
"This is kind of a mix of the van/bus aspect with the yurt/cabin/off-grid aspect of the county," Flake said. "We've done a couple power systems for folks in yurts and small cabins."
Flake said the off-grid lifestyle continues to gain more followers in Madison County.
"It's definitely growing, especially with a lot of the folks who are coming here more recently and moving into the county," she said. "They all want to be off grid. They want to live a simple life.
"We've actually encountered that people in Spring Creek and Shelton Laurel are the ones (most interested in off-grid living)."
Modern Off-Grid is not simply a retail store though, according to Flake. The owner designed rows of chairs for local residents to deliver lectures or talks, and there is also a community library featuring more than 300 books, as well as a number of movie offerings.
"The front is actually designed to be a learning space area," she said. "We want folks to come here and educate other people. That's part of it. It's going to be a lecture and presentation area for us and other people to try and educate others on anything off-grid/sustainable-minded."
Flake, who worked in book stores for six years in Florida, as well as at the University of Florida library while a student there, collected the books showcased in the store's reference library.
Many of the selections pertain to the off-grid lifestyle, while others deal with topics relating to the social sciences, as that was Flake's academic background at UF.
According to the owner, Modern Off-Grid was designed to be a community hub in addition to a retail store.
"Education is very important to us," she said. "People learning how to do things is the best thing that anyone can do for themselves."
The store also features a community board, with housing opportunities and job listings, as well as a community calendar of events.
Flake said downtown businesses have been "very supportive" of Modern Off-Grid.
Flake said the couple maintains the business operations at its two establishments by having Jeff operate Vanlife, with Samantha holding down the fort at Modern Off-Grid. The couple has two other employees who assist with the businesses.
"It's exciting," she said. "It's a lot of work. We're hoping to be able to expand this coming year and hire some more folks, if we can. We're going to start bringing in wind and water turbines. So we're going to branch into all of those, because not everyone can do solar. If you live on the north side of a mountain, solar is not going to work for you. But wind and water will work for you, if you have it."
Off-grid lifestyle 'changes every day'
According to Flake, meeting the ever-evolving needs of adherents of the off-grid lifestyle is often challenging, as the technology "changes every day."
"The technology is just constantly changing from month to month," she said. "We have to constantly learn and keep up with what's going on. It's a full-time job in that, too. We know off-grid solar power - that's definitely our specialty. We're learning more broader areas of things, still."
Part of that research involves studying up on farming. The couple lives in Shelton Laurel, and Flake said she keeps up with local community groups such as Facebook group Conscious Homesteaders of Madison County to identify some of the community members' warmest interests.
"I've started branching into some of the farming-type stuff," she said. "I'm starting to get some energy efficient incubators for people hatching their own eggs."
Flake said she plans to try to offer more camping gear in the near future. For now, the owner said her store's main focus is on providing hard-to-find resources for Madison County residents.
"I'm just trying to kind of branch out into the overall theme of what everybody does around here," she said. "If you can't get it somewhere in the county, we want to try to be able to get it."
Modern Off-Grid Store is available on Facebook: https://m.facebook.com/ModernOffGridStore/?ref=py_c.
This article originally appeared on Asheville Citizen Times: New off-grid lifestyle store opens in downtown Marshall