Ray Domer will say that when he was only 4 years old, he told his mom that he wanted to sell tea when he grew up. Well, 62 years later, Ray does exactly that from his General Mercantile store located on the 400 block of historic Last Chance Gulch in downtown Helena. Ray purchased the building 44 years ago and turned the property into a general store that to this day, brings a smile to anyone who passes through.
Ray initially stocked the store with “whatever was cool” at the time. He would make weekend trips to Seattle to check out what was trending and bring it back, as there was no UPS at that time. So you could see a mix of plants, gourmet cookware, and waterbeds among other things. It was in Seattle that Ray discovered Market Spice Tea, which today remains a staple at the Merc. As the world has changed, so has Ray’s mode of operating. Gone are the days of frequent trips to Seattle. He attends a few gift shows each year, but relies on sales reps passing through to keep his stock of goods on point with today’s consumers.
The vibe in this store oozes of a nostalgic coziness and charm. Ray has repurposed barn wood from the family ranch near Townsend to create little nooks and crannies throughout the Merc. In these sweet alcoves, you’ll find wooden tables ideal for playing a game of chess, meeting a friend for coffee, or perhaps meeting up with a lover to plan a tryst. The soft, incandescent lighting over the tables lends itself to a homely feel, as though you were sitting in your grandmother’s kitchen. It’s very common to see high school and college students using the Merc as a hangout for studying.
Every bit of space in the long, narrow building is stuffed to the brim with a menagerie of goods, such as picnic baskets, hand thrown coffee mugs, tin signs, cards, postcards, soaps, journals, candy of the dime store variety, toys, games, Montana made huckleberry products, gourmet chocolate, Draft Beer jelly beans – the list is endless. The gag gifts are the best – how about a bacon wallet, or a rubber horse head mask, underpants mittens, cowboy bandages, whoopee cushions, fake mustaches, Squirrel Attack mugs, and my least favorite, Larvax worm snax (ick!).
An espresso counter with swivel stools is the centerpiece of the Merc. Jars of both coffee and tea line the walls behind the counter. It’s here where you order up your typical coffee drinks, a specialty tea, killer hot cocoa, and your baked goods.
The Merc is family-centric. Somewhat hidden but accessible by a short ladder is a kid’s play area above the store. Asked where his idea for this came from, Ray will say that growing up on the family ranch he loved playing in the blacksmith shop or barn, so it seemed only right to have an area just for kids to hang out within the store. Ray created a small pond with koi opposite the espresso counter, again for the delight of the young ones that come through.
The General Merc experience is one of savoring, lingering over your visit. The atmosphere is casual and relaxed. Ray continually “tweaks here and there” with new products, keeping up with trends. Ray wears an easy smile, the sign of someone who loves this little bit of Americana he has created on Last Chance Gulch and continues to see joy in each day with those who walk through the Merc’s door. If you haven’t stopped by, add it to your places to see when in Helena – I guarantee it won’t be your last visit.
The General Mercantile
413 N Last Chance Gulch
Helena, Montana 59601
Open: Monday-Friday 8:00 am-5:30 pm, Saturday 9:00 am-5:00 pm & Sunday 11:00 am-4:00 pm