On a recent afternoon, visual artist Rachel Campbell was working on a commission of Chapel Hill paintings in her studio. In another section of Mercury Studio’s new location, Janice Smith was working on her education resources website. Nearby, part of a sculpture sat on a table.
All of this activity was happening at the new space for Mercury Studio, which moved from its location on Mangum Street in January. Mercury Studio is now at 401 W. Geer St., part of the building that also houses Motorco Music Hall. Mercury is a new neighbor to the district that some are calling “No Co” (or north of Corporation Street), an area that also includes Cocoa Cinnamon, Fullsteam Brewery, CrossFit Durham and other businesses in the Geer Street, Foster Street and Rigsbee Avenue area.
Mercury is the creation of entrepreneur and musician Katie DeConto and visual artist Megan Jones, who opened the business in May 2012 as a coworking space. They saw the need for “a positive, creative environment in which individuals and small businesses can work, collaborate and thrive,” according to Mercury’s website.
The word “creative” encompasses a wide range of jobs. “We don’t really have a majority as far as what people do,” DeConto said. Those renting space in Mercury include writers, visual artists, software developers, and an accountant who specializes in creative organizations. “Tenants” sign up for different memberships – café, studio, desk, satellite – that offer different types of access to the building.
Campbell, who was formerly at Golden Belt, is working on a group of Chapel Hill oil paintings for the 140 West Franklin development. While she liked Golden Belt, at Mercury she is closer to downtown, and she likes being around other creative people who “are not your kind of creative,” she said.
Smith, a former teacher and dean of instruction at a charter school, runs the organization Mission 100%. The organization’s goal is to go into schools that are successful, record their teaching styles, and then make that information available to teachers and leaders in education. Smith first came to Mercury as a video producer before starting Mission 100%. Mercury gives her a more professional work place: “It’s hard to take yourself seriously at home,” she said. She also likes being around other people.
The owners of the Mangum space had informed Mercury’s owners that they had other plans for the space, DeConto said. When the Geer building came open, Mercury decided to refurbish it -- not an easy task, DeConto said. They had to install the heating and air-conditioning system, seal the floors, clean the building and paint the walls. Three garage doors were taken out and replaced with glass fronts. The concrete floor in one room, used for car repairs, had to be re-poured because of a drain. “It’s a huge space. It’s about twice as big as our old space,” DeConto said.
Robert Chapman, managing director of Traditional Neighborhood Development Partners, previously rented the space from owner Alex Washburn, a New York architect. Chapman was looking for “the perfect tenant who would contribute a lot to the neighborhood,” he said. He visited Mercury Studio in its Mangum location and decided the business would be a good fit for the neighborhood.
Chapman then gave the lease back to Washburn, who also helped Mercury with financing for the refurbishing. While the area around Motorco is busy at night, “the idea was to have more daytime vitality in the neighborhood,” and he found Mercury to be the best fit, he said.
Mercury now has art studios, a working area with desks and tables, and a “backroom” with a sofa and chairs (where listening sessions and other gatherings are held). Mercury also has a retail store, The Makery, now called The Makery at Mercury Studio. Krista Nordgren started the store, which sells goods made in North Carolina -- everything from clothes, leather goods, jewelry, and more. The retail space also can be used for live events -- a music event recently was held there.
That flexibility is part of Mercury’s mission. “We basically are trying to provide work space for a diverse group of people,” whether that person wants to work on art or sell or do something else, DeConto said. “Our part in that is making sure we have space that is useful for people.”
The businesses nearby have all been very welcoming, and the Rigsbee area has “much more of a neighborhood feel than where we were before,” she said. “This area still feels pretty unique to Durham, so we’re happy to be a part of it.”