A budding entrepreneur, mover and shaker, superior pacesetter, and as well as a remarkable neighbor and friend, Caroline Burks is a force to be reckoned with.
Caroline lives in a Downtown loft apartment with her husband Cory. Together, they are in the process of finding the perfect, and more permanent, home in Laurel’s historic district. She is a member of Laurel Main Street, and has been involved with the Chamber of Commerce.
Although, Caroline is wildly close to making her biggest mark yet in Downtown Laurel.
Today Laurel’s newest and only men’s store will be open after countless hours of time, effort, and careful curation by Caroline, her mother, Jan, and every other piece of the Guild & Gentry puzzle.
Our Leading Ladies blog series is back with an amazing, Laurel woman and a look into the brand new Downtown business, Guild & Gentry!
The purpose of our Leading Ladies series is to highlight and celebrate Laurel women who lead and inspire us. These women are close to our hearts, well-respected by us, and remind us of Nellie Rowell.
We chose to write about Caroline because of her loud and proud love for Laurel, inspirational and invaluable ideas, vast contribution to our community, and her genuine friendship.
Caroline grew up in Laurel, and has family going back 100 years on each side. She jokes, “I tell people that I had to go to Mississippi State to find a husband, because there’s a better-than-average chance that I’d be related to any boy I dated from Laurel.”
She graduated from West Jones High School, then Mississippi State University with a Bachelor’s degree in architecture. During her fourth year of college, she met her now-husband, Cory, through a mutual friend. They were married in 2013.
Around that time, she was offered a job in Tuscaloosa, Alabama where she realized a year later that her love for design did not align with architecture.
“It was daunting, realizing that my chosen career wasn’t the path I was meant to take. Looking back though–the skills I gained, the ability to recognize good design, relentless perseverance, and the ability to delay sleep–has proved invaluable.”
So, she left her job and moved back to Starkville, Mississippi to gain her Masters in Business Administration, where she then followed up for three years as a sales representative at McGraw Hill Education. She said,
“After feeling a pull to come home, I quit my sales job, and Cory and I moved back to Laurel to open Guild & Gentry.”
HOME TOWN TIES
“Downtown Laurel is a large part of why I ended up in architecture school; its role in my formative years was as important as any person.”
Her grandfather, Henry Bustin, was a construction superintendent with “Red” Hinton’s crew from the 1950s through the 1980s. He worked on some of Laurel’s most memorable buildings, First Baptist Church, Lauren Rogers Museum of Art, the Laurel Train Depot, and more.
On days Caroline’s parents worked, Caroline’s “Henny” picked her up from school and showed her every building he worked on. He shared fascinating details with her only a construction crewmember would know.
She said she became “enamored” with the craftsmanship and care displayed in these buildings and there developed her passion for design. (You can read more about how these stories shaped her love for design and her big decision to come home to open Guild & Gentry on her blog.)
Caroline and Cory are excited to be back in the center of all the activity and bustling Downtown that Laurel has become. She said, “I feel as if we’ve had a front row seat [from their loft apartment] to all the amazing things happening in our little town.”
She is also grateful for Laurel’s tight-knit sense of fellowship and camaraderie between the merchants.
Caroline commented, “While we’ve been working to get the doors open, our downtown neighbors have been a huge resource, too–being able to compare notes, share tips on everything from point of sale systems to seasonal slumps, and commiserate over tough days has created a strong community of business owners who understand that it’s going to take all of us to make Downtown the place we want it to be for locals, tourists, and future generations.”
Furthermore, she intends on collaborating and working closely with Laurel merchants and businesspeople frequently. In fact, she has purchased several pieces from us to furnish her store. When we asked her about her favorite, she said,
“My favorites have to be the leather-topped stools we purchased to sit at our ‘tuxedo table’. The table itself came from the Laurel Train Depot–my grandfather ‘rescued’ it from the garbage over thirty years ago during a remodel–and the stools compliment it so well. They have a masculine feel with the leather seats, but the lines of the legs give them a grace that echoes the proportions of the table. It doesn’t hurt that they’re also really comfortable!”
WHAT IS GUILD & GENTRY?
“Guild and Gentry was envisioned as an homage to our town’s craftsmen, makers, investors, and visionaries — both past and present. The name comes from the two groups of men who really founded our town: the “guild”, or the skilled workers who put hammer to nail and left us a legacy of creativity, craft, and ingenuity; and the “gentry”, the men who poured their resources into building a place worth calling home in an out-of-the-way pocket of the Piney Woods.
When we discussed moving back to Laurel to open a store, we originally had an old-fashioned mercantile in mind; we wanted to open something that was reminiscent of ‘Old Laurel’. Laurel’s downtown thrived prior to Urban Renewal, and it felt respectful to look back at our city’s retail history to set the tone for her future.
After asking some questions, we realized that this was already on the horizon, in the form of the beautiful Laurel Mercantile. Going back to the drawing board, we asked ourselves (and countless others), ‘What does Laurel need?’ One answer came back to us from almost every person we spoke to — specifically, ‘Laurel needs a men’s store.’
That concept was easier said than done, but we connected with Bethany Byrd of Own Your Hill, and she helped us put legs to our vision. She built our fantastic website and connected us with Ethan Manning ,who put together our gorgeous branding.
They gave us the tagline, ‘Distinctly Masculine’, and that’s been the question we’ve asked ourselves with every piece of inventory, every fixture, and every detail — ‘Is this distinctly masculine?’
The design that resulted from that question truly creates an experience for the shopper. Every piece of furniture has a story, and we’ve tried to curate brands that echo that significance. I hope shoppers want to spend time here, bring their friends here, and keep coming back again and again.”
We asked Caroline what it was like to be a “woman in a men’s store”, and she responded perfectly:
“I do understand that being a woman that owns a men’s store feels like a contradiction, but I see it as a positive.”
She went on, “I’m in a unique position, because I feel like I understand how men prefer to dress — I was raised by and I am now married to a picky dresser. If it itches, scratches, lays funny, doesn’t have enough pockets, has too many pockets, is too thick, is too thin — I could go on — then it doesn’t get worn. On top of the actual feel, clothes have to instill a sense of confidence in the wearer. If you don’t feel like you look good in what you put on, why wear it? In curating the items I offer in the store, I’ve tried to pay special attention to how our pieces feel, as well as how they make the men wearing them feel.”
ADVICE FROM A LEADING LADY
“Based on my experiences, my best advice is to keep trying things, and don’t be afraid of ‘failure’, because it’s better to fail and learn than never try.”
“I think of that old saying, ‘If you want to hear God laugh, tell Him your plans.’ I’m a planner, and I tend to want everything to go exactly as I envision it; I try to avoid conflict, failure, and surprises through planning. Nothing in my life has worked out the way I thought it would, and I thank God for it. Just because something doesn’t work out the way you think it should doesn’t mean it’s not good for you — every experience, every failure, every supposed setback is teaching you something or preparing you for the next challenge you’ll face.
Architecture school, while it didn’t inform my career, taught me perseverance and resilience, and gave me a sense of confidence that I can do anything I set my mind to; being in sales gave me a thick skin when it comes to criticism or loss. I’ve experienced negativity based on my age and my gender, but the most important thing is to keep going and keep trying new things.”
LOOKING TO THE FUTURE
When asked what Caroline would like to see in Laurel’s future, she contributed some wonderful words that align perfectly with Lott Furniture Co. and Nellie’s vision.
“I’d love to see every building full, and for downtown to become Laurel’s retail center again. There’s such character here, and I’m so glad that more and more people are recognizing it. What I think people fail to realize sometimes is that when the economy is booming, everything else gets better — infrastructure, schools, etc. People have to pour their tax dollars into their city to see significant improvement and change, and I think we’re on the upswing of a huge period of growth for Laurel.”
At Lott, we believe that the home is an outward expression of an inner representation of who you are as a person. Because of this, we always ask our Leading Ladies what their favorite piece of furniture in their homes is, and why.
“Our dining table is the first project that Cory ever took on for us as a married couple, so it’s close to my heart. We bought it at a furniture auction, but he stripped, stained, painted, and basically rebuilt it. It’s beautiful to me — both because it’s actually a beautiful piece, but mostly because it was a labor of love. In our old house, we only had room for a bistro table, so we never had room to invite more than two other people to dinner. Now we’re finally able to have a meal with each of our families all at the same table.
My other favorite pieces aren’t really furniture, but I have them on display in our home and in the store. As a little boy, my dad had a collection of metal toy trucks that my grandmother put up and saved for me; my dad passed away in 2013 right before Cory and I were married, so having a piece of him to share and to pass on to our future children is incredibly special to me. He would have loved the store, and seeing them on the wall makes me feel as if a piece of him is here with me.”
We are so grateful and honored to call Caroline our friend and our newest neighbor. We are so excited to ride alongside her in the Guild & Gentry journey and can’t wait to see the future success of Caroline and her business.
Please join us in celebrating Caroline and Guild & Gentry by sharing this story and showing up to support Laurel’s newest men’s store today. And most importantly– #shopsmall.
Have someone in your life that you think represents the strength and vision of Nellie Rowell? Nominate her now.
-Keri Rowell, Lott Furniture Co.
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Keri Rowell is part of Downtown Laurel’s most historic business, Lott Furniture Co. A Laurel native and Historic District resident, Keri enjoys exploring all of the beautiful spaces and places in her Home Town, discovering the hidden tales buried deep within its history, and sharing them with the world. When you visit Downtown Laurel, you might just spot her out exploring, dreaming up the next story to share with you.