Leadership can come from the heart.
The owners of Heart Mercantile in the Oregon District proved that time and time again in 2019.
Even as co-owner Amanda Hensler battled breast cancer, the co-owners of the store at 438 E. Fifth St. and others became symbols of Dayton’s strength as the community braced itself for a KKK rally, dug itself out of wreckage left by 15 tornadoes and mourned its dead after a 24-year-old with a pistol modified to act like an assault riffle targeted their block in the Oregon District.
The women sold “F#%K Racism” T-shirts and Dayton Strong T-shirts, donating more than $50,000 in proceeds to the YWCA, The House of Bread, the Food Bank and the Dayton Foundation for the Dayton Oregon District Tragedy Fund.
They also rolled up their sleeves and spent grueling hours in the trenches and helped organize recovery efforts as part of community-wide, grassroots effort.
We caught up with Daytonians of the Week Kait Gilcher, Carly Short, Amanda Hensler and Brittany Smith.
>> CONTINUOUS COVERAGE: Walking the Path of the Storm
What do you do?
The four of us own Heart Mercantile, a novelty gift shop located in Downtown Dayton’s Historic Oregon District. Brittany and Carly, as well as Kelsey Kussman, Tracey Robillard and Sarah Smith, own Luna Gifts & Botanicals. Brittany and Kait also own beck + call; all of which are sister-stores and operate separately but aside one another as a cohesive unit of women-owned businesses.
Describe your squad?
Brittany: A girl mafia that loves to play and to give back to our community.
Amanda: We are a hodgepodge of random talents in retail that keep our machine running.
Kait: A motley crew of strong, resilient women (and men) who work hard and play hard and love Dayton.
Carly: We all have big personalities with a “get s%*t done” attitude. Working together so closely has made Heart what it is as well as taught us all patience. I love having such strong women in my life who can work as well as cry with me.
When you were a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up?
Brittany: Figure skater/NFL cheerleader.
Amanda: I was never really sure, but I ended up with a degree in English and a Master’s degree in Special Education. I taught in Ohio and New Jersey before I worked at Heart.
Kait: A writer. I have a BA in English from Wright State and briefly taught creative writing at Stivers. My path has taken many severe turns since then. Haha.
Carly: As a child I had many different ideas for my career path. Zoologist and detective come to mind, but truth be told I am still trying to figure it out. I have been an entrepreneur for as long as I can remember. I loved slinging that bulk Sam’s Club candy at my elementary school recess.
What is your favorite hidden gem in the community?
Brittany: Katie’s Place...just kidding. Although it’s not so hidden, Corner Kitchen is my favorite spot in Dayton. The food is always on point.
Amanda: I love walking around Woodland Cemetery and getting some reflection time while looking at a large piece of Dayton’s history.
Kait: It’s not hidden but it is new. Reza’s Downtown is a beautiful new coffee house and their menu is fantastic. Mike’s Vintage Toys on Fifth Street is an awesome, unique new addition to the District for gift/ collector shopping. 416 Diner’s biscuits and gravy save my life weekly and Toxic Brew has a coffee and whiskey cocktail (Irish C-Note) that is BOMB and that you can’t get anything like anywhere else.
Carly: This might sound cliche, but I truly believe that the people of Dayton are the hidden gems. While we have some amazing places to explore, what makes this city so great are the people that live in it. Everywhere you go you will find people willing to lend a hand, ask you about your day or buy you a drink if you look like you have had a bad day. This city has so much but what I value the most is the relationships I have made here.
What does Dayton Strong mean to you?
Brittany: It represents the love, kindness, generosity and strength of the community pulling together tragedy after tragedy. It is nothing short of inspiring. In times of despair and need, people really show up, even for complete strangers; for those who will never be able to repay them.
Amanda: For me, Dayton Strong means to be a tight-knit community in times of struggle. Obviously, we have had many this past year but we have proven to be able to stick together during tragedies.
Kait: We are a small city with big aspirations. We have cultivated a tight-knit and unique community in the Oregon District based on not only personal relationships but a similar drive to do more and build more. For ourselves and for Dayton.
Carly: To me, Dayton Strong represents how the people here have again and again adapted to change and tragedy. As a city, we try to speak up for what we believe, be kind and work hard to make changes in our city and beyond. There is still so much to do and combat. I hope we can all come together and recognize issues and work together to come up with solutions.
>> DAYTON STRONG: Dayton is all Dayton’s got
What did you learn from 2019?
Brittany: The importance of balance and moderation while still not quite being able to master it. To try to find the joy and silver linings in every situation, and believe there is more good than bad in this world. To never miss an opportunity to give a hug or tell a loved one how much they mean to you.
Amanda: Personally, I have learned to take every day in stride. Working, raising a kid, and having personal time have to be balanced more since I was diagnosed with breast cancer at the beginning of the year. Every day I learn something new about myself and what I can accomplish with all the physical, mental, emotional challenges I have gone through. I try to keep in mind how lucky I am to live the life I have.
Kait: That we are better on the same team, as a community, and we should remember to always “do good” regardless of tragedy or pain. Similarly — after the year that Dayton has had (Klan, tornadoes, shooting) — I’ve tried to widen my focus on working toward larger goals that impact everyone positively. Also… that sometimes I need to step back and shut the hell up before acting.
Carly: What I have learned is that a “New Year” doesn’t mean a fresh start. Change doesn’t start when we give it a date, it starts when we make changes in our hearts and in our lives. I have learned to step back and not judge, as we are all humans walking this earth trying to get by and be happy.
>> PHOTOS: Did we spot you at Gem City Shine?
What would you change about Dayton?
Brittany: The Oregon District would be a pedestrian zone and open container, and marijuana would be legalized statewide. Also, Epstein didn’t kill himself.
Amanda: I would love for more Daytonians to come downtown and see all the new places, events, and spaces that are now downtown or are on the way. We hope to continue to be a part of Dayton’s growth in the coming new year.
Kait: I’d love to have a better communication platform for people trying to make moves in Dayton.
Carly: I would love to see more businesses move into our downtown area. Right now, Dayton has so many opportunities for people with a dream.
What do you wish you knew about owning a small business before starting yours?
Brittany: How mentally taxing and emotionally consuming it is in every regard, and how much wine would be required to survive the bad days and crazy Karens.
Kait: Literally everything. What is a budget? How do you manage people? How much can one stress cry in a day? How do you love something so much and also want to burrow into a hole and die?
Amanda: I wish I knew how much creativity is needed to get your vision across and that you need all the help you can get from others. Having a creative team really helps the retail process. You learn to fix problems in different ways. Also, same as Kait. LOL
Carly: How exhausting retail would actually be. There are so many moving parts and things to figure out. Nothing good comes easy, but I am lucky to have a team of amazing women by my side to help traverse the minefield.
Why did you decide to build a life in Dayton?
Brittany: It was easier for me as I was born and raised here, but the people in Dayton are resilient, creative, giving and party hard. It makes it a hard city to want to leave.
Amanda: Dayton is a great place to grow up and raise a family.
Kait: I’m not a Dayton native but I ended up here after being a military kid my entire life. I chose to stay because I found a community that embraced me as a person in many ways, good and bad. I also met my husband here and we chose to stay for the same reasons, both as non-natives.
Carly: I left Dayton for a brief period but Dayton has always been home to me. I have always loved being a part of building something together with a community, and Dayton is perfect for that.
What do you hope Dayton will look like a decade from now?
Brittany: I hope to see the tornado-ravaged areas rebuilt, and the city’s revitalization continue and to expand beyond just Downtown Dayton’s borders.
Amanda: I hope more people are living downtown and taking advantage of all the new unique small businesses around downtown that make this city so special.
Kait: I hope it’s even more inclusive than it is now and that we grow beyond everyone’s expectations.
Carly: I hope to see more business moving in and a city that takes care of ALL of its people. One day we can look back on this time and be proud that we were here watching such a wonderful city retake its former glory.
What is your hidden talent?
Brittany: I can do back handsprings. My joints snap and crack like a glow stick anytime I move. I can drink a whole bottle of wine all by myself.
Amanda: Hmmmm… yeah, none.
Kait: I can play the guitar mediocrely and I’m good at drinking whiskey.
Carly: I can twerk laying on my back and I have a great opera singing voice.