Ben and Erin Napier have taken a rather circuitous route to becoming HGTV stars. For one thing, the young couple was so busy working and building their lives in the small town of Laurel, MS, they didn’t have the time to watch much television, much less contemplate the idea of making their own show.
So, when a call came from an HGTV executive asking if they had ever considered doing television, Ben (a woodworker) and Erin (an artist) had a little catching up to do. “When we got the call, we were aware of a show called ‘Fixer Upper,’ but that was the extent of our knowledge,” says Erin Napier. “We live in a small town in Southern Mississippi. It’s not Atlanta or New Orleans, much less Hollywood. I mean, television shows don’t happen here.”
Though they expressed interest in making a pilot featuring the young couple, network executives did their best to temper expectations from the start. “They basically told us, ‘Don’t get your hopes up,’” Ben Napier remembers. “Everyone said, ‘There’s a one percent chance any show will make it, so don’t get excited. We don’t want you to get your hearts broken.’”
The Napier’s show, “Home Town,” defied the odds, turning out to be one of the highest-rated pilots in HGTV history drawing 2.2 million viewers in its first episode alone. “Everybody is from somewhere and everybody has a tenderness about it,” Erin Napier muses. “Some people leave the place they are from and never go back, but I think a lot of people want to have something to go back to. I think a show like ours proves that you can go back and have a dream life because it’s affordable and your support system is there, and the internet makes it possible to have your dream career too.”
The concept clearly resonated because by the end of season two, “Home Town” had grown into one of HGTV’s most popular and highly rated shows. “I actually feel a bit guilty at times,” Erin Napier relates. “I know there are so many incredible designers and builders out there whose life’s ambition is to get a show on the network, who try so hard to get a foot in the door, and it just happened to us by accident.”
Despite her humble assessment, it’s important to point out that it took years of hard work for the Napiers to become an overnight sensation. To begin with, there was a daily journal that Erin Napier kept online, every single day, for eight years. A graphic designer and a youth minister (“jobs people don’t typically do for the money,” asserts Ben Napier) the couple purchased a house in downtown Laurel. “We renovated it ourselves out of necessity,” Erin Napier says. “For us, renovating houses was not a career choice; it was just something we enjoyed doing. I posted pictures on my blog and Instagram along the journey to help me stay focused on the positive and count my blessings. Some days there wasn’t much to say, but I just had to come to the table and think, ‘There was something good from today,’ and I would document it.”
For those not yet among the millions who tune into “Home Town” on Monday nights (season three begins in January), here’s the gist: The show follows the couple as they welcome newcomers to their charming town of Laurel, help them find a house and then turn each house into a home. Viewers and social media fans know the Napiers have been actively involved in promoting the rebirth and revitalization of Laurel’s historic downtown district, too. Ben is a past president of the Main Street America chapter. Erin Napier painted the murals.
Strung with white lights at night, Laurel has become a magnet for artists, makers and entrepreneurs in search of the good life, and the Napiers are among them. They partnered with two other couples (family and long-time best friends) to re-open the now thriving Laurel Mercantile Co. on Front Street in 2016. Originally launched in 1901, the dry goods shop had been shuttered for decades.
An All-American Tale
All products offered for sale at Laurel Mercantile are American-made and to date, it’s the only place that fans can find the handmade reclaimed furniture that Ben Napier makes for each episode of the show. He learned the art of woodworking through hands-on experience and to help satisfy the love of his life’s expensive tastes while living on budget.
“My grandparents were farmers and both of my parents were Methodist preachers,” he says. “That meant that growing up we had to be really resourceful. When something was broken, we would go to the church, and if the budget wasn’t there, we would fix it ourselves.”
The family lived in North Carolina for a time, and this, as they say in showbiz, was a major plot development. “From a small town in Mississippi, where a big hill was considered exciting, free time meant taking a drive in the Blue Ridge Mountains, which made every weekend seem like a vacation. We would come upon these mill towns that fully depended on one type of industry. I had never seen anything like it and it was fascinating to me.”
As he grew up, his fascination with those towns and the products they produced percolated and brewed into a great respect for American craftsmanship, manufacturing and people who make things. Maybe it’s not all that surprising then that when their show began to look like a hit and the couple’s licensing agent presented them with a career-making furniture deal involving a major importer, Ben Napier refused to sign.
“I said, ‘Please set up a call with Vaughan-Bassett.’ The agent laughed at us and said, ‘You need to take this offer.’” That agent is long gone.
“Someone told us early on to figure out who we wanted to be five years from now and to only say ‘yes’ to the things that would move us in that direction,” he says. “Growing up as I did, I felt it would be a disservice to my family, my brothers, my friends, my childhood, to do anything but support American manufacturing because here’s the thing: Our show is called ‘Home Town’ and it’s about the revitalization and rebirth of small-town America. If you take away American manufacturing, you take away the small town. Without jobs, you don’t have people.”
Of course, it’s not that easy to stock an entire store with American-made goods these days. Ben Napier points to the watch on his wrist. “It’s made in Chicago, but the guy who owns the company won’t say the watch is made in America because he uses parts that are made in Switzerland. But there are still a dozen people in Chicago who have jobs because he’s putting the watch together in America. He’s trying his best. Like watch parts from Switzerland, there are no doubt places in the world that can produce things that we cannot in America. But when it comes to wood furniture, who better to make it than the people of Southwest Virginia and Northwest North Carolina?”
As the story goes, Ben, Napier who had read “Factory Man,” was dogged in his pursuit of Vaughan-Bassett, a company he had first encountered during all those family drives back when. Frustrated with the inability of industry contacts to make an introduction, he finally Googled the company and dialed the factory’s phone number himself. “I got Sheila on the phone and I said, ‘Hey, is there any chance I could speak to Mr. Bassett?’ She said, ‘Well, which one?’ I said, ‘John Bassett if possible.’
She said, ‘He’s on the floor right now, but his son Doug is in the office. I’ll connect you with him.’ Doug Bassett sounded flattered, but he also didn’t sound like this was something that could work,” Ben Napier says. “I pestered him for about another year.”
Then one morning Ben Napier’s cell rang. In what might sound like a made-for-TV moment, the call came as Ben Napier was handed Helen, the couple’s newborn daughter, who had decided to join the “Home Town” cast three weeks early. “I had just taken her out of Erin’s arms and the nurses were about to get her weighed and cleaned up. I thought it was my mother- and father-in-law calling, but I looked down and saw Doug Bassett’s name.”
To the Triad
At the High Point Market next month, the Napiers will birth their much-anticipated made-in-America collections inside the Vaughan-Bassett showroom.
“The Napiers are driving the design process and it’s a true collaboration between what we know about the solid wood bedroom and dining room market and what sells, and their design sensibilities,” Doug Bassett says. “Many of the pieces are taken directly from designs that Ben has made on the show for peoples’ homes in Laurel.”
Two collections encompassing roughly 35 pieces for bedroom and dining room available in three finishes (one in solid maple, a second in veneer) will comprise an offering of about 100 SKUs. Doug Bassett describes the look as “instant antique.”
“This all happened because I wanted furniture that we couldn’t afford when we first got married,” Erin Napier says. “I would see antiques that I loved, and I would take pictures and get measurements and I’d say, ‘Can you build this for me?’ Ben didn’t know what he was doing at first, but over time he became really good at woodworking with a great eye for proportion and the balance between masculine and feminine elements.”
A series of special events in the works includes a meet-and-greet featuring the Napiers at The Point in the center of market on Saturday, Oct. 13, from 4:15 to 5 p.m., and the couple will lend their star power to the WithIt Education Breakfast on Sunday morning, Oct. 14. More news to come.
For now, Doug Bassett relates, “Industry-wide, we know that people coming into the stores are ready to buy, but overall traffic is down. Ben and Erin bring millions of viewers and a tremendous social media presence to the table and these new collections will be hitting the floors in January, just as their third season of ‘Home Town’ begins. We’ll be providing plenty of content to help dealers promote them, with everything from turnkey ads to social media posts and video messaging.”
“American manufacturing nearly died just like Laurel, economically speaking,” Erin Napier says. “People didn’t want to shop in our downtown or eat there because it was ugly and dead, but we started taking baby steps and here we are making an HGTV show about how great Laurel is now. We’ve made the commitment that any products associated with our brand will be American-made and we know we’re taking baby steps again. We hope that it becomes an example and the movement continues to catch on, and just like the revitalization of a small town, people will think, ‘Well, we can contribute to that.’”