She was a designer; he was a woodworker. Together, the hosts of Home Town stepped out in faith to shine a spotlight on Erin’s hometown of Laurel, Mississippi.
Posted in , Oct 24, 2018
My husband, Ben, and I are about to launch our third season of Home Town on HGTV, where we help folks in our town of Laurel, Mississippi, make and remake their houses into dreams come true. Truth to tell, the whole thing still boggles my mind. It is not at all what we thought we’d do or become when we met at Jones County Junior College.
I figured I’d be an art director for a publisher in a big city far away. Ben was a fledgling history major who volunteered on every committee on campus. I was quiet and shy, not seeking out the limelight that seemed to belong to him. He was tall (six foot six) and broad-shouldered, bearded and magnetic without ever letting it go to his head. We fell for each other hard over the course of six days and soon after transferred to Ole Miss. And that’s where we got married on a cold November day.
Ben was the son of a Methodist preacher. His family had moved around a lot, so he didn’t really have a hometown. I did: Laurel, a sleepy old place that had seen better days. Founded in the 1880s, it had flourished when lumber mills were harvesting the area’s yellow pines. But industry moved on, and people moved out. Others might have hurried past the shuttered storefronts, but I kept seeing the myriad possibilities amid architecture that was worth preserving. What if there could be a bookstore on the corner or an Italian restaurant or a shop that sold sweet-smelling candles and soaps?
Ben and I made Laurel our home. Together, we fixed up a second-floor loft in a flatiron building in the historic district. The floorboards had nickel-size gaps, the nine-foot-tall single-pane windows were a century old and too expensive to replace, so we learned to love how the wind whispered through them in all seasons.
Ben had always been handy, but in redoing the place, he discovered his gift for woodworking: restoring old pieces of furniture, making an armoire from reclaimed material because we couldn’t afford to buy one. Though he had a job as director of youth ministry for a Methodist church around the corner, that armoire—made from an old door he found in the rafters of my grandfather’s woodshop—was a harbinger of things to come. I would wish for things, and he had the vision to make them happen.
As for my job, I commuted to an office cubicle at a tech company, where I worked as a designer. I was grateful to have a paycheck, but the work wasn’t at all what I’d dreamed of. I couldn’t wait for five o’clock to come each day. To do the work I loved.
I’d started a blog right after college to showcase my freelance design work, mostly birthday party invitations and wedding stationery. I did the invitations for our own wedding, using a simple typeface that felt like Ben and me, printed on ivory cotton paper in red and blue inks that reminded me of the November colors of the trees and sky. A childhood friend of mine was so taken with the design, she asked me to create a save-the-date announcement for her own wedding. “Think outside the box,” she said.
I came up with a classic design but, instead of printing it on card stock, screen-printed it on ivory handkerchiefs with lace around the edges. I snapped a photo of them to post on my blog—which I had named Lucky Luxe—packaged them in boxes and mailed them off. My friend was pleased; I was pleased. I figured that was it.
The next thing I knew, I got an email from a woman in New York who’d seen what I’d done and wanted me to do something similar for her wedding. Then she shared the hankies on her blog, and within hours I had a rush of inquiries from customers all over the world, not to mention a call from Martha Stewart Weddings, saying it would be featuring me and my handkerchiefs on its website. Lucky Luxe was launched.
The challenge came for me when I had to decide whether I could do it full time. To be my own boss. The prospect scared me out of my wits. I am not by nature an optimist. I’ve always been afraid that if I don’t manage my expectations, the other shoe will drop. What if the business failed? What if we ran out of money?
I prayed. Boy, did I pray. I sought counsel from Ben, our friends, our family and our church. The answer came from a devotion that my best friend from high school e-mailed me: “Wherever God’s finger points, his hand will clear a way.” I had to trust. Even so, on that first day of self-employment, January 1, 2010, I felt like two different people merging into one: equal parts fear and hope, small potatoes dreaming big.
The only remedy I could find for my fears was to erase them by keeping track of my blessings, writing them down, remembering them. I started an online journal, Make Something Good Today. Each day, I focused on what gave me and the people around me joy. I cooked and taught a painting class, joined a women’s Bible study, spent time with my parents and walked the streets of Laurel. Even on the worst days, I’d search out the positive so I wouldn’t be empty-handed when it came time to write an entry. It was a way to make my faith more real than my fear.
At the same time I was launching my business, Ben was launching his: woodworking. His hobby grew into a shop making his own furniture, beautiful hand-finished works of art. He made a 14-foot dining room table for his parents out of an old church pew, finished just in time for us to use on Thanksgiving Day. He studied joinery and picked oil-based stains that gave the wood a rich depth.
He’d had a big decision to make too. Though he loved being with the kids at the church, it had become clear that God was calling him to another field. Like me, he’d put off resigning the one job so he could do the other full time. In the meanwhile, we had moved out of the loft and bought and restored a Craftsman cottage on a tucked-away street. Picking out the new paint colors, renovating the kitchen, finding the furniture, remaking it into our own home. Everything we loved doing. Together.
Do you see where this is going? We didn’t. Or at least I didn’t. Naturally I wrote about the sheer joy—and the challenges—of fixing up an old home, and I posted plenty of pictures. Of course I talked about Laurel and my dreams for it and how I saw some of those dreams coming true: new stores opening up, people feeling drawn here to revive a small town. I could describe how, after our dog got spooked by a thunderstorm and snuck out of the fence, I got a call from the chief of police, who’d spotted him running to our vet’s. Or how Ben and I on our late-night walks often ended up in a church that’s always open, where anybody can seek refuge, light a candle and pray.
Ben finally wrote that letter of resignation and called up the pastor. We didn’t know exactly how it would work out, but we’d work together. We’d take a risk. Within two hours—two hours!—I got an e-mail from a woman I’d never heard of who said she was from HGTV and had seen me on Instagram. “Your life looks amazing,” she wrote, “and I want to get tape of you and your hubs and your space and your business.”
I should be very clear here: The odds of getting an e-mail like that and having someone send a crew to take some pictures, followed by another crew making a pilot that gets picked up and turned into a TV show…well, they are incredibly slim. Ben and I knew this. Everybody on the crew kept telling us as much. Fine by me. It was such a long shot anyway. We were too busy learning new things, like how not to stumble over words when speaking into a camera and how to say the same thing a million times for different takes. Or discovering that I had to stand on an apple box next to Ben because otherwise he was just too tall for the two of us to be together in one shot.
When the show did get picked up—amazingly—I wanted to be sure it wasn’t all about us. It would be about Laurel and the people whose houses we were fixing up. As in our own houses, I always look for things that are very personal. For instance, in our second season, we worked with Caroline, whose antique toy trucks from the 1950s had been her daddy’s. They had been special to him and, now that he’d passed away, were special to her. We gave them a place of pride in the foyer of her home.
Or in the Edwards house in the first season, with Will’s rods and reels for fly-fishing. They took up half the master bedroom, to his wife’s dismay. We found a way to display them as art in another room. The gear could be taken down and used on weekends.
I am still that quiet, sometimes shy girl who fell madly in love with the big, bearded, boisterous son of a preacher. We each have our own special qualities, and God can use them. If we’re open to the opportunities. If we let go of our fears and focus on our hopes. If we look for the blessings that come every day. Our biggest blessing came just this year—with the birth of our baby, Helen. No telling what she becomes—although from the noise she makes I wouldn’t say she’s going to be quiet or shy. In the meanwhile, I’m just ready to share with her the wonders I find every day in our beloved hometown.
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Read more about Erin and Ben Napier in their new book, Make Something Good Today. And catch the new season of their HGTV show Home Town in January.