If this isolating and months-old pandemic has you needing a little Christmas right now, you’re in luck.

Barbara Gentry and Monica Hilliard have been working for weeks to make that happen at their store locations inside Foothills Mall.

Gentry owns Gentry Mercantile, and Hilliard, Purrfect Vinyl. Both small business owners have been creative in the past several weeks as COVID-19 forced them to close their doors in mid-March.

Gentry said she started a Facebook Live post and offered up her handmade products, including the goat milk products from her own goat farm, along with items from other East Tennesseans like the woodworking talents of Foothills Custom Gifts. She upped her shipping game and started offering curbside service for customers even after the store reopened.

Hilliard sells vinyl for crafting and did the same. It wasn’t uncommon for her to make a drop delivery on a customer’s front porch.

These businesses along with most others at Foothills Mall have reopened. And now that it’s July, Gentry said she has the perfect way to celebrate. She’s organized the third annual Christmas in July and brought in other businesses to participate.

Purrfect Vinyl is on board. Hilliard will set up Santa’s Workshop today and Saturday (July 10 and 11). Children will be able to make homemade ornaments. All Rialed Up and The Watering Can Too have joined in on other activities.

Ready to celebrate

“This will be our third Christmas in July,” said Gentry, the organizer. “We have an absolute blast.”

Authors Joe and Mary Moore will be on hand, dressed as Santa and Mrs. Claus. They will autograph their books. One is appropriately titled “The Christmas Eve Journey.” The two have been invited guests for previous Christmas in July events with Gentry.

Customers at Gentry Mercantile can enjoy free food, which will be individually wrapped. Servers will wear masks and gloves.

New this year, Gentry said, will be a cakewalk, to be held Saturday. Those who participate in this event will be required to wear masks.

Radio station WIVK has agreed to do a live remote from 2-4 p.m. Saturday with personality Gunner.

Expect the participating stores to be all decked out. There will be no mistaking the intention: Bring Christmas cheer to all who need it.

Gentry Mercantile first opened at Foothills Mall in October 2017 in a smaller space. It now is in a corner space near Workout Anytime. However, Gentry said she is in need of even more space, so she is moving once again, to the store being vacated by Orange Mountain Designs. She will almost double her space, from 1,600 square feet to more than 3,000.

The gift shop reopened in time for Mother’s Day and Gentry said business was great. “Summer is always slow,” the business owner said, adding that Christmas in July will hopefully give sales a boost. Christmas movies will also be shown in an area near the Verizon store inside the mall.

Compete for prizes

Enjoy a competitive scavenger hunt? One will take place between Gentry Mercantile, All Rialed Up, Purrfect Vinyl and the Watering Can Too. Gift cards will be awarded to the winner. In addition, a Christmas tree full of ornaments will provide guests the opportunity to get discounts on purchases.

On the wall behind the sales counter at Gentry Mercantile are lots of family photos. Gentry said were it not for her husband, brother-in-law, nieces and others, this business never would have gotten off the ground. Many of them will be on hand for Christmas in July.

Her husband, Sam Gentry, owns a goat farm. After they married seven years ago, Barbara added milk goats. She now offers a variety of goat milk lotions and body washes.

A friendship has been forged between Gentry and Hilliard as both navigated their way through the COVID-19 pandemic. They both went to their closed shops almost daily to prepare, ship and deliver orders.

Hilliard was busy getting the ornaments ready. If people aren’t comfortable working on them in the store, they can complete them at home, she said.

Positive signs

Like Gentry Mercantile, Purrfect Vinyl also has changed locations inside the mall. Hilliard said her business is booming and wanted additional space for classes. They are doing lots of custom work with coffee mugs and T-shirts, she explained. Her dad will join her in the business full time very soon.

The theater inside Foothills Mall hasn’t reopened. JCPenney has opted to close its store here. But Gentry and Hilliard say there are positive signs this mall will survive. Lots of reopenings and expansions have been taking place.

“It is amazing the support we got after we had to shut down,” Gentry said. “The mall is not dying. We are expanding our store. Everybody is back open, at least most are.”

She said as a small business, she has had to adapt to the needs of customers; Hilliard echoed that. They say that will continue even as things get back to normal, or as normal as possible.

The mall is still operating on a scaled-back schedule, open from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays and noon to 6 p.m. Sundays.

As a retired nurse, Gentry said she understands the apprehension surrounding this pandemic. She is encouraging face masks and social distancing in her store. She added that Christmas in July will be a two-day event that for some will be a way to slowly get back into a social environment.

“We need some semblance of a normal life,” she said.

Melanie joined The Daily Times in the early 90s and has served as the Life section editor since 1993. A William Blount and UT alum, Melanie is generally the early arriver who turns on the lights in the newsroom.

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