“You can’t buy happiness, but you can buy local, and that’s kind of the same thing.” So says a hand-lettered sign posted in front the newest retail shop to add its allure to the ongoing revitalization of downtown Highland. Called Lilly Rae in the Hamlet, it’s located in a tiny wooden building that oozes with history, just on the periphery of the walkable town center at 14 Commercial Avenue.
For proprietor Renae Martin, a Highland native who launched Lilly Rae in October 2018, the 300-square-foot shop with adjoining roofed breezeway was exactly what she’d been looking for. “I loved this space when I came in,” she relates. “I’m very sentimental, and I love this town and its history. This was the site of Riverside Coal. The shop building is the original coal office, from around 1900. The original coal storage building is still standing out back.”
According to Martin, she “worked in retail management for a very long time” before settling down to be a stay-at-home parent to her four children. With her youngest daughter Emily now “11 going on 30,” she felt ready to get back into business. It was while picking up Emily at her dance lessons at Gina Marie’z Academy of Performing Arts that Martin noticed the “For Rent” sign on the little building two doors down. It was “meant to be,” she decided.
Specifically, Martin needed a place to sell her growing line of natural skin care products that she had started making in a spare bedroom — “my little laboratory” — about four years ago and selling to acquaintances via word-of-mouth. Emily was being treated for both ADHD and epilepsy, and her mother wasn’t happy with the amount of medications that her daughter had to take. As an alternative treatment approach, Martin says, “I looked into essential oils. I read everything I could possibly find, and started making lotions and lip balms to help supplement her meds. They worked wonders.”
Word spread quickly among the dance parents, and soon Martin found herself being commissioned to create custom blends. A pain cream that she sells, for instance, was “developed for my Mom, who gets terrible migraines. She also has fibromyalgia and had her hips replaced.” From therapeutic salves and lotions and lip balms, Martin branched out into handmade herbal soaps, skin scrubs, bath teas, massage oils, scented soy candles and a host of other products for self-care and relaxation, all made from all-natural ingredients — locally sourced, whenever possible.
She came to realize that, amidst the plethora of cute shops that have been popping up in recent years, luring tourists to the Highland hamlet, a place with an old-fashioned general store atmosphere was one of the missing pieces. “We don’t have a little country shop that sells a little bit of everything local,” she says — or didn’t, until Lilly Rae opened its doors. She was considering customizing an old bus to serve as a mobile shop, but then the former coal depot office beckoned.
The shop has woodgrain-laminate flooring that evokes a 19th-century dry-goods store. There are homespun curtains in the windows, and on a counter next to the door sits the original scale that was used to display the weight of coal-laden trucks parked in what is now the breezeway. Martin has broken up the simple rectangular space with vintage furniture; an assortment of Harney & Sons Teas, for example, is displayed on a shelf suspended from an old iron headboard salvaged from a Roaring Twenties-era B&B. Old dressers serve as counters, and various collections of wares are displayed in baskets. It’s a romantic kind of clutter, with a thousand things to discover.
Not every product to be found in Lilly Rae is made locally — Martin confesses to a longtime fondness for McCall’s candles, for example — but the majority of them come from quite close by. She gets her pickles from Corey’s in Montgomery, maple syrup from Corey’s Sugar Shack in Highland, jams, salsas and butters from local home chefs, biscotti from Bella’s, honey products from 3 Hives Honey “up the road” — including honey sticks in a dozen flavors that the kids from Gina Marie’z consider “better than candy,” she says. For $22, you can get a boxed assortment of samples of these local treats, called A Taste of Highland, that makes a great souvenir or gift for a nostalgic expat.
Martin’s line of skin care products is meant to appeal to men as well as to women. Using a detergent-free base and intriguing scent combinations, she makes a soap for just about every potential application — acne-prone skin, eczema, exfoliant, relaxant, sensitive skins — including several formulations specifically for “beardiful” men. Her black pepper/vanilla/juniper/cypress/vetiver soap is designed for reducing beard odor, for example, and she carries a line of wooden beard combs, handmade in Fishkill, to go with it. Coal Miner, “my tribute soap to this property,” has a masculine scent and contains activated charcoal for detoxifying.
Lilly Rae in the Hamlet is a fascinating place to explore, offering an imaginative selection of merchandise most unlike your usual twee village gift shop. There’s even a self-serve coffee bar; and come springtime, some of the activity will move into the breezeway space, which has a big picnic table that can be used for make-your-own lotion parties. “Like Sip & Paint,” Martin explains — only you go home with something you can actually use up, not another amateur painting in need of storage. She envisions the outdoor space hung with flower baskets, and there’s enough space in the front yard for café tables. “I can’t wait,” says Renae Martin.
Winter hours for Lilly Rae in the Hamlet are from noon to 4 p.m. Wednesday and Friday, noon to 7 p.m. on Thursday and 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Visit the Facebook page at www.facebook.com/ilovelillyrae.