Here's a handy retail tip: If you call Mary Carter Decorating Center on Summer Avenue, don't ask for Mary Carter because there's no telling who you'll get.
Storeowners Jim and Kathy Famerty might take your call. It could be their son Chris, who's in the business too. But one thing's certain: Mary Carter won't answer because she's a paint brand, not a person.
And here's another reminder: Don't try buying paint at the small corner store either. The shop's colorful merchandise is for decorating candy, cakes, and cookies, not furniture or walls.
"Paint was how we got started," says Jim, whose father purchased a Mary Carter franchise after retiring from General Motors in 1958. The family moved to Memphis from Tupelo, locating the store in the Highland Heights neighborhood where it still operates today.
"Back then, painting was a summertime thing," Jim recalls. "So we got into cake decorating supplies to make it through the winter."
Until about a decade ago, when Jim stopped his interior-decorating work, the businesses existed side-by-side, offering old-fashioned customer service and the largest inventory of cake and candy decorating supplies in the Mid-South.
"We get bigger every year," Jim says. "Grocery stores have bits and pieces of decorating supplies. But for accessories, variety, or help, people come here."
"Our customers are like family," adds Christy Roberts, who started working at Mary Carter 14 years ago when she was just 16. "They've watched me grow up."
As if on cue, Roberts greets a customer by name and offers her a taste of a new favorite treat. "Try our tangerine bark," she says, pulling out a Ziplock bag from behind the counter. "We can't stop eating it."
Customers enter Mary Carter through a back door off a small porch, making the place feel more like a cramped and friendly kitchen than a retail store. But look around, and merchandise is everywhere: displayed on counters, tucked in corners, or stacked on metal shelving six-feet high.
Want to decorate a cake for a birthday, anniversary, or holiday? Start with a pan (round, square, rectangle, sheet, bundt, cheesecake, angel food, or novelty); select a cake board (any size in Masonite, white cardboard, or covered in foil); add a filling (lemon, raspberry, strawberry, pineapple, apricot, or cream cheese); decide on candles (dinosaurs, Sponge Bob, Elmo, or a rocket ship, to name a few); find the icing (a bucket of butter cream, perhaps?); and definitely don't forget the sugars and the sprinkles.
"People come from all over Tennessee and Arkansas to get our sugars and sprinkles. I have a lot of pride about that," says Kathy, rattling off the selection stacked in neat glass jars. "We have little pigs, footballs, cows, stars, gingerbread men, candy canes, Christmas trees, holiday lights, and my favorite: white pearlized snowflakes."
Other candy-making supplies are equally diverse and delectable, offering melts in different flavors (mint, butterscotch, dark chocolate, milk chocolate, white chocolate, or sugar-free) and an assortment of candy molds (teapots, starfish, palm trees, cowboy hats, gingerbread house, and even baby Jesus).
"Customers love the candy molds because they are so easy to do," says Kathy, who teaches candy-making classes in an adjoining room with a telltale sign that reads, "Chocolate is the answer to everything."
"Melt the candy melts, pour it in molds, pop the molds in the freezer, and you're done," she explains.
Like many customers, Stephanie Redmond of Cordova started candy making with Peppermint Bark, a delicious holiday confection of white chocolate spiked with crunchy pieces of green and red peppermint.
"The Peppermint Bark was so easy and delicious, I got hooked," Redmond says. "Next I did chocolate spoon molds with marshmallow flavoring. I tied them with red ribbons for quick and easy holiday gifts."
During the holidays, employees stay busy from 8 a.m. until closing, handing out advice and encouragement for making and packaging hand-made gifts.
"The gifts our customers make are special, whether they are suckers or chocolate-covered cherries or birthday cakes, because they took time to make them for a friend or family member they care about," Kathy says. "It's really a love thing."
Jim readily concurs. "Our business is all about feel-good stories of people caring and sharing. I get chill bumps talking about it."