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Cards, Cards, Cards, Winter 1991. (Photo courtesy Mongrel)
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Summer 1991. (Photo courtesy Mongrel)
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Cards, Cards, Cards, Fall 1992. (Photo courtesy Mongrel)
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Mark Burkett and Stan McCulloch at Cards, Cards, Cards after its expansion in 1994. (Photo by Doug Buerlein/Mongrel)
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May 1994 (photo courtesy Mongrel).
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May 1994 (photo by Doug Buerlein/Mongrel)
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Mongrel’s “Richmond Places” coaster set. (Photo by Ash Daniel)
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Mongrel is celebrating 25 years in business this year. (Photo by Ash Daniel)
British naturalist Charles Darwin theorized that adaptation to changing environments made animals and insects more likely to survive. It’s fitting, then, that a Carytown shop whose very name, Mongrel, means “blended” has found success because its owners have incorporated adaptability and diversity into a retail venture.
When Mark Burkett and Stan McCulloch opened Cards, Cards, Cards, on July 7, 1991, Carytown was a “sleepy shopping district” (as their website history attests). The storefront represented the culmination of an effort that began in 1985, when Burkett opened a card shop in his hometown of Roanoke. That location closed a few months after opening, the victim of flooding after a hurricane.
Mongrel founders Mark Burkett (left) and Stan McCulloch. (Photo by Ash Daniel)
Burkett and McCulloch, having met in Greensboro, North Carolina, decided to move to Richmond because McCulloch was interested in pursuing a graduate degree at Virginia Commonwealth University. But Burkett wanted to try opening another business. This time, the outcome was better.
“Cards, Cards, Cards was great from the beginning,” Burkett says. “It wasn’t a traditional card store; that’s what set us apart.”
Opening a new and distinctive business had its challenges. Burkett recalls that the two “lived off credit cards” in the beginning and hired no employees for the first 18 months. Then, there was the challenge of stock.
“We had a hard time finding things we liked,” McCulloch, the head purchaser, says. Burkett notes that a solution came in the form of consignments from local artists, who were happy to have a showplace for their creations. “We didn’t have to outlay cash, and we were offering something that wasn’t here [in Richmond] before,” he says.
In 1994, they expanded into an adjoining storefront and removed the dividing wall, creating a hub for cash registers and customer assistance. Burkett and McCulloch also decided to change the store’s name, to better reflect its expanded offerings. They settled on “Mongrel,” referring to their two dogs at the time as well as their embrace of a mix of products.
Today, the store fits more than 10 divisions in its 2,300 square feet, everything from Life & Style to Just for Laughs to Just for Him (or Her). Their merchandise attracts an array of customers, McCulloch says, with well-dressed West Enders rubbing elbows with tattooed hipsters. It’s the embodiment of the store’s slogan, “Cool stuff for all breeds of humans.”
As with most businesses, readjustments have been made. A second location, opened in 1994 in Henrico’s Westpark Shopping Center at Pemberton Road and West Broad Street, was “at the edge” of retail Richmond at the time, Burkett says, and didn’t work, so it was closed. A line of house-designed paper goods (wrapping paper, napkins, etc.) was scrapped after struggling to find a wide enough distribution for it. “We realized how few stores there are like ours,” McCulloch says. “They do exist, but there aren’t many.”
Two years ago, hoping to provide visitors with a “Richmond souvenir,” Burkett and McCulloch created the “Richmond Places” line, with items including paper goods, mugs and T-shirts that name local neighborhoods. “We couldn’t find things we liked,” McCulloch says. “We didn’t want tacky, so we figured, ‘Why don’t we just make it?’ ” Burkett says the line is more popular with locals than tourists.
General manager Chris Council, who started working at Mongrel more than 20 years ago, says he was attracted to the store because of its “aesthetic.” Now, he loves the celebrity that comes with his job. “When people find out that I work at Mongrel, or recognize me from there, that’s all it takes,” he says. “ ‘You work at Mongrel? That’s my favorite store!’ I never take that for granted.”
Council points to Burkett and McCulloch’s willingness to expand and tweak Mongrel as its strength. The owners agree. “Our store has changed and evolved over the years,” Burkett says, noting that once-popular items such as the “swinging-leg Elvis clocks” and chili-pepper light strings are long gone. McCulloch describes the process as “organic”: “You see something, and it’s so cool, and it’s the right price.”
Darwin would surely approve.