Imagine the smell of a fishing bait and tackle shop. If you aren’t detecting notes of gourmet roasted coffee, therapeutic-grade essential oils, and fresh herbs, you’ve not been to AJ’s Mercantile and Tackle Box, a hybrid gift shop and fishing supply store in Wheelersburg, Ohio.
“It doesn’t sound like it would work on paper, but I promise it does,” said proprietor Angie Dingess. The store opened in March 2021 as a collaboration between Angie and her husband, Joe. Joe and his friends love catfishing on the Ohio river, while Angie prefers crafting and cooking. Instead of compromising their respective visions for the business, the couple decided to combine their passions side-by-side.
The shop offers high-end fishing gear and outdoor supplies alongside artisanal olive oils, pottery, and loose-leaf teas Angie blends herself. “We sell high-quality things you can’t buy at big box stores, which is pretty much all we have around here,” she said.
“We always said when we retire, we’d open a little shop like the places in Gatlinburg, Tennessee. We visit there multiple times a year. There are so many little candle shops and wood shops. We love the atmosphere, so we wanted to bring some of that to Wheelersburg,” Angie said.
The shop brings a welcome change of pace for the Dingesses. For over 20 years, Angie worked in healthcare administration, and Joe worked for the railroad. Both managed multi-million dollar operations. Their jobs moved them around the country, but the couple decided to move home and switch gears.
“We got really good at making other people money, but it’s great to use those skills for something else. In healthcare, you can’t make day-to-day decisions without running them by committees, even when it’s clearly in a patient’s best interest. Even then, in a corporate
environment, they choose what is best for the corporation, not necessarily each individual patient. I would get so frustrated about not being able to help each person in the way I felt was best for them while staying within my job parameters. If something’s wrong or we don’t feel comfortable, we don’t do it now. That’s the priceless aspect of being an entrepreneur. We have the autonomy to make decisions that may not be the best for the business, but it’s best for the person in front of you,” she said.
Despite being open for less than two years, AJ’s is already a hub for their community. “My
husband’s friends are tournament fishermen, so we have no end of advice on what brands and gear to carry. Now we’re getting similar recommendations from bass and muskie fishermen as well. The fishing side grew by word of mouth from tournament fishers. We have customers who drive from hours away to buy from us just because they like the business,” Dingess said.
“We’re lucky to be part of this community, so we give back whenever we can,” she said. AJ’s partners with local businesses to sponsor charity fishing tournaments, with proceeds going
to local children’s homes and local families. “We buy from local small businesses when we need anything from signage to window cleaning. When we can’t source things locally, we buy wholesale from small businesses in other states, such as this amazing olive oil vendor in Gatlinburg and a woman-owned coffee roaster in Georgia. We want to give business to people who actually need it. It’s also a point of pride being the only place you can buy these things from besides the source,” Dingess said.
The shop supports its community in smaller ways too. A lady comes in sometimes just to crochet because her husband recently retired, and she ‘needs a minute away,’” Angie laughs. “I also started a lending library by accident. I had too many books at home, so I put a bookshelf in the corner of the store. This inspired some older ladies to bring in their books. The collection grew and grew, and now it’s taken over the whole store corner. People keep bringing more books and taking out what they want. It basically operates itself now,” she said.
Part of the appeal of AJ’s is the sheer variety of inventory they offer. ECDI helped with that. “We struggled to keep up with the inventory because we funded everything ourselves. We had to wait to sell everything before we could re-stock our best-selling items. Bonnie from ECDI told us we could get a loan to free up capital, which changed everything. I did everything online, got an amazing rate, and they actually came to me to sign the papers. We were able to add pottery, more high-end fishing rods, and the roasted coffees that have all sold really well,” Dingess said.
“ECDI has been so helpful with free small business training and the loan. It’s great having all these resources together."
“ECDI has been so helpful with free small business training and the loan. It’s great having all these resources together. Everywhere I’d worked before had everything separated into a bunch of different departments. It’s so convenient as a business owner that there’s a single place I can go to for answers and information,” she said.
What’s next on the horizon for AJ’s Mercantile? They’re looking to expand and move the gift shop into its own storefront. “It’ll help prevent arguments about what should go where and why,” Dingess said laughing. “We’re both used to managing and being in charge, so we’ve had to learn to compromise with each other. Joe keeps joking that he’s gonna put a line down the middle of the store.” The fishing side of the business has been so successful that the gift shop sometimes gets overshadowed in customer’s minds. She hopes the physical separation will divide the business more clearly, even though the store will still be connected.