Downtown merchant with Texas-sized spirit
By Alyssa Tenorio, contributing writer
Offering ice cream and soda bar treats along with Texas gift shopping and personal greetings from Golden Retriever Gracie, the Heart of Texas Gift Gallery is a true creation, possibly a reflection, of the owner Gerry Larabee. She has been sharing her gifts with Nacogdoches citizens and tourists since 1994.
“I was between jobs,” Larabee said about starting her business. “We had been out in the Texas Hill Country and seen all of these Texas-themed stores. I thought that might be something to try,” she said.
Heart of Texas has always been located in Nacogdoches, opening first on Church St., than moving to Pilar St. on downtown’s historic square six months later. In the early 2000s, Larabee was able to purchase the current property on Pecan St. where the store now resides on the west side of the square.
“Downtown Nacogdoches lends itself to small businesses interested in the tourist trade,” Larabee said.
While specializing in anything and everything with the great state of Texas on it, from salsa and coffees to tote bags and ironworks, Larabee described her favorite reasons of owning the Heart of Texas.
“Getting to meet people from all over the world is probably one of my favorite parts,” Larabee said. “We’ve had people from Italy, Australia, Japan, Germany and England.
“The French visitors seem the most taken back and think Nacogdoches is a lovely little town,” she said.
A couple from Holland stopped through Nacogdoches, escaping the heat in the Heart of Texas.
“We went in because the sign said ‘cold drinks,’” the man said with a laugh.
“Most people visiting Nacogdoches come through for two reasons,” Larabee explained. “One, because they hear it’s the oldest town and for the history.
“The second reason,” Larabee said with a smile, “is because John Wayne said it in a movie.”
Larabee also enjoys bringing her 8-month-old Golden Retriever, Gracie, to work. Larabee has had various dogs over the years in her shop, all of which are happy to meet new visitors as they enter the store, including the delivery man.
“We are such a laid-back store,” Larabee said. “There’s no pressure here.”
For Heart of Texas, the busiest season of the year is Christmastime. “That’s usually when you see the locals,” Larabee added. Other popular times include downtown festivals and in the spring when tourists visit the azalea trails. The Texas Blueberry Festival always creates store traffic.
“For our merchandise, we’ve settled into selling souvenirs,” Larabee explained. “During Christmastime, we are also more about the home décor.”
The store’s biggest sellers are magnets, postcards and tea towels, all items that are easy to pack and mail to family and friends around the country.
While Larabee has been able to successfully run her business for 17 years, she has constantly faced challenges, especially with advertising decisions.
“Advertising is very expensive,” Larabee said. “We rely heavily on tourism for our business, and that’s always a hard market to reach.” She is hoping to work toward more of a web presence soon.
“We also face challenges with keeping the merchandise fresh and establishing a customer base,” she continued.
These struggles and challenges have not fazed Larabee. She has customers who have been with her since the beginning, and she updates the store when an idea takes hold such as installing a soda and ice cream bar to her repertoire a few years ago.
“I saw there was a need for a place in downtown Nacogdoches where people could get a cold drink and ice cream,” Larabee explained. Her husband Tinker built the soda bar for her and helped set up the soda machine. And with the continuous Texas heat, the ice cream adds to the Heart of Texas’ appeal and sales.
“We are a fun place to shop,” Larabee said with a smile. Her laid-back approach, combined with the friendly atmosphere, makes the Heart of Texas a Nacogdoches a destination treat for all visitors.
Amy Wright, SFASU senior from Lake Jackson, has been a frequent Heart of Texas customer and loves the store’s atmosphere.
“I like how it has so many things about Texas and the owner is very friendly,” Wright said. “It is very unique; it has things you can't find other places.”
The business’s friendliness is no accident.
“I have a golden rule for my employees,” Larabee said. “You speak to everyone who comes in. You have to be nice.”
The Heart of Texas Gift Gallery is located at 110 S. Pecan St., in the heart of downtown Nacogdoches. Contact Larabee at 564-6178 or go to www.heartoftexasonline.com.
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Find perfect gifts at chamber members’ businesses
Below are Nacogdoches County Chamber of Commerce members listed in the Shopping and Specialty Retail category. Find all chamber members’ contact information in the online membership directory at nacogdoches.org.
3801 North St., Ste. 4
ph: 936-560-2246; www.baskins.com
4919 North St., Ste. 101
ph: 936-569-6427; www.stagestores.com
Beard Fine Jewelers
2002 S. First St.
ph: 936-637-2848; www.beardfinejewelers.com
1122 N. University Dr.
ph: 936-715-9390; www.belkinc.com
French Knot Quilt Shop
409 E. Main St.
ph: 936-560-1488; www.frenchknotquiltshop.com
General Mercantile & Oldtime String Shop
216 E. Pilar St.
ph: 936-564-8692; mysteryridge.com
2207 North St.
Horse & Home
7501 US Hwy 59N
3801 North St., # 13
ph: 936-559-1771; www.kimberlyskloset.net
Laine's Hallmark Shop
3205 N. University Dr., Ste. N
114 N. Church St.
ph: 936-205-5911; shopmacymay.com
4919 North St., Ste. 108
ph: 9365603498; www.maurices.com
The Runaway Mule
203 E. Main St.
ph: 936-645-9800; therunawaymule.com
Sam's Club # 6202
407 N. Brentwood
139 Sandstone Ln.
ph: 936-275-6768; www.shopnac.com
P.O. Box 632025
623 North St., Ste. 100
Special Find Antiques and Collectibles
408 & 411 E. Main St.
ph: 936-553-4715; www.nacgifts.com
1122 University Dr.
ph: 936-5699-644; www.myuniversitymall.net
4810 North St.