Co-owners of Harmony Ridge Gallery in Lewisburg.
Meet Monica and Aaron Maxwell. Fourteen years ago, these California natives made their way to Lewisburg after owning a shop and gallery in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, for 10 years. They had visited Lewisburg several times and, with each visit, felt more and more connected. In 2004, they packed their bags and opened Harmony Ridge Gallery in downtown Lewisburg. The town is better for it. From showcasing artful local- and American-made products to helping market local merchants to creating new festivals and events that draw thousands of tourists, these power partners exemplify the type of dynamic people you’ll find in our treasured small towns.
Why did you choose to move to West Virginia?
Aaron Maxwell: We love living here. It is a beautiful place to live. People here really care about others. As an individual, you can have a great impact. You get a couple of people together with an idea, and you can actually make something happen and create something that benefits the entire community.
Monica Maxwell: When we first came here, we had a rental home. We would come and stroll through town. I remember every time we went into the Old Hardware Gallery, Donna would welcome us back and say that it was so nice to see us again. It made an impression. And that’s what I think all of our merchants do—we build relationships with people. We want our visitors to have that experience of being connected.
What are the advantages of living in and owning a business in a small town?
AM: We love the sense of community. It is so easy to get together with friends. Small-town America allows you to own a bigger space than you can in a bigger city, where it is often cost prohibitive. Everything is just much more expensive and more of an effort in bigger cities.
Since opening Harmony Ridge, you’ve been very involved in the community. How did you get involved?
AM: One of the first small things we did was to join the (Lewisburg Downtown) Merchants Association, and then we updated the marketing brochure for the downtown shops. It was on a purple piece of paper with shops listed—not very engaging. We knew we needed to modernize it. We spearheaded this effort and now it is more representative of the town.
Weren’t you involved with launching the first First Fridays after Five?
MM: First Fridays isn’t a new invention, but it wasn’t happening in Lewisburg. It really was an answer to the complaint that things closed so early. We talked to the city council 12 years ago about starting it—and our city was supportive. It was intended for locals—a community builder—so they could come into town and mingle or have a date night without being sold something. We wanted to keep locals connected to the town. It is still going strong.
How do you stay motivated?
MM: When we first moved here, there were already people doing really great things—lots of great energy. We just jumped in and started helping, but everyone gets tired and tapped out. It’s a bit of a cycle. When there’s new people and energy in town, you start to rally everybody and folks get more interested. But it’s important to keep bringing in that new energy and keeping everyone engaged.
As a business owner, is the city of Lewisburg supportive?
AM: The city of Lewisburg is really pro-small business. This is a small-town dynamic. We can go talk to a mayor—and that’s hard to do in a big city. If the city says “yes” to something, they can see if it is working. We have been very fortunate that the city council and the mayor, John Manchester, have been extremely supportive and have helped to finance marketing and events. The city has said “yes” to a lot of things they could have said “no” to. They’ve not been afraid to take some risks. Don’t get me wrong, owning a business isn’t easy, but having pro-small business leadership is key.
Are partnerships key to Lewisburg’s success?
MM: Partnerships are key. Lewisburg is made up of hundreds of movers and shakers who are making it happen. We have so many groups that are involved. The Lewisburg Foundation, for example, has been instrumental. For many years, the city would rent lights and Christmas decorations for the buildings. TAG Galyean, one of the founders of the foundation, had the idea that the town should purchase our own decorations and create our own inventory and build on it every year. The city funds that effort and maintains it. It has created a cohesive theme that leaves an impression on visitors and locals. In the spring, the foundation plants 80,000 daffodils around town. All of these things matter.
AM: When Josh Baldwin asked me to help him start the Lewisburg Literary Festival, the city was very supportive. We paired short story writers with artists, and artists created installations. We yarn bombed the entire park. We closed alleys and driveways for outdoor installations. The city could have said, “No. It is a liability,” but they didn’t. And we created something that was really unique.
MM: When Deva Wagner and I created Girls Day Out on the second Saturday in December, it was a simple concept. Every shop and restaurant offers something to the women. It doesn’t take as much time and effort to organize, like other larger logistical events. Most of our shops and restaurants joined in. It feeds off of itself.
None of the great things happening in Lewisburg would happen if it weren’t for the incredible group of people who believe in this town. There’s a long history of community here.
How do you create that Lewisburg experience?
MM: Our shops and restaurants are owned and operated by friendly people—so all of our visitors are going to have a positive reaction to the town. We want you to feel good, smile, and laugh. We want to know your story. Where you are from. We create relationships with people. We consider ourselves ambassadors for our town and our state. We spend a lot of time telling visitors all the other things they should do. We encourage people to shop at the other shops, eat at the restaurants, and enjoy our outdoor amenities.
You are married and business partners. What’s the secret to making that work?
AM: I know who the boss is, and it ain’t me. That’s why it works. Just kidding.
MM: It isn’t a challenge. We have very similar goals and objectives. We have very different strengths, so we focus on different tasks. We talk a lot. We don’t always agree,
but we work everything out.
AM: We are a great team and we support one another. We each have our strengths and we complement each other well.
featured photo courtesy of Russell Williams
photographed by Nikki Bowman