The naming of Riverbend Mercantile— one of the newest retailers to open its doors on Warren St. in Hudson, NY— has a kind of poetic resonance to it— a ripple, and reverberation, across continents and centuries.
The store represents the owners’ (Rudy Huston and Laura Powers) take on the old world meeting the new. This section of the Hudson river has been a trade route for centuries. “Hudson is tucked into this little nook where the river bends. It’s hidden. That’s where our shop’s name comes from,” Powers explained to us.
A significant portion of the merchandise Powers and Huston stock at Riverbend Mercantile comes from another corner of the globe: the Indonesian archipelago. These two areas of the world have been linked for centuries by the Dutch, who were traders in the far east and also the first European settlers of the Hudson Valley.
The area of land that would someday become Hudson was first inhabited by the indigenous Mahican peoples. The first Europeans they encountered were likely Dutch traders exploring the Hudson river in the 17th century, and history records that beginning in 1609, the two distinctly different cultures were in frequent contact and engaged in trade.
Hundreds of years ago Dutch traders, after navigating the globe and the shifting tides of the Hudson river, unloaded their cargo of nutmeg, cloves, and textiles from the Far East at the waterfront in Hudson. Huston and Powers have now imagined a new kind of mercantile that references the centuries-old shared history of these two distant parts of the world.
“Indonesia was a huge outpost for the Dutch,” Huston elaborated. “They’d carve their massive teak boats out of the trees in Indonesia and then sail them, carrying trade goods from Java to the other side of the world.”
Powers describes the overriding philosophy behind the store thusly: “It’s a testament to our world travels, going to South-East Asia, Latin America, Europe and throughout the USA. Our travels have been a mix of collecting new experiences, connecting with artists and craftspeople, finding interesting objects and their makers, and also discovering clothing designers who are now represented in our clothing lines. It is the respect for and desire to support craftsmanship and traditions passed through generations, that defines what Riverbend Mercantile carries. Rudy and I stand in awe of the incredible creativity of the craftsmen we have met and their commitment to customs and community.”
Powers thinks of Riverbend as “a shopping experience with an intimate and imaginative neighborhood mercantile experience.” Riverbend offers an array of products extending from clothing and accessories to home decor and furnishings. There are owner-designed new items, such as an exclusive line of batik organic cotton napkins, as well as antiques amassed by the couple over more than a decade spent traveling.
With their desire to embrace and represent creators and small producers from around the globe, the store is also adorned with items made by more local artisans based in the Hudson Valley and across the United States. Prime examples are candles produced from local beeswax, and jewelry designers in nearby Saugerties, NY and New Mexico, whose pieces sparkle with semi-precious gemstones, attracting a closer look inside the antique display case.
While the decor and home goods offer the chance to bring far away lands into shoppers’ homes, the women’s and men’s fashion offerings inspire visions of stylish and unfettered globe-trotting adventures. The vibrant collection of conscious luxury clothing (with an emphasis on European designers) is the seductive focus of half of the store, with decor items rounding out the lush space. Additional garments you’ll find on the store’s mannequins or clothing racks punctuate the shop with splashes of color and inspiration that complement the antique furnishings and timeless decor.
Riverbend Mercantile is a testament to the kind of retail experience that can only be had in Hudson. Among the store’s bespoke and newly-created objects are Riverbend’s proprietary batik men’s shirts, baskets woven from native grasses, hand-printed textiles and linens in bright colors and detailed patterns, hand-crocheted beaded shoulder bags, collectible wooden bowls and hand-milled teak serving dishes, as well as decorative brass and marble objects.
The distinct look of their bespoke decor items is echoed in the classic cum modern tone of their clothing. The designers they feature are diverse and international and yet in perfect harmony with one another and the aesthetic of the store. The top lines for men and women include Cotelac (France), CLOSED (Germany), V De Vinster (France/India ), and Hartford (France) as well as men’s brands including Corridor (New York, USA), Roark (USA), Scotch & Soda (Amsterdam), and Hartford (France). These are all smaller or independent designers who feature sustainable practices and consciously sourced materials.
“The core idea is sustainability,” Huston said during our visit. Nothing in the home section of the store is machine-made, nor will you find plastic anywhere in any of the products. “We believe that what you choose to buy matters. When we first brought back a shipment from overseas, it was amazing because there was nothing to be thrown away except a little bit of cardboard covering some pieces. Everything either came from sustainably harvested materials or was an antique. We take pride knowing that the things we’re selling are moving all of us toward the goal of sustainability and a global vision for caring for the earth and its people.
For new products that the couple conceives of themselves, they work with an Indonesian design partner who helps them to find local artisans that will make their visions into a reality. “We share our ideas,” explains Powers, “and then work with the artisans to co-create our products. It’s a collaborative process. We draw inspiration from different cultures, philosophies and nature…”
To underscore the focus on sustainability, Huston pointed to a stack of marble coasters attractively arranged on a table in the shop. “These are being made in a small village in Bali. They’re cut by hand. It’s not like the villagers are all cruising into a factory and then there’s 100 people on the production line. That’s not how any of this stuff is made, and that’s the beauty of it to me.”
There are a number of specially designed whale items in the store, referencing the sperm whale motif that’s omnipresent in Hudson. Hudson’s history began as key families in the whaling industry from the New England coast sought safer ports for their businesses. In the progression towards sustainability, the new whales that Powers and Huston are bringing to their Mercantile are another example of their focus on sustainability. They’re carved from quick growth balsa wood— one of the types of wood that they utilize in their bespoke items. These pieces are then hand-painted by master artisans.
And then, of course, there are the truly unique antique pieces on-offer. One of the couple’s prized possessions that’s available in the shop is a Dutch Indonesian bed made entirely of teak, dating back to the first quarter of the 19th century.
“For me, I tend to buy things I can resell at a reasonable price so people can then enjoy them,” Huston told us, “but some antiques come with such a pedigree, you can’t pass them up. In all my years of traveling to Java, I’d never seen one like this before.”
Another collection of one-of-a-kind items that the couple stocks are what Huston described as “aeration panels for teak houses.” These panels adorn some of the walls in the shop, and while they all would traditionally serve the same purpose, they can be found in a stunning array of designs and colors, based on what kind of home they were reclaimed from.
“Every teak house had these custom carved panels— some of these are 200 years old. Nobody had air conditioning, no fans or anything like that, so the air flowed in and out of the house through these.”
Huston continued, “a Dutch house wouldn’t have much floral, but if you look at these arrows flowing to the middle, they would all have them on it.” By way of contrast, Huston pointed to a different panel, and said, “Based on these colors, and the floral designs, these were probably Chinese-Indonesian panels. Mostly if I see one of these, I can say, ‘Oh, that’s Madura Island,’ or ‘that’s Java island.’ They all have their own unique characteristics.”
Huston flipped over one of the panels to show the stunning level of craftsmanship: “If you look, it’s all old, single pieces of knotty teak that are all carved out by hand. Nobody does that kind of work anymore. Over the last 30 years, they’ve been tearing down the old houses and using the teak to make reclaimed flooring. It’s become one of the most valuable woods in the world, and we’re trying to save this unique heritage before it’s all gone.”
One needn’t make a pilgrimage halfway around the globe to experience these incredible creations for oneself. All that, and more, can be found right at Riverbend Mercantile, in a small city with a storied history, tucked away on the banks of a mighty river.