Mark Mentzer and Chester Overlock had just opened a high-style home furnishings store in the historic shopping district of Ellicott City, and the first hint of success came when customers asked if they could purchase the display fixtures, too.
"We never wanted to be just another retail store," said Mentzer, the business half of the partnership behind Whats in Store. "We wanted to be a shopping experience."
And the new owners are so agreeable, customers can literally take that experience home with them.
The paint is barely dry on a funky display table when someone offers to buy it. And the towering fabric screens that divide the cavernous space -- it once was an auto shop -- are now part of the inventory.
Even the overhead displays that are Overlock's signature -- a Buddha and a bed float suspended inside the store -- are for sale.
"I'll sell anything," said the 45-year-old Overlock, the design half of the partnership. There seems to be plenty more where that creative impulse came from. "There is no end to my insanity."
The partners opened Whats in Store on Memorial Day weekend in scarce retail space just behind Wessel Florists on Old Columbia Pike. In a shopping district where dusty antiques stores hug the sidewalks, the shop is a bit out of the way -- both in style and location.
"We want to make fabulous things affordable for normal people," said Overlock.
"And we want to put the urban back in suburban," said Mentzer.
The shop is a budget version of the trendy ABC Carpet & Home in New York City -- very Metropolitan Home, very high-style, very retro. There is consignment art, funkified antiques, sleek sofas, comfy chairs and massive, one-of-a-kind imported pieces.
"We have solutions for people who are on a budget," said Mentzer, 38, a former software salesman with an MBA from the Johns Hopkins University.
He says the typical client might be the young professional who just got the big promotion and is officially moving beyond college leftovers, the newly single or the empty nesters ready for a fresh look -- none of whom has an unlimited budget. For example, a mohair chair that might sell for $3,800 in New York is $1,600 here. The same price difference is true for a microfiber sofa that looks like Ultrasuede. And lamps are cheaper by the pair.
But what sets this store apart, aside from a modest markup philosophy, are the design instincts of Overlock, who already had a client base when he and Mentzer stumbled on each other online three years ago. Mentzer, who lives in Annapolis, was ready for a career change, and he believed in Overlock's style-for-the-masses attitude.
"I am the professional shopper, Mark is the reason and sanity," said Overlock, who lives in Ellicott City.
The design half of this partnership believes he can draw the style preferences out of even the most inarticulate client, while the sensible half leaves design magazines like Elle Home Decor, Veranda and Western Interiors and Design open on coffee tables around the shop.
"I channel pretty," declares Overlock. "Get out all your pretty magazines and look hard at the part you like until you can tell us what it is."
Meanwhile, Mentzer takes a more concrete approach. He helps clients envision a new living room look by re-creating the layouts in the magazine pages with the shop's more affordable inventory.
"We believe good design can be accessible to regular people," he said. "But we try to provide some of that vision."
A friend recommended Overlock's vision to Michelle Hendricks, and she has since volunteered to be president of his fan club.
"My friends tell me I have been 'Chesterized,' " says the stay-at-home mother of three.
A former pharmaceutical drug salesperson, Hendricks and her husband, Al, a regional manager for Merck, have moved often, and she said she never minded because she never felt connected to the houses in which they lived.
All that changed when she asked Overlock to give her some ideas to improve the two-story foyer of her Ellicott City home.
"My husband and I are risk-takers, but he suggested things we never thought of doing," said Hendricks.
"Now I feel good in my home. He has given me a feeling of warmth and comfort."
Some of Overlock's suggestions were cheaper than free.
"He told us to enter the house through the front door, not through the garage and laundry room, where we would just see unfinished projects and things that needed to be done.
"And it changed how we feel about our home."
Overlock used a rusting technique in the foyer that gives it the feeling of "being inside an old oak tree," she said, and he redid the overhead lighting with an inexpensive combination of lampshades, a plaster medallion and some cord.
"And I like having him around," she said of Overlock, who has since redone other rooms in her house, sometimes with a single piece of furniture, a light fixture or a coat of chocolate paint.
"He has such a great personality and such a positive outlook."
Whats in Store is definitely not your department-store showroom, where dust collects on coffee table tops and salespeople absently tap their pencils while waiting for a customer.
Saturday is often "disco day," when overhead lights pulse to the music, and Mentzer rewards dancing customers with discounts. "You should see the little old ladies tapping their feet to the Pet Shop Boys," said Overlock.
The partners also stole a promotion notion from Old Navy, offering an item of the week at a value price.
The walls feature Overlock's faux finishes -- for which he is also well-known -- and the astonishingly inexpensive accessories are displayed on garage-sale fixtures, such as baker's racks or cement carport blocks covered with old linoleum tiles.
"Furniture stores are too stuffy," says Overlock. "And they are so insincere. There is no 'formula' for decorating someone's living room."
Overlock, who holds a design degree from Yale, not only doesn't require a big budget, he also doesn't require a blank slate. He'll work around Grandma's antiques or a special chair.
"There are a lot of tricks to this trade," he said. "You don't always need a new sofa to build a new look. A throw, cool pillows, a slipcover or lamps can do it."
The partners believe that accessories are the best-kept secret of decorating, and that's why their displays -- jars clustered on a table top or pillows on a sofa -- are not an afterthought, the way they can be in traditional furniture stores. Instead, the displays are a complete thought, executed to enhance and inspire.
"Like a good Chanel bag or a little black dress, sometimes all it takes for a whole new look is to re-accessorize," said Mentzer.
Overlook says his clients are real people who want something different or interesting, and it is his job to "take them a step beyond their comfort zone."
"That's why you won't find anything here that you'd find in a big-box store," said Overlock, as the floating bed turned slowly above his head.
That goes for the owners as well.
Chester Overlock has a set of design principles that Mark Mentzer, his partner in Whats in Store in Ellicott City, calls "Chesterisms." Overlock considers them words to live by. Mentzer says they are a good place for people to start when creating a room.
* Have what you love, love what you have.
* It is better to have nothing than the wrong thing. ("People hang on to things too long," said Overlock. "Their furniture becomes emotional baggage.")
* More is more. ("Mass out on something. Display a collection.")
* Don't be afraid of the dark ("People are afraid of color. They think it makes a space look smaller. Actually, darker, richer colors expand rooms. Once I get them to do it, they love it.")
* This is your life. Live it. ("Don't postpone your happiness. If you want a purple room, paint it purple. It is only paint.")
* If it doesn't serve you, get rid of it.
* The rug and the fabric are the foundations of a room. Start there.
Whats in Store
Where: 3711 Old Columbia Pike in Ellicott City
Hours: Monday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 7 p.m.; Saturday, 10 a.m. to 9 p.m.; and Sunday, noon to 6 p.m.