It’s about heart, and the merchants of downtown Kilgore have a lot of it. And the biggest draw that has strengthened Kilgore's businesses has been the residents.

One bright spot during the 2020 pandemic was the surprise tourism group. In Kilgore. it turned out to be the residents. The visitors were people their own community who couldn't travel elsewhere like they normally might. They had extra time on their hands.

"A lot of people realized how special Kilgore is and how special and unique the heart of downtown Kilgore is," Kilgore Tourism Manager Ryan Polk said.

That’s the reason Meredeth Brown, Kilgore Main Street coordinator, says the future is bright in that city’s heart, where the merchants found ways to be successful, grow and welcome new businesses as they worked to survive, particularly mom and pop stores.

“You can do all the things, but if you don’t have heart – it’s just the heart of the merchants downtown,” who are putting in the hard work and working together with each other and the city, Brown said.

Brown volunteered several years with the annual Very Derrick Christmas event in downtown Kilgore. Because of those connections, she applied for the Main Street job when that position became vacant, but the job changed to part-time in the wake of a revenue-decline in 2020 and the affect on tax revenues which pay for the position. She took on the job in June.

“It has been a very difficult time, but I will say that we have just the strongest group of merchants right now that are just go-getters,” Brown said. “They love to solve problems, figure out how to make things work within the regulations that we’ve given them. They just have a heart for the community and it just shows with all they’re doing.”

That heart is evident is Fred and Vivian Gebhardt, who had changed their lives, started something new and opened Kilgore Mercantile and Music, at 105 N. Kilgore St., in November 2019, just five months before a pandemic brought limitations on how businesses would be able to operate. The ice cream shop they operated there adapted by adding to the food they offered, and they begin looking for news ways to attract people to downtown Kilgore.

"When COVID came we were still allowed to stay open because we sold nonperishable foods, and we had the ice cream parlor," Fred Gebhardt said. "We had to close the music department.... As you can see it's flourished because had to keep pushing. We had to start serving outside."

And since the store was serving ice cream and hot dogs, the Gebhardts realized their employees had become carhops, so, they dressed the female employees in poodle skirts and saddle shoes.

They've been married for about 32 years, with several children and grandchildren between the two of them. The general store was Vivian's dream, while Fred's dream was his band Harvestmoon Country Grass and the music store he shares with his wife's general store.

"Every time we go into a town that had general stores, I just fell in love with them," Vivian said. 

They decided to sell their home in Hallsville so they could pursue their dream. Their building has an apartment they live in on the second floor, above their store, while Fred continues to work at O&D Manufacturing in White Oak. She operates the general store, while the music store works with a variety of area teachers to offer private music lessons. The store also sells some musical instruments and other supplies.

Their store and living quarters back up to the World's Richest Acre.

The Gebhardts also turned to helping organize events to bring people into downtown Kilgore, including a successful tractor show, regular car shows and Bluegrass and Blue Bell jam sessions at the general store.

"(Those efforts) are important because if we're not about the business of community, we're not going to have a community," Fred Gebhardt said. "If we're not going to have a community, if we're not creating events and a place to bring people together, then division and strife will enter in. It's important to keep that Hallmark feel in Kilgore, all year long."

The community also has rallied around downtown Kilgore, Brown said, and supports the merchants there.

“They know every purchase they make there makes a difference for them, I think,” Brown said. “Support has helped them get through this and I would also say the support of each other, with ideas and encouragement has allowed them to thrive with the struggles during this crazy COVID health pandemic.”

Other new stores have opened as well during the pandemic, from Boonies restaurant to Josey Wales Antiques and More, along with other businesses. Kim Pollard had previously operated a business called Paisley's in downtown Longview before deciding to change the name to Josey Wales and relocate to a new spot in May.

"As far as getting business and stuff, all of us downtown, we just try to support each other," Pollard said. "We always run specials and every time we post something on Facebook, we tag all the other businesses in it. We always try to make sure we tell (the public) to shop local)."

As an entrepreneur, Pollard knew how much children were looking forward to a canceled Christmas parade last year. She made the end of 2020 brighter by hiring a Mr. and Mrs. Clause to sit outside her store on the night the parade would have been held. She also provided gifts for some children who otherwise might not receive Christmas this year.

She noted places like Geektopia in downtown Kilgore that has been hosting evens every weekend, as well, and expressed appreciation for her fellow businesses that help push business her way, since she said she's off the beaten path.

"It's hard. It's tough without the COVID, but it's tougher with the COVID," Pollard said. "I would always like for people to shop local. The bigger businesses will make it. It's the smaller businesses that won't if people don't shop local. I always encourage that - to shop local, to keep us in business."

Polk said downtown businesses and the larger community have come together. He said businesses adapted to curbside pickup and more use of social media platforms. The city, Chamber of Commerce, and Kilgore Economic Development Corp. implemented their own loan program for small businesses. The Chamber of Commerce also began a Facebook page focusing on Kilgore restaurants.