Better Together

A woman’s love for design turns into so much more with family by her side

By Hollie Deese
Photography by Allison Elefante

Jill Johnson grew up one of seven children in Meadville, a small town in Pennsylvania north of Pittsburgh.

She met her Alabama-born husband, Sam, when they were both working in Chicago, and the two were married by the time they were 20 and 22. They moved to Middle Tennessee right after, and within five years they were the parents of four children.

“I’m glad we took a lot of pictures,” she jokes.

Jill stayed home with her children: Savannah, now 24; Mary Virginia, 23; Sam Jr., 21; and Crawford, 19, the whole time — even homeschooling for a while. She did some design work when she could while they were little, making slipcovers and drapes and pillows for herself and friends through word of mouth.

Then the kids weren’t so little anymore. They started moving out, and life started looking very different.

“I had them so close together,” she says. “So, all of a sudden, they all left at once, and I was in a place of ‘What do I do now?’”

After driving herself crazy deep-cleaning the house every day, she decided to pursue one of her own long-ago dreams.

“I had always dreamed of having a store, even as a little girl. I would tag everything in my room and then ring it up on my cash register,” Jill laughs. She would also take wallpaper sample books and redo the walls of her dollhouses, even making custom drapes in miniature.

Suddenly, that childhood dream was something she had time to think about again. She floated the idea of opening a store by her husband, afraid he’d say no. Instead, he was all in.

It took two years, but they finally found something close to downtown Franklin. When they opened the doors in 2019, Jill had never worked a day of retail—and the only cash register she had ever touched was her childhood Fisher Price model.

“It was scary,” she admits. “I felt like throwing up every morning.”

Just after opening, she was hit with supply issues and pandemic uncertainties. But three years in, the store is busy, bright and filled with home goods, gifts, furniture and art. Jill offers design services and support to other designers on their projects, and she has gotten so busy she can barely keep up with demand.

“I think they were all thinking, ‘This is Mom’s little hobby,” she laughs. “But then it started to grow.”

Luckily, daughter Mary Virginia now works with her full-time. Her own interest in interior design was sparked in high school when she fulfilled a senior project by doing internships with local designers.

“I ended up going to school in hopes to study interior design, but when she mentioned starting a store I decided to go for experience over education,” says Mary Virginia, who remembers watching her mom do design work for friends as she grew up. “I’m so glad I did, because I think I’ve learned what I actually enjoy.”

So instead of doing lead interior design, Mary Virginia has found a passion supporting other designers through the showroom’s design program, helping them in the retail store and growing the shop’s online presence. She is also an artist with a specialty in creating people’s home portraits in watercolors.

“We work really well together and just get each other,” Jill says. “And it’s nice working with family because you don’t even have to finish your sentences. We put extra heart behind what we do because we see the big picture.”

Soon, Crawford will be joining the team to help with sales. And the Johnsons are looking for even more space, every inch filled with items Jill would have loved to have found locally for her own home projects, in a range of price points. But they never intend to let go of the iconic little shop that they put so much work into renovating.

“We love our customers,” Jill says. “Mary knows most of them. She loves working at the store and has taken the time to know almost everybody’s name who comes in. She knows about their dogs and how their son is doing away at college. If she’s sick one day, the Fed Ex driver asks, ‘Where’s Mary?’”

It’s that connection with their customers and community that they hope makes it easier for people to shop small business over big box.

“There’s a relationship here. A connection,” Jill says. “It’s a community here.”

A Preservation Renovation

The Johnsons bought the building that became Storehouse no.9 in 2018 after two years of looking for just the right spot to incubate Jill’s next chapter. It didn’t look that great, but like all underdog success stories, it had potential.

“I pulled up outside of it and I just stared at it, like, this is the ugliest building,” Jill laughs. But a commercial property in Franklin that close to downtown isn’t easy to come by, so they knew they had to try and work with it.

It had previously been a primitive and Colonial American retail store, which is a very specific look to try and pivot from — lots of deep reds and blues and dark wood. The siding was orange and yellow, and it needed lots of updating.

But because the 102-year-old home was considered historic, not all the changes they wanted to make were possible.

Sam says the home originally belonged to a Black family who were caretakers to the city cemetery right next door. They also ran a juke joint across the street in a building that was demolished after a flood in the 1940s.

Sam and Jill were up to the task of bringing the building back to life. Currently in their 13th home together, they are practiced in the art of buying a fixer-upper, remodeling it and then selling or renting it before moving on.

“We’d stopped doing that 15 years ago because, frankly, we were over it,” Sam laughs. “But getting back into a renovation and saving another historic structure—it came back, like riding bike.”

Luckily, his kids were old enough to pitch in this time around. And the result of their hard work is a business the whole family is proud to be part of.