They might be the hosts of HGTV's new series, Home Town, but Erin and Ben Napier would never call themselves stars. Ben, 33, is a skilled woodworker and former youth minister with a degree in history, and Erin, 31, is an artist and former stationer with a degree in graphic design. Together with four close friends, they own a storefront, Laurel Mercantile, in their beloved Southern city of Laurel, Mississippi, where they sell heirloom wares and durable goods. On the show, which premieres March 21, the two welcome newcomers to their town, helping them to select and renovate historical homes to their former glory.
"We see people falling in love with old houses that have been forgotten for so long, and then you see the way one family saving this one house makes a huge difference in a small town that's struggling," Erin tells CountryLiving.com. "Every episode has so much heart. It's not just about house design. It's about making families finding their forever home the fabric of our community."
It's not surprising, then, that the humble (not to mention adorable) husband and wife team would much rather talk up their small city—and the wonderfully quirky characters in it—than about their own impending fame. After all, Ben, who is 6'6" and bearded, and Erin, who is pretty and pixie-haired, might be the faces of Home Town, but the show isn't just about them.
"Home Town is about the rebirth of small-town America and the community that you [find] in a small town," Ben says.
Anyway, says Erin, "You don't feel like a star. You feel very regular. When you see your face on TV or you hear your voice, you think, 'This can't be a big deal because I'm a part of it.'" Plus, as she points out, laughing, "People in Laurel are not impressed."
"In a small town, everybody already knows everybody's business," Ben explains, "which is part of the beauty of a small town. [The people of Laurel] are excited, but we're still just Erin and Ben from around the corner."
Though the episode structure (and the fact that it's hosted by a down-to-earth husband-and-wife team) might call to mind other HGTV shows (ahem, Fixer Upper), make no mistake: Home Town has its own distinct style. Specifically, Erin and Ben go out of their way to emphasize the style of the homeowners, not their own personal tastes. From the pilot episode, Erin and Ben's mission is clear: to design a space that respects the structure's history as well as the inhabitants' interests—all while supporting local businesses and using American-made products.
Erin's designs capture a cozy, classic aesthetic, with vintage touches lending Southern charm befitting of her beautiful hometown, while Ben brings natural textures and ruggedness to the equation.
But, of course, since Chip and Joanna Gaines understand what it's like to be in the public eye, they've served as mentors of sorts as the Napiers adjust to life in front of TV cameras. "The biggest piece of advice I've taken away from them is to keep our marriage and our family first—the stuff that's been important to us all along—and as long as you do that, you're going to be fine," Erin says.
After Southern Weddings featured their home in 2014, Erin got lots of new followers on Instagram—one being Lindsey Weidhorn, an HGTV executive.
"Something about our little town gave [Lindsey] a gut feeling that she needed to reach out, that something was here for her, and something about our small town life could make people all across the country nostalgic for a place they've never even been," Erin wrote on her blog.
So, Lindsey asked Erin and Ben if they had ever thought about making a TV show—which they said they had not. "But anything that can draw some positive attention to our town, we're game," Erin told CountryLiving.com in a Live last year. And the rest is pretty much history.
While impending HGTV stardom means their lives are about to seriously change, the Napiers are just excited to show off Laurel to the world. They certainly enjoyed sharing it with the TV crew—they say they all became "a little family" during the team's six-month stay for filming. Eventually, "They were getting invited to parties—" Ben starts to say, "—that we weren't even invited to!" Erin finishes.
Founded in 1882 as a lumber town, Laurel peaked in population in 1960 thanks to manufacturing jobs. The town's restoration journey is about a decade in the making, with a population of just under 19,000 in 2013.
"Our specific lives haven't changed at all, really, but definitely the morale in our town has," Erin says. "You live here your whole life and you forget what's so special about it. And then to see outsiders coming in and recognizing that your town is special, that kind of changes everybody's morale."
If their town is TV show-worthy, their love story is the stuff of romance movies. Erin, the design and decorating mastermind, met Ben, the craft and construction guy, when they were both studying at Jones County Junior College, followed by Ole Miss. The super-sweet story of the week they met, or as they call it, "love week," is documented in Erin's blog, which she updates with daily reflections.
They married in 2008 and eventually purchased Erin's dream house, the same little yellow cottage that she had admired ever since she was a little girl. The newlyweds restored the 1925 Craftsman-style house into a home—fittingly foreshadowing their future—and built a lovely life in the town of Laurel surrounded by friends and family.
While Home Town is an exciting opportunity for the Napiers, it's still just a job. And the couple, who are pretty much joined at the hip 24/7 and maintain a motto of "same team," doesn't plan on letting the spotlight get in the way of their relationship.
"We don't want it to change the way we treat each other or the way we live or think of ourselves," Erin says. "It's just a really cool job that we're really enjoying, and as long as we keep that perspective and remember that our family and our relationship and the friendships we've always had should always come first, then everything's always going to be fine."
"It's Erin and me. Not Erin and me and our moms, not Erin and me and the network, not Erin and me and our fans, if you want to call them that," says Ben. "As far as our marriage goes, it's me and Erin and God. We work everything out together, and everything has worked out so far."
So what's been the biggest issue for the couple so far? Time management: At one point, Ben was juggling four different houses, custom woodworking jobs, adding up to 18-20 hours a day for 24 straight days.
The Napiers' passion for their hometown is what guides them in their business ventures, whether it's the Mercantile, Ben's woodworking company, Scotsman Co., or Erin's stationery company, Lucky Luxe (from which she is currently taking a break). So what's next for the couple after Home Town season one (besides the hope of a second season, of course)?
"There's always talk about babies," Erin says, "and there's always talk about where we're going to travel next." Their number one bucket list destination is Italy, but they say it's a big dream due to Ben's big size ("when you're 6'6" and 300 pounds, flying coach is tough over an ocean," Erin says).
As for the business side, don't expect them to open new doors anytime soon—Laurel already has a great bakery, butcher shop, restaurants, and more, and they're interested in supporting those businesses rather than competing with them. But, Ben says, manufacturing might be an obvious next step for Laurel Mercantile—as well as a return to Laurel's roots.
"Right now we're really emphasizing building relationships with American companies and growing our manufacturing side, doing a lot of our manufacturing here in Laurel," he says. "If we could create a lot of jobs in the store, think about how many more we could create if we started making our own products here in town. And since we already have that background of stationery and woodworking, we kind of already have laid the groundwork for that."
That thoughtful approach to their community and to home renovation sets these hometown heroes apart from the rest.
"It's not just about our town," Erin says. "It's that HGTV recognizes there's something special about community in any small town. Which means it's possible for any small town to be brought back to life."
Tune in March 21 at 10 p.m., right after Fixer Upper, for your very own taste of Laurel. Naturally, Erin and Ben will be celebrating the premiere small-town style: by hosting a block party with the rest of the townspeople.