This article originally appeared on The Alcalde's Web site.
It doesn't look like much from the highway.
Drivers passing through the sleepy town of Columbus, smack-dab in between Austin and Houston, might easily miss Industrial Country Market.
A few solar panels, a greenhouse, and a big metal building are all that's visible from the road. From afar, the place looks like a solar company, or a small farm with a hippie bent.
But if you turn off Highway 71 onto the market's dusty gravel driveway, you'll quickly realize it's something different. Colorful glass bottle "branches" sprout from recycled tree sculptures; a stone labyrinth created by a local Boy Scout troop invites contemplation.
Industrial Country Market, an eclectic business venture co-founded by alumnus Andrew Bretch is a lot more than a country market. It's also a solar-power education center, an art gallery and informal school, and a wacky playground of sorts. There's nowhere else quite like it.
Step into the 6,000 square-foot "non-general general store," as Bretch calls it, and a quick stop for a soda and snack becomes something else entirely. The huge store is equal parts country kitsch, hipster art gallery, and old-style hardware store -- and that diversity is what distinguishes the place from every other highway stop-off. Do you need a locally made giant frog lawn ornament that really croaks? You do now. Screws, nails, cheap plastic containers and all manner of hardware and home gadgets are piled up in the back. Jewelry handmade by Texas artisans sparkles in a corner. There's even a complete mini-ethnic grocery store within the store -- offering everything from Indian curry pastes to South American spices.
Though it's right next to the highway and just down the road from a power plant, the place is completely off the grid. Bretch, his wife Anna, Bretch's parents, and a few friends have built an array of solar panels and generators all by themselves, and stylish aqueducts and water basins stand waiting to collect hundreds of gallons of rainwater. A generator runs on biodiesel trucked in from a Chick-Fil-A.
"We want this to be a fun place where you can get a little of everything," said Bretch. "And that includes educating people about green technology. The whole place is powered by just the sun, wind and rain."
Even the restroom is an educational experience. I shuddered involuntarily at the phrase "compost toilets," which usually means a putrid outhouse -- but was pleasantly surprised. They were some of the most immaculate restrooms I've ever seen, and certainly the nicest ones to be had along I-71. You'd never guess that the fully-flushing toilets were the compost type, and the walls are papered with old computer chips for a stylish steampunk effect.
Outside, koi dart around lazily in a big pond and burbling fountain. A few steps away is a butterfly garden and an area for outdoor movie screenings. A small building houses an art gallery and classroom, and another garden is composed entirely of sculptures made from recycled objects. There's a bike-tire chandelier, a fountain made from a giant knot of garden hoses and all manner of abstract art pieces. The whole place feels like the result of a child, a carpenter and an artist let loose in a junkyard.
In reality, it's the longtime dream of Bretch's parents, Dan and Michele Bretch. His father was a high school shop teacher and electronics store owner for years; he always dreamed of starting another business in his retirement. So he enlisted Bretch, an artist who studied advertising at The University of Texas at Austin, to help. Bretch's wife, previously an administrative associate in the Department of English, came along for the ride, too. They're all completely self-taught -- Bretch watches a lot of YouTube tutorials on solar power.
Industrial Country Market has been open for about one year, and the Bretch family always has more projects in the pipeline. When asked what they were planning next, Bretch's reply is nonchalant: "A golf course, a biergarten, an animal farm with goats and chickens, and an adult playground with swings sized for grown-up legs."