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Co-working space Mercury Studio learns to adapt to Durham professionals' needs

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Mercury Studio doesn't reveal its purpose at a glance. A suite of spacious rooms on Mangum Street, it has the high, white walls of a gallery, and paintings line a narrow corridor leading to a couple of storefront-window studios. But its main space is taken up by airily partitioned desks, a stylish conference room and a kitchenette that all suggest an office.

According to co-founder Katie DeConto, communicating what Mercury Studio does has been its biggest challenge—especially as that mission changes in reaction to the needs of its members. "Because it's different than most co-working spaces, integrating artists," DeConto says, "it got us pigeonholed as a place for artists." But more than an art studio, Mercury is geared as a place where office-less freelancers and small-business owners can connect with each other in an affordable dedicated workspace.

DeConto, 27, sings and plays keyboards in The Pinkerton Raid and comes from a publishing background. After being laid off, she started working from home and coffeehouses. "I learned the value of co-working space from that," she says. "If you're at home by yourself, there's no one to bounce ideas off of, or to give you that one positive word you need to move forward sometimes."

Mercury's other co-founder, Megan Jones, is a 25-year-old painter who moved to Durham from Tennessee, where she had met DeConto at Milligan College. "I couldn't oil paint in my living room," Jones says, "and I looked into studios [in Durham], but it wasn't financially possible." In a midnight email, Jones added her idea of artist studios to DeConto's idea of a co-working space, and Mercury's alloyed mission was formed.

But neither DeConto nor Jones had ever run a business. "We met with anyone and everyone who would meet with us," DeConto says, "from Downtown Durham, Inc., to the Chamber of Commerce to Robert [Petrusz], who owns Bull City Coworking." They also interviewed potential members to find out what they were looking for in a workspace.

"We wanted to know that what we were doing was meeting needs," DeConto says, "not just that it would be fun for us. And it gave us the confidence we needed, as first-time entrepreneurs."

Still, the pair pledged not to go for it unless they raised at least $10,000 and had 10 or 15 members ready to sign up. Via an Indiegogo campaign, they raised just over $8,000 and found three prospective members. "We said, 'we're doing it anyway,'" DeConto laughs, and Mercury Studio opened on June 2, 2012.

Mercury offers several different monthly or annual memberships. A "desk" membership secures you a carrel, while a cheaper "café" membership grants 24-hour access to a communal workspace, provided with wireless Internet, coffee and tea. According to DeConto, the business started to sustain itself by 2013, growing its membership by shifting emphasis from the studio side to professional services.

"A few things surprised us about co-working," DeConto says. "Everyone was signing one-year agreements for desks, and we had thought from our research it would be the opposite: more monthly café memberships." Just last month, Mercury added two new desks and shrunk the café space.

Things have changed even more on the art side, Jones' bailiwick. What is now the conference room was originally a space for artists to share. "The space is great," Jones says, "but we realized it's not a space for multiple artists to be working together, and moved the studios to the storefront. So the two art studios got smaller and opened up the larger room for meetings and events."

Mercury has ramped up its public events since January, offering Listening Rooms where local musicians give intimate solo performances, Art Salons that alternate locations at Mercury and the Carrack Modern Art, and Groundwork, a fundraising and brainstorming session for entrepreneurs. "We realized we needed to get people in the space," DeConto says, "to see what we're doing."

Mercury's "studio" membership is currently under renovation, and the storefronts are full of boxes as the transition is made from private to open studio spaces for a new "working artist" membership. While still firming up the details, Jones envisions it as a group of artists setting individual professional goals and meeting monthly to review them, with full access to Mercury's facilities, including the conference room for workshops.

"That makes sense for a co-working space," Jones says, "because it's offering the same connectivity to artists as to professionals. I see Mercury less as a primary studio space than a place to connect and get a breath of fresh air."

Photographer Jessica Lobdell has been a desk member at Mercury for almost a year. "I was working out of the back of my house in this little room with my child knocking at the door," she says, "and I wasn't getting enough work done. I stumbled on Mercury and saw that it was set up artistically, by women, which made me very excited."

Jones claims that the most important thing Mercury does is to give creative types the sense of professional validation that comes with having an office in which to work and meet clients. Lobdell agrees.

"It's been good for me to have a place downtown where my clients can find me and I can get packages and edit photos," she says. "It provides a creative and stimulating work environment. I stay energized, and I can turn around and ask someone's opinion. The members here follow each other on Twitter and help each other because we're all in the same boat—otherwise, it's just me and my little business."

This article appeared in print with the headline "Mercury rising."

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