The Columbia River Mercantile Building, referred to as the MERK, was the first commercial structure to be built in downtown Longview. Completed in 1923, the building served as the "company store" and headquarters for the Long-Bell Lumber Company, builder of the planned city and world's largest lumber mill.
The MERK building remained the property of the Long-Bell Lumber Company until 1950 when it sold to Allied Stores (the Bon Marche). In 1951, a major renovation was completed in an effort to "modernize" the building as a department store. A number of historic features were destroyed during modernization periods that followed.In August of 1987, the new Three Rivers Mall opened just across the Cowlitz River in Kelso. Three anchor stores relocated to the mall, leaving a significant void in Longview's downtown economy and a 33% retail vacancy rate. The City of Longview retained a professional consulting team to develop a plan for the best use of several vacated Longview buildings, with emphasis placed upon the Bon Marche buidling. The City and consulting team made arrangements with the building owner to accept a reduced purchase price for the vacated building. A marketing package was prepared and a number of public incentives were made available by the City of Longview to encourage development. Then in October, 1987, a bid from Columbia River Mercantile, Inc. (John S. & Mary Chilson) was accepted for the building's purchase and restoration.This five year restoration project in the heart of Longview's historic commercial district has served as a catalyst for a number of neighboring projects. As a result, the historic district has survived the "shopping mall transition" and continues to serve as a center of commerce for downtown Longview, just as R. A. Long (Longview's founder) envisioned in 1923.