It is maybe the best-kept secret in Jackson. One that has been right under our noses for over five decades.

Canton Mart Square, located at the top of the Lefleur East neighborhood, is a family-run shopping center anchored by Briarwood Animal Hospital, The Book Rack and Briarwood Wine and Spirits – all here “since the concrete was poured” – 52 years ago.

Founded in 1966 by Dr. Hugh G. “Doc” Ward (who served as the veterinarian at Briarwood Animal Hospital), the property would develop building by building – seven in total – to house 80,000 square feet.

With 25 businesses, mostly female-owned, Canton Mart offers a mix of tenants that serve more than a simple need.

“Our most successful – the kind of tenants I look for – are not strictly retail,” says Steve Baker, the center’s manager on the property since 1977.

Monogram Magic, Haven Curated Home, Drake’s Designs Florist – Baker says “the best businesses are the ones that offer a service you can’t get at a big box store.”

When Dr. Ward tragically died in a car crash in 1998, Baker (whose wife, Cathy, is Dr. Ward’s niece) says the operation of Canton Mart “fell in his lap,” assisting Ward’s widow, Joe Ann, with day-to-day duties. Though she still comes to the office often, Baker can be found there “as soon as the sun is up” most days.

It is a responsibility he takes to heart.

“I’m picking up cigarette butts, picking up trash and making sure dumpsters got emptied,” Baker says from his Briarwood Enterprises office next to The Book Rack.

“I didn’t want be that guy that people said, ‘When Dr. Ward died, that Steve Baker ran that shopping center straight into the ground.’ I promise you, this center is better today than ever. And hopefully better tomorrow than today! I live by that.”

Baker, a Clarksdale native, moved to Jackson after he and his wife married at Delta State University. She, in nursing school, gave him the opportunity to work for Dr. Ward, running what was Briarwood Yard and Garden Center from 1977-1992 (now home to Latitudes).

When tenant longevity is mentioned, Baker notes Hickory Pit, a barbecue joint, who has been here for 39 years, Odom’s Optical for around 25 and Kees Photography for 30.

“There are a lot of… businesses with sticking power,” he says of the longtime mix.

One of best things that has ever happened to Canton Mart, he says, is Crazy Cat Eat Up, a restaurant previously in Highland Village. “I’m so proud to have them here. They are slammed every day and run a great business.”

For Baker, things are “fortunately quiet” most days.

“We don’t have safety problems either,” he notes. “There’s security on the premises and that makes the tenants feel better. I want people to feel like this is a good environment to do business and a good environment for their customers.”

As big box centers come and go, Canton Mart Square remains. Baker says it is the neighborhood.

“The northeast Jackson and Lefleur East community has been so good to us,” he says. “That customer base is still here.”

At Canton Mart Square “the better part of 42 years,” Baker and his wife have two daughters and five grandkids. Daughter Stephanie Maley and aunt “Joe Joe” run the business side of the operation and daughter Joanna handles design work.

“We’re blessed as a family to have this place,” he remarks. “I can’t explain why I love it so much. It’s just part of me. For some reason, I’ve always been crazy about Canton Mart. It’s what I do.”

Canton Mart Square is at 1491 Canton Mart Road, accessed from the I-55 North Frontage Road or Old Canton Road.