Donna Atkins arranges her knitted and sewed goods in her booth at Designed by U Craft Co-op in Soldotna.
A co-op, by definition, is a cooperative store, dwelling or program. When a person talks about his “co-op,” he might be speaking of an apartment in a cooperatively owned building, a grocery store that offers local food products, or in the case of Designed By U a business where Alaska crafters have the opportunity to sell their wares.
Designed By U has been in business for two months, but the store is full of a diverse range of crafts from 33 vendors. Amber Davis, owner, and Angie Joy, whose A Joy Custom Clothing and alterations operates out of the location, have dreamed of opening a craft co-op for years. But it was a challenge to get started.
Their first achievement was getting the word out to area crafters looking for such an outlet.
“Since a lot of us live out of town, we thought it was a nice opportunity to get things in town and have some structure for a lot of talented people in this area,” Joy said of the Soldotna business. “We can’t sell it out of our houses, necessarily.”
Designed By U leases booth space to individual vendors at a fixed rate per month, which helps cover the space rental. They also take a small percentage of sales that cover services such as the fees for credit card transactions.
There are metal workers, wood carvers, quilters, photographers, a vintage boutique, displays of fur, handmade jewelry and felted items. The vendors display their work, and the co-op staff sells it.
Lynda Lowery volunteers her time as the store manager and also displays her work as a vendor. Lowery makes knitted and crocheted baby clothes. She started knitting for her 10 grandchildren, but then friends and acquaintances began asking for pieces, and it became a business for her.
“I was driving by here, and I saw a sign, and (Davis) was trying to get started,” Lowery said.
That was the start of her relationship with Designed By U.
Lowery had 12 years experience running a co-op in Portland before she came to Kenai in May.
“Well, I think that people are even more craft-oriented than we are. Because in Portland you have so much entertainment, so many things to do. And I think here the women stay in and make things and do beautiful things. And the men really get into it, too. They’re fishing a lot and stuff, but when they come down, they’re doing their arts,” she said.
“I think people in Alaska are just a lot more artsy. I mean there’s talented people in Portland, too, but not to the extent of here.”
Many of the crafters who display their work at the co-op have other vocations that would be considered full time. Without the co-op, crafters often must tour fairs in many locations or find space in one of a limited number of galleries in order to sell their work. If a crafter works on the North Slope, such self-marketing techniques can be prohibitive.
“Everybody wants her to set up a business of her own, and she just doesn’t want to,” Lowery said of one of the vendors, Silver Fox Slippers. “She works full time. She said, ‘This is just a godsend. It’s an ideal thing.’ She can come in once a week and put her stuff in, and if somebody wants a special order, I just call her on the phone, and in two or three days she’s got the special order in here.”
At the co-op, the operators work to be certain vendors have a positive experience, and they welcome feedback from the artists.
“You have a chance to socialize . I think our vendors are pretty faithful and want it to work. It just brings everybody together in one place, you know. You’ve got to work together,” Joy said.
The co-op staff has standards for the vendors. They look for new items, handmade work, and they try to create an atmosphere wherein crafters don’t have to worry about competing.
“The socializing here is good, too,” Joy said. “Everybody comes in, and you get to visit with just about everybody. It’s not like a regular retail store. We can talk about what’s going on in here. It’s more like a community.”
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