by Jessika Hepburn, editor
I am loving our Handmade Here theme and the opportunity to travel around the world with you seeing handmade culture thriving in so many different communities. It is a beautiful crafty world we are blessed to live in, filled with women & art that inspire us to be more creative and joyful. I am feeling very honoured to get the chance to introduce you to the heart and craft(ress) of Love, Me Boutique-the very lovely Chara Kingston and take you on a treasure hunt through her Halifax store. Although ‘store’ is a really inadequate word to describe the handmade bounty that fills this eclectic and beautifully curated space. Chara has struck the perfect balance between clean/cluttered, everywhere you look there is something new to discover, pick up, and fall in love with-but the feel is never one of busyness. Everything has a place and has been displayed with love. And really, love is what Love, Me is all about.
I met up with Chara for an interview in real time, but had a major technology fail so the podcast I wanted to share is lost in iphoneland, but she very sweetly answered my questions again. Her insightful answers and deeply genuine passion for our handmade community is inspirational and a powerful resource for anyone who loves making, buying, selling & promoting handmade in Halifax and beyond!
Tell me a bit about the story behind opening Love Me. What were you up to before you started the store & what inspired you to create a handmade boutique?
This question always brings to mind the song “Long and Winding Road” by the Beatles. Looking back I can see that this path is logical but very twisty and turny.
My on again/off again life as a selling artist began at the age of 5 or so when I would make stacks of drawings and then go selling them door to door for a quarter (unbeknownst to my mother who was mortified when she found out). My life as a maker continued through Junior High (selling my own tshirts), through high school and university. But in high school I fell in love with art history and contemporary art simultaneously and began a path to be a contemporary art curator or artist run centre something or other. I did a Fine Arts Cultural Studies degree and then a Museum Studies degree and worked at various institution big and small and then realized I didn’t really want to any of the things I was trained to do. I didn’t want to just read and write about art. I didn’t want to just be the exhibition preparator. And I didn’t just want to be in the collections rooms (though some days that was nice – being surrounded by amazing treasures).
I moved to Halifax on a feeling that this is where we (my partner and I) should be. I was born by the sea and smelling the sea again felt like home. (I totally fell in love hard for the sound of the harbour horn in the fog.) And then there was the people. And the street art. (There was some great street art up on a visit I made.) And artist run centres (The Kyber and eyelevelgallery were across the street from each other). I loved it all. So we stayed. I worked for an arts advocacy group and began finding my way back to making. I took up screenprinting and sewing (again) and began creating goods for my own line, simply C. I sold at the farmers market on Saturdays, craft shows here and Toronto (OFAK) and in a few stores like Wildflower (Halifax), Twisted Sisters Boutique (NFLD), Nokomis (Edmonton). This maker/seller experience taught me a few fundamentals that are the baseline for why I opened Love, Me:
- While I enjoyed being my own boss and self-directing my own career, I got lonely working from home. I am a people person.
- While I could stand behind my own line, I was shy to “put myself out there” and found myself advocating for other artists and their work. I was really good at networking people and selling other artists work to my customers.
- I really REALLY liked art and craft. I loved handmade. I loved the stories behind a finished work. And I felt like I needed to share that enthusiasm with the world.
- I found in my own retail wholesaling/consignment experiences that while stores loved having local or handmade (still a very new concept for 2002), they often had a majority of mass produced product and not always the artistic background to talk customers through (my) handmade work. And this was the story I was getting from lots of artisans. There needed to be stores selling only handmade.
I decided to open an all handmade bricks and mortar shop. I began working at an independent (mass produced) retail home/decor shop in town to learn a bit of the ins & outs. Then I had a baby. Then after mat leave I went back to work in my former career thinking I couldn’t take risk of a shop and should go for the steady pay cheque. I hated it. I was miserable. I felt like I had the dream in my eyesight and then turned my back on it. I betrayed myself. It took me only a few months to realize that I needed to try to make the dream happen or I would end up being a yucky ugly person full of regret. I spent a year planning and strategizing and plunge when my kiddo was 2.
I am now three years and a second baby into this newest adventure and am happier for it.
Love, Me is all about Canadian handmade & supporting small artisans, I would love if you would take me on a tour of the store and tell me a bit about your favourite items and designers!
My first idea of the retail shop was to “curate” it and make it very experiential. There are plenty of shops out there to buy stuff in person or on line. But I wanted to create a space that was full of life, and art, and craft, and love, and happy and not just shelves of product.
I also wanted the store to be full of amazing handmade Canadian goods – so I began with that. But I didn’t want to be a traditional fine craft store. There is a market for that but it is sooooo not me. I wanted the product mix to run the spectrum of fine & beautiful to silly & quirky to odd & peculiar – something for everyone without being hodgepodgy. I also wanted the shop to be more than a shop. I built into my idea that we would hold events and workshops and we would have some craft raw goods and we would help artists “launch” even if it wasn’t in my store. So when we tour around the shop you will find collections by artisans whom have been around and made a great name for themselves like The Candi Factory (TO) – who was one of the first artisanal underwear creators and has a really devoted following or Smoking Lily (Vancouver) who was one of the pioneer of small run silkscreen women’s wear. But within the same space you will find “single product” items made by artists who have never sold before ever and we test the product for them. One example is “Sweeties” – a young 16 year old gal who make sweet origami paper mache bracelets or knitted dishcloths by an elderly neighbour of a friend of ours. Love, Me is an opportunity for them to sell their work so others, and in turn they, see their work as valued and loved.
What I love about my shop is that we get new things all time. Even if we have constant artisans, like Kyla Francis (Halifax) or Overman (PEI), their work changes as they evolve as artists, so it contributes to the ever evolving shop.
Halifax is a small city, is there an active handmade scene locally? How much of your inventory is handmade in Halifax?
Halifax is a small city but it is an amazing city for its genuineness and organicness. As I mentioned above, I felt right at home here when I first came out for a visit oh so many years ago. To me it has always seemed that any great thing (music, film, art, craft, food, parcour, bike rallies…) all happen from a genuine passionate place and happened organically. It never seem forced to me. (This was a huge difference than my experiences in Ottawa and Toronto.) The artists and makers that seem to succeed and do great things in the city are those who make because they love to make and need to make and not because they are looking at a trend and trying to fit themselves into it.
While I focus on Canadian handmade, I do try to begin at home first. But that being said “local” is not one of the criteria for being a seller at Love, Me.
Since you don’t have an online store, your entire market is local, how do you engage your customers & connect with artisans, do you ever feel limited by your location or is there a strong market for handmade here?
When I began planning my business, on-line craft e-commerce sites were just starting to gain momentum. And while there is definately the potential and possiblity of Love, Me going “online” as a store, I know that I won’t push that avenue until I feel I can do it well. Plus I am not an on-line shopper. I am too much a tactile person to shop on-line. I am too much of an experiential shopper to shop on-line. And I know there are plenty of people like me. For some of us, stepping into another world is part of the shopping experience. Your senses are met with music, sweet scents, touchy feely goodies as well as great information and service. And so until my physical shop is well on its way and “running itself” and I think I can do a cool and interesting on-line experience, I will wait.
And while on-line shopping may be gaining momentum, the shop local movement is also gaining momentum. Customers who love and support this store for its handmade product also love that it is an independent local shop. The handmade movement goes hand in hand with shopping local.
I don’t feel limited by location at all. I love that I am in downtown Halifax making it accessible for tourists (who want something other than a traditional NS souvenirs) and for locals. The shop is perfectly placed in a 100 year old house which helps create the homey feel. Noone knows what the future holds, but for now, we have had a great success with attracting new and returning customers. I am happy with my choice to do this kind of business here.
My biggest challenge thus far is the work/life balance. When you are self-employed in such a huge way and then have a family of wee ones, balancing both can be completely mental!
Within the business itself, I would answer the same: balance. There are so many hats to wear that it can get overwhelming looking at all there is to do. There is always a list of to-dos. I am only in the process of learning (read: accepting) I will never get it all done because there is always something to do.
A couple of tips I learned as a maker and learned here as a business owner which pertains to makers are:
- “You gotta spend money to make money” is a farce (for the most part). There are plenty of inexpensive and free ways to do marketing, display, or production.
- Do only what you can do well. As it relates to creating: Every once in awhile I get someone who comes in with a “bag of delights” (aka a little of this, a little of that). Pick one look/style or one medium and stick with it. As it relates to business: don’t do fancy website or e-commerce or open a physical shop or studio until you know you can do it really well and stay within your financial means.
- Take risks but only one calculated risk at a time. As it relates to being a creator: Shows and fairs are expensive (booth fees, display items, packaging etc.). Pick one show, go to it and see if those customers seem to be your kind of customer, talk to other artisans about the show and then if it is a good fit, sign up for the next one of its kind. Add only one or two shows at a time. Don’t try and do it all, you will burn out and burn out of money faster than you can make it.
- Have a map but learn to be flexible.
- Find a support network. As a maker “import” to Halifax, I didn’t have a group of art school chums to network and socialize with so I networked with other artisans at the Farmer’s Market. They were my go-to peeps for questions about cash flow, craft shows, marketing, product pricing etc. It is also good to find like minded souls just to hang with because being an artist working from home is very lonely. Make sure you get out to things: openings, crafts shows you are not in, events held by shops like mine (we do the occasional artist meet and greet).
- Keep in touch with your industry. Know what is going on and who is who.
- Keep in touch with your customers. See my first point if you think it takes money. It doesn’t. (Fbook, Twitter, blogging…) It just takes time.
- Find a time management style that works for you. Remember all those hats? Well even if we don’t like our accounting hat or our marketing hat, we gotta put ’em on. Find a way to work in the things that have to get done with the things you like getting done. (It is hard. I struggle with that regularily.)
- Finally, do what you gotta do so you can do what you love to do. When I began simply C I jumped in two feet first thinking I would be able to support myself right away. It didn’t (doesn’t) work that way. And it doesn’t work that way in a physical shop either. If you have a day job – figure a way you might be able to do your creating while keeping a stable pay cheque coming in. Think outside the box: job sharing, part time work, consulting, contract work.
What are your plans for Love, Me in the future? Do you have anything new & exciting in the works?
Well I am always planning and plotting. I just came out of a hard year of a second new baby and a bunch of hard kicks personally and at the shop. So I am planning a healthy year of getting myself back into life. And with that comes my desire to have a bit of fun. We have more trunk shows planned, workshops, get togethers, more great cool product…. I definitely have a map of where I want to take Love, Me and in my mind it is beautiful and fun and very creative and inspiring. See you there!
You can visit Love, Me in person at 1539 Birmingham Street, Halifax, Nova Scotia on the web at www.lovemeboutique.ca and connect with Chara & her fabulous store on Facebook and Twitter @lovemeboutique