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Artisans Guild Flourishing in Revived Downtown

 

By Ruth Melville

When the Artisans Guild decided to close its doors in January 2008, after 17 years in operation, it was a sad day for craft lovers and gift buyers in Norfolk. But now, almost 10 years later, the Artisans Guild is not just back in business but thriving, under the ownership of Virginia “Vee” Kausel and Kathy Williams.

After the store closed, the group of artisans who had run it as a cooperative stayed together as a group, holding annual shows at the home of Eve and John Thew. In 2011, however, they got a call from Bob Pallone to tell them there was a space available for them in the Royal Arcanum Building if they wanted it. Several of the artists went to take a look at the space and thought it was wonderful. “It really got us excited about reopening,” Williams says.

But they had no funds and no furnishings. Kausel and Williams decided to become partners, and together they were able to put up the funds to reopen. They got most of their furnishings from Williams’s husband’s antique store.

When they first reopened, the two owners had to scout out artisans at art and craft fairs, but now they have more people offering them handmade items than they can accommodate in their small space. They like to have a mix of wares on the shelves: pottery, jewelry, prints, hand-knit and handwoven textiles, dyed yarn and woodwork.

The front walls are reserved for rotating exhibits, which are changed every two months. For October and November, the artist is Judith Secco, a local photographer. “Traditionally, photography has not done so well in the store,” Williams says, “but Judith’s work has.”

In its current incarnation, the Artisans Guild is run not as a cooperative but as a straightforward retail store. Artisans can rent a space in the store for a year, in which case they pay a 10 percent commission on their sales. Artisans who simply sell at the store, with no annual commitment, pay 40 percent. They are not required to work hours in the store, although some do, and they get credit toward their rent. Kausel and Williams don’t take a salary; they just hope to have a small profit at the end of the year.

Last year, business was so quiet that they were thinking of closing the store. But they decided to hold on a bit, hoping that the opening of the Berkshire Country Store and other improvements planned for downtown would help.

And they’re very glad they did. “The amount of work put into downtown has really paid off for us,” Williams says. “I used to think of downtown as sad, but the turnaround is tremendous. More people are walking around, and there’s a feeling of pride. There are more people out walking their dogs, or sitting by the fountain.”

She credits especially the opening of the store, the success of Weekend in Norfolk and the Community Association’s planting of flowers around town. “Once City Meadow gets finished,” she adds, “that should add a whole new dimension.” The Artisans Guild itself deserves credit for bringing more people into town: the store worked with the Economic Development Commission to organize last month’s NorFest.

“We’re very happy with how things are going for us now,” Williams says. “August was phenomenal. We had strong sales all through the month, and September was the best September we’ve had since we opened.”

Looking ahead, Williams notes that the store faces some challenges. The Arcanum Building is for sale, and the shop’s rent has just gone up. The Artisans Guild, like all businesses, also needs to keep building a new customer base as some of their old loyal customers fade away.

Overall, though, Williams feels very positive about the winter season, especially with the WINter Weekend in Norfolk coming in February. “We should do fine this winter,” she says with a smile.

Artisans Guild’s hours are Wednesday to Saturday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., and Sunday, 12 to 4 p.m.

Photo by Bruce Frisch: Karen Linden, a painter and a longtime member of the Artisans Guild, is one of the artisans who take turns minding the shop.

 

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