Handmade Kalamazoo is a newly established store located downtown on the Kalamazoo Mall. The store was created to provide a place for local Kalamazoo artists to sell their work. Melissa Al-Azzawi, the designer and photographer who came up with the idea, co-founded the store with her partner, Bailey Mead, in November of last year. She calls the artists ‘makers’ because the work they create and collect crosses a multitude of mediums. The store carries everything including jewelry, prints, paintings, photography and music, to soaps, candles, antiques and clothing. Al-Azzawi also wanted to be clear that she and Mead were not founding a gallery full of expensive, thus often unattainable artworks; instead they were creating a place for local artisans to gather and sell their beautiful handcrafted goods, most of which are incredibly affordable in price, to local residents.
How did the idea come about? Al-Azzawi has long been passionate about art, design and photography. A few years back she spent several months hitchhiking across Central America immersing herself in different cultures and experiences, chronicling her journey in photographs. The portfolio she developed during her travels landed her a spot at Kendall College of Art and Design in Grand Rapids. It did not take long for Al-Azzawi to realize that her pictures, in general, from her trip and beyond, were growing in popularity among friends and family. People would call and ask if they could buy a print for a wedding or birthday, and she was happy to oblige and thrilled to have supporters. She realized though, that much of Kalamazoo was unaware of the art she was creating. She also knew there were many talented artists in area that also lacked a simple, surefire way to share their creations with the community. Thus, she began to formulate a plan to promote, market and sell the works of Kalamazoo artists.
Al-Azzawi knew that there were already businesses in Kalamazoo that sold products created by Michigan artists, but she had something different in mind.
“I wanted to do something based on brand, a specific message to a specific audience,” explained Melissa. “I wanted to really hit home with folks who wanted to support local, so I created a brand that had that message: Handmade Kalamazoo.”
She and Mead then took the idea to a Changemaker grant workshop hosted by the Kalamazoo Community Foundation in the fall of 2012. It was a daylong workshop that helped them figure out the best way to actually put their idea into motion. Al-Azzawi and Mead were each awarded $250 dollars to help them launch Handmade Kalamazoo. They used the money to gather needed materials, develop marketing and promotional items, and pull together the artists. They wanted to get enough people together to really make an impact right out of the gate.
The grant they were awarded required them to have a fiduciary, to develop a relationship with another local nonprofit who the Kalamazoo Community Foundation would write the check to. The team decided to partner with the Vine Neighborhood Association, the organization responsible for keeping one of Kalamazoo’s oldest neighborhoods, “vibrant and connected.” The Vine Neighborhood Association offered to lend the start-up group half of their office space to establish a storefront. Thankful for the opportunity, Mead and Al-Azzawi quickly got to work and set up shop. They began with twelve makers and sold origami earrings, quilts, t-shirts, ceramics, music, stuffed animals, hats and more.
After a very successful November the two decided to continue on with the idea of a “pop-up store”. It was something they had heard about before, but had never really seen in Kalamazoo. Essentially, this meant that they would utilize vacant space in the community, “popping up” in short-term leases, hopefully at a discounted price if the facility had been unoccupied for some time, and run their store. They moved into a spot downtown for a bit, before opening up at the place they are currently in. They have plans to stay where they are at through December 23 of this year. Al-Azzawi and Mead hope to find a permanent spot in the future, but will continue popping up until then. They now have 25 makers!
The message behind the store is an important one. Handmade Kalamazoo is a store created by two innovative community members, fueled by local artisans and sustained by local residents through their support. The store promotes community. It is brotherly love at its finest. Al-Azzawi shares this idea through a Facebook marketing strategy she created. She takes photographs of Kalamazoo residents wearing the products sold in the store and talks with them about what it is they love about their home and Michigan. She posts the photos and responses on their Facebook page. It is a powerful campaign.
“It makes people, I think, feel like their apart of something, because they are. I think that’s what really drives us, you know? We are all in this together,” said Al-Azzawi, “100% of the money spent at Handmade Kalamazoo stays in this community. That is why our tagline is, ‘because we are neighbors’.”
Al-Azzawi then references the Kalamazoo Promise, a program funded by a group of anonymous donors in the area, which encourages students to succeed in school by offering to pay up to 100 percent of their tuition at any Michigan college or university after graduation from any public high school in Kalamazoo County. She reiterates, “We are all in this together… These types of programs are in place to help build up our community.”
Al-Azzawi and Mead love Kalamazoo and Michigan. They both wanted to contribute something positive to the place they call home. When shoppers come into the store, they are able to tell them about each artist, who they are, where they are from and what they do.
“It is not just a cup. It is not just a bag. It is not just a sweater,” Al-Azzawi notes. “It is something more than that. It is someone that you know and it is part of a community that you want to be involved in. That is what makes it so special. That is what makes Kalamazoo so great.”
Al-Azzawi believes that Handmade Kalamazoo has been successful thus far because of the encouraging and supportive nature of the city and its residents: “If it wasn’t for the way Kalamazoo already was, and the mentality that the people in this community already have, Handmade Kalamazoo would not thrive like it has been… When people come into the store they are really excited about it.”
Mead explained that the two are trying to create a model that demonstrates how beneficial backing and buying local can be. Investing in your neighbor promotes prosperity here and now. The choices people make regarding goods and services are important. It’s time to reconsider purchasing everything made overseas. The “makers” at Handmade Kalamazoo are passionate about what they do and it is great to recognize their talents and show them that they are valued by those around them. Mead explains that the collective they have forged has become a, “[true] democracy of artists,” and she is happy to be able to help bring that together and be a part of it.
One of the makers, Lillie Wolff, notes, “Working with Handmade Kalamazoo is a nourishing and inspiring collaboration. It feels great to be a part of (contributing to and benefiting from) their vision of creating a sustainable and local marketplace of unique hand-crafted wares to the residents of Kalamazoo.” She adds, “As an artist, it is wonderful to share my work at their store, knowing that like mine, every piece of work was made here and all sales go to directly support the artists and the overall vision…. I feel blessed to work with Missy and Bailey and their brilliant community-based business, Handmade Kalamazoo.”
Handmade Kalamazoo is decked out with many great local products as we speak. It is a fantastic place to stop for unique Christmas or birthday gifts. Pay them a visit at 300 S. Burdick St. on the Kalamazoo Mall. They will welcome you with open arms and will be thrilled to tell you more about all of the amazing things that they are doing! You can also purchase Kalamazoo and Michigan themed shirts online at handmadekalamazoo.com.
– By Lindsey Hinkel, Contributing Writer