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Strength in Numbers

By Kailey Houle

Andrea Marion

Andrea Marion says she’s surrounded by ‘bad-ass,’ powerful women at the Mill District.

Before the pandemic, Andréa Marion worked in the nonprofit world.

As it was for countless others, COVID became a period of reflection for her, a time to determine what was really important.

“I wasn’t happy and wanted a change,” she recalled. “I loved what I did, I loved working with and helping people, but I just knew it was time to see what else was out there and see what I can do. I have always loved fashion. I’ve always been into clothing, and style, and what it means to someone and how we represent ourselves with clothing.”

She took this passion for fashion, started a clothing boutique, and eventually took this fledgling venture to one of the pop-up events at the Mill District in North Amherst, where she hosted a table. Two months later, she is a far more permanent fixture at this home to a diverse mix of businesses, many of them owned and operated by women, including the mill itself, which was created by Cinda Jones, president of WD Cowls Inc., a winner of BusinessWest’s Forty Under 40, Alumni Achievement, and Top Entrepreneur awards.

“Being a woman in business at the Mill District has been very empowering.”

And Marion is rejoicing in both her success and business address.

“Being a woman in business at the Mill District has been very empowering,” said Marion, who sells mostly women’s clothing, but is hoping to expand her business to include male and non-binary clothing as well. “I have been a woman in business where I have been the only woman in the room, and that can be very lonely and tough. At the Mill District, I’m surrounded by so many bad-ass, powerful women and I feel like I’m at home. It sounds corny, but it’s so true. I couldn’t have picked a better spot.”

Marion is one of many who expressed similar sentiments — about both bad-ass, powerful women at the Mill District, and how that location has become a source of pride, inspiration, and a growing list of success stories. And about how much they like being part of all that.

Jessica Lavallee owns a Graze Craze location in North Amherst, a charcuterie-style takeout and delivery store that offers catering for events of all sizes. It was founded by a female Air Force veteran in Oklahoma, who recently franchised her stores through the United Franchise Group. The Amherst store is the first franchise in the Northeast, with the closest store to the North Amherst location being in Tennessee.

Lavallee is always looking for a new challenge and opportunities to give back to the community. “One of my favorite things to do is to entertain, and I love the concept of grazing; charcuterie boards fit into that perfectly,” she explained. “As a woman business owner, this gave me the opportunity to have a corporation for support, but make things my own at the same time. It gave me the opportunity to start a business in the food industry, which has always been something I have wanted to do.

For this issue, BusinessWest talked to several business owners and managers at the Mill District. Collectively, they touched on how they manage to inspire each other, but also about the many challenges and hurdles facing women in business today.

Location, Location, Location

Because women are the natural caregivers for their children, society often forgets that they are a person outside of motherhood. Once their children are graduated and out of the house, the mother often starts experiencing empty-nest syndrome. Another individual who works at the Mill District decided she wasn’t going to be that woman.

Kayla Diggins says she’s proud to be role model to young girls.

Kayla Diggins says she’s proud to be a role model to young girls.

Shannon Borrell is the store conductor of the General Store and Local Art Gallery in the Mill District. She explained that her job allows her to do many things around the store, such as a managerial role, building customer relations, putting up posts on social media, and event production for the art gallery.

The store has the nostalgic feel of an old-time general store. It sells a variety of items: household goods, gardening supplies, baking goods, children’s toys, art supplies, bulk candy by the pound, and more. The art gallery showcases art made by people within an hour of the store. Anyone that is interested can submit an online application, and once their work is approved, they can rent space by the linear foot. Artists keep 80% of the commissions, and the remaining 20% of the proceeds go back into the general store for classes that artists are interested in.

Borrell feels that now is the right time to focus on herself.

“I want to do something meaningful,” she said. “If you told me I was going to be working in retail and how you define that experience, I wouldn’t say that that was what I was doing. This space is more about creating community and bringing people together. It’s like retail with a mission — it’s art with an interest in community and getting people involved and an opportunity for more activity in this area.”

She said that working in the General Store and art gallery has challenged her in ways her previous vocation didn’t. As a para-educator, she wasn’t able to push the limit, as she called it. “There are no limitations in events or classes that the store wants to have, or how robust we want them to be.”

Another woman at the Mill District who is pushing the limits is Kayla Diggins. She owns an online clothing boutique named Harper James, selling women’s clothing, accessories, jewelry, and handbags.

Diggins went to school for fashion merchandising and has wanted to start her own business since her first job in the wholesale side of the fashion industry. Even though COVID-19 hit and she closed her shop for a few years, she felt it was time to reopen her boutique and give it another shot.

“It got to a point where I was thinking if I don’t try to do this now, I could regret this for the rest of my life,” she said. “In the beginning of the year, I hit the ground running — I got everything set up and started up again.”

Since starting her business, Diggins said she feels like she’s found her place in life despite the many ups and downs that are part and parcel to being an entrepreneur. Being in this season of life allows her to not only grow but be a mentor to her younger cousin who is following in her footsteps.

Jessica Lavallee with one of her charcuterie boards.

Jessica Lavallee with one of her charcuterie boards.

“It’s so empowering, and I’m extremely proud to tell people that I own my own business — it brings me a lot of pride, a lot of joy, and it is a really tough thing to do,” she said. “It has its ups and downs, but to be able to push forward and set new examples and standards is really exciting. My cousin is kind of in awe of what I’m doing. Being able to set that example and be a role model for someone that is younger and going through the same process means the world to me.”

Shauna Wallace, project manager for Cowls Building Supply and the Mill District General Store, and interim manager of the latter, also feels empowered in her position. Before coming to North Amherst, she worked for a construction company as the project manager and was one of the few women on the payroll.

“This is a wonderful opportunity for me because traditionally coming from the building and lumber industry, I didn’t get that,” she said, referring to the opportunity to work with, learn from, and become inspired by other women. “Now I am, and it is truly a gift to interact with so many wonderful women in the Mill District. It’s been a wonderful past year to be in a position of leadership and to be able to influence the culture of the store and the women I work with.”

“The most difficult piece is getting people to take you seriously. Often when people approach me about my business, I start talking about numbers and research or all of the effort I’ve put in to make this a successful venture.”

Alysia Bryant is starting her first business at the Mill District. Carefree Cakery is a bakery that focuses on taking care of people. All the ingredients used are fair trade, and all employees are paid a living wage. She started in the healthcare field before learning it wasn’t for her.

“I shifted my focus to ‘how can I use the skills that I have in order to help people?’” she said, “And that’s how I ended up here. I’ve always loved baking; I’ve always been good at making things, so I switched my major to business in college. I’ve truly built my life around this.”

While she enjoys working for herself and takes pride in her accomplishments, she acknowledged that it is “exhausting to be a woman in business.” Bryant just turned 28 and said she feels the need to prove herself to others when explaining she’s a business owner.

“The most difficult piece is getting people to take you seriously,” she said. “Often when people approach me about my business, I start talking about numbers and research or all of the effort I’ve put in to make this a successful venture.”

Progress Report

Bryant’s story reflects those of all the women we spoke to at the Mill District, as well as the other women business owners there, including Kim Rodrigo and Courtney D’Antonio, owners of the Lift Salon, and Mary Ellen Liacos, who owns Balanced Birch Studio.

Collectively, they speak of the desire to seek new challenges and to also find the strength and perseverance to overcome adversity.

They also speak to how there is now strength in numbers at this destination — not just in the number of “bad-ass women,” but also in the number of success stories they’re writing.

Special Coverage Women in Businesss

Crafting Connections

Hannah Rechtschaffen, director of placemaking for the Mill District and manager of Hannah’s Local Art Gallery.

Hannah Rechtschaffen, director of placemaking for the Mill District and manager of Hannah’s Local Art Gallery.

When Hannah Rechtschaffen set about to open an art gallery in Amherst’s Mill District, she didn’t envision a static space; instead, her goal was to develop a vibrant, eclectic, multi-media gallery that not only focused on local artists, but forged connections between them and the public through workshops, classes, events, and even the everyday conversations that bring to life the stories and history behind each artist and each piece. A couple weeks after the gallery’s opening, she’s optimistic those creative collisions are already happening.

 

Anika Lopes’ roots in Amherst go back six generations, so the town is special to her. But as a milliner — an artist who designs and creates hats — she has made her name in galleries and boutiques in much larger cities, especially New York.

Now, as the highlighted artist for the recent grand opening of Hannah’s Local Art Gallery in Amherst’s Mill District, she feels like she’s come full circle.

“This is the first time I’ve shown in Amherst,” she told BusinessWest. “I never thought I would be showing here, and it’s been wonderful how it’s been received — and it’s a way to give back to the community and encourage artists, especially local artists, that there is a scene and a space for everything.”

“I never thought I would be showing here, and it’s been wonderful how it’s been received — and it’s a way to give back to the community and encourage artists, especially local artists, that there is a scene and a space for everything.”

The Hannah in the gallery name is Hannah Rechtschaffen, director of placemaking at the Mill District, who launched a gallery after Cinda Jones, the ninth-generation owner of the property, asked her to. But Rechtschaffen infused that task with her own vision for an eclectic, multi-media collection of rotating artists (21 are on display now, hailing from 13 different towns, with some being replaced every quarter), but also a space-rental model that continually reinvests in bringing more exposure to the artists (more on that in a bit).

“Every three months, some of the artists will turn over, so there will always be something fresh, and there will also be some carryover,” she said. “I want people to feel good knowing they’ll come back in here and see new stuff. That’s a really crucial part.”

Also rotating will be the front window space, with which the gallery will highlight a certain artist. For the opening weeks, that’s Lopes, who was on hand to celebrate the gallery’s opening on June 19.

Anika Lopes with the front-window display of her millinery art.

Anika Lopes with the front-window display of her millinery art.

“In conjunction with Juneteenth, we wanted to make sure we were highlighting a local artist of color, and Anika’s work with the hats … gives us an opportunity to kind of push the boundary a little bit on what art is,” Rechtschaffen said of the front window space. “We can also have historic installations there, or we can do installations of artists who aren’t local, but maybe they’re doing work you can’t find locally, and we want to highlight it.”

History is important to Lopes, whose display at the gallery includes not only her hats, but original hat blocks created by one of first black men to have a millinery factory in the garment district of New York City — which she uses to hand-block her hat designs, which she then hand-sews.

“There’s a lot of history here, and it’s been amazing to merge this [artwork] with Amherst history as part of the Juneteenth celebration,” Lopes said. “It was just a wonderful opportunity to celebrate Amherst and what’s going on here at the Mill District, which was, in itself, such a pleasant surprise to see and experience. It’s an inspiration for where Amherst can go.”

As for the rental model, Rechtschaffen charges $20 per linear foot per month for wall space, which gives the artist use of the entire wall, floor to ceiling. She also takes a 20% commission on any art sales, all of which cycles back into the gallery for marketing, events, classes, and anything that brings more people in to see the work.

“Right from the start, they felt they were buying into something that was bigger than just their small space. It’s the connection, it’s the lifeline, it’s learning new things that are going to enhance their business.”

“That’s the idea — the commission isn’t just flying out of the artist’s pocket; it’s going right back into running the engine of the business side,” she said, noting that she modeled it after Woolworth Walk, a much larger gallery in Asheville, N.C., which features 230 booths in a former Woolworth’s store.

“In charging a little bit of rent, you create this ownership that artists have of the space. I want to overhear an artist say, ‘oh, I want to show you my gallery.’ I know that I’m doing it right when they have that connection to it,” she explained.

“I wasn’t sure it would translate, and especially coming out of COVID, I felt so self-conscious about putting the model out there, to charge them money up front, even if it was a low rent,” she went on. “I’m an artist; I know how hard it is. But no one batted a eye. Right from the start, they felt they were buying into something that was bigger than just their small space. It’s the connection, it’s the lifeline, it’s learning new things that are going to enhance their business.”

 

Art of the Matter

One of Rechtschaffen’s goals was to highlight a wide variety of art, and she’s done that, with the first 21 exhibitors — all but a couple of them women — working in media ranging from paint to felt to polymer clay. True to its name, the gallery aims to draw from local artists, meaning those living within a one-hour radius.

“We want to connect anyone coming to the Mill District with the wealth of art and artists in the area because it’s crazy how many artists are living right around here,” she said.

In addition, “it was really important to me to have both emerging and established artists sharing the space. For some of these people, it’s their full-time job, they’re artists, it’s what they do. And for some people, it’s very much on the side of what they do; maybe they want to make it a larger part of their livelihood, or maybe they’re retired and they’re just doing it because it’s a passion.”

Showing those works side by side forges connections between artists and their various media — and so does a large gathering table toward the front of the gallery, which will host classes, workshops, and “conversations” between artists and the public.

Ruth Levine says Hannah’s Local Art Gallery gave her a chance to move her jewelry from her garage into public view.

Ruth Levine says Hannah’s Local Art Gallery gave her a chance to move her jewelry from her garage into public view.

Rechtschaffen related a conversation with one of the exhibitors, Maxine Oland, a well-known local artist who operates an Etsy page.

“I was like, ‘oh, would you be open to teaching a class called Should I Bother Having an Etsy Page?’” she recalled. “Because it’s a lot of work, and you’ve got to keep it up, and there’s a cost involved. I get artists all the time saying, ‘should I bother? Is it worth it?’ What better way to have that conversation than with an artist who’s going to be honest and say, ‘well, for me it’s been worth it, and I sell X amount a month, and here’s the process.’

“So those kinds of classes and pop-up conversations can happen with emerging and established artists, and those who don’t consider themselves artists, coming and listening and learning from each other,” she went on.

Lopes sees great value in the gallery’s focus on connection, calling it a “lifeline for artists.”

“As I’ve been able to see the space and the artists coming in here, especially at this time, where people are coming out of COVID, where everyone in the arts has been affected, it’s really a place that has inspired artists,” she said. “I think it’s building confidence within artists and giving people hope.”

Rechtschaffen said the Mill District itself is intended to be a place that tells a story and builds community, which is why Jones felt an art gallery would be a strong component to begin with.

“Every artist in here has a story behind why they make the art they make, why it’s important to them,” Rechtschaffen told BusinessWest. “I can point to any one of them and tell you the backstory, and it just adds to why someone would connect with a piece and then decide to take it home.”

Stories like Susan Roylance, a longtime woodworker who, one day, carved a face and wasn’t sure what to do with it. She put it aside, but then got inspired by it, and started working in both wood and felt to sculpt whimsical characters. “I feel like every one of those sculptures is a children’s book waiting to happen,” Rechtschaffen said.

Or Dana Volungis, who worked for 24 years for Yankee Candle, got laid off during the pandemic, and started painting … only 10 months ago; her oceanside landscapes and other work belie that short gestation period. “Ten months!” Rechtschaffen said. “I didn’t even realize that when she submitted her application.”

Or Ruth Levine, who makes metal clay jewelry, but set it aside for a time to focus on being a parent and grandparent. “Now here she is,” Rechtschaffen said. “She was so empowered when she was setting her space up, saying, ‘I remember how this feels; this is great.’ She said to me, ‘if you hadn’t opened this gallery, this stuff would still be in my garage.’ I said, ‘you just validated everything for me, because I’m so glad this is not in your garage.’”

Visitors to the gallery, then, aren’t just seeing art, Lopes said. They’re connecting with history — the history of the area and the people who create art here — and maybe take a piece of that history home.

 

Animal Attraction

To add a bit of childlike fun to the gallery, Rechtschaffen commissioned Ivy Mabius, a close friend of Jones and a mural artist, to create a jungle-themed bathroom, complete with large, colorfully painted sculptures of an elephant and a giraffe. “Already, kids who see it don’t want to leave. It’s such an attraction. Kids — and adults — are going to want to come and use the bathroom.”

The general store that adjoins the gallery also features a unique bathroom — this one with one-sided glass, so users have a full view of the sidewalk and parking lot outside. But eclectic bathrooms aren’t the only connection between the two spaces. Rechtschaffen can see a time when artists who have displayed in the gallery find a space in the store to sell their crafts.

Ivy Mabius designed a whimsical, jungle-themed bathroom at the gallery.

Ivy Mabius designed a whimsical, jungle-themed bathroom at the gallery.

Again, it comes back to making connections and offering a wide range of exposure to local art. The front table can also be used as a co-working space, or just a spot to hang out, she added.

“This is really meant to be something people can access all the time, however they need to. The goal is for people to see great art and great work,” she went on, noting that a master cabinet maker from Cowls Building Supply built all the gallery’s walls, shelving, and fixtures on wheels, so the configuration of the gallery can be changed. Artists who want to apply to rent space may do so at bit.ly/HannahsGalleryApplication.

Rechtschaffen also envisions sharing art outside the gallery at pop-up displays, art fairs, holiday events, and other gatherings — again, with the goal of connecting local art to as many people as possible. And they’re hungry for it, she added, like one woman who came to the gallery opening and said it was her first social event in a long time.

“She was like, ‘I’m good, I’m good; this is helping.’ It’s not just about getting people back out there; for business owners and people creating these events, we have a responsibility — if we’re inviting someone into a space, we need to be mindful of what that space feels like, that it feels comfortable. I take that very seriously, creating a space like this where people can come enjoy themselves.”

As people emerge from COVID isolation, Lopes said, one positive is that many have learned a lot about themselves, and that’s especially true for artists, who can now move forward with new understanding and new vulnerability — and a new audience at the Mill District.

“We are into telling stories and making sure people get to see art,” Rechtschaffen said, “but also learn something about their community.”

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]m

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