Gemini Handmade Expands to Collaborate with Community

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Gemini Handmade's new store provides greater retail space.
Gemini Handmade's new store provides greater retail space.

This past June, Parliament the Boutique rebranded as Gemini Handmade after five years on the South Division Avenue for the Arts corridor. Now, the local artisan-based shop has made another big move—to 963 Cherry St. SE.

“My husband and I, being both leather makers, began to amass more and more machinery until the time we left, we had leather up to our ears,” Elyse Marie Welcher, co-owner of Gemini Handmade, said about the shop’s need for a larger space.

After hearing news of future construction on South Division last year, Welcher and her husband/co-owner, Jacob Vroon, decided it was the right time to look for a location with more square footage. Wanting to move to a lively and walkable shopping community, the leather-making couple searched around Grand Rapids for a place that could host not only enough studio space but also a retail storefront. On September 19, the couple finally found what they had been looking for on Cherry Street.

Little did they know, they had stumbled upon a building with historic significance. Underneath the drywall, they uncovered a glass-paned window from when the space was a gas station and fish murals from when it later housed Superior Fisheries. After some investigating, Gemini Handmade learned who was behind these interesting fish images.

Artwork by Paul Collins was unearthed when the drywall was removed.
Artwork by Paul Collins was unearthed when the dry wall was removed.

“One of the artists in our shop reached out to the Grand Rapids City Archives to find out the history of the building,” Vroon said. “It turns out, the murals were done by Paul Collins, a well-known artist from West Michigan. Superior Fisheries hired him in 1952, when he had a mural and graphics company in his early career, to adorn the front of the space. It’s been buried under the drywall all this time.”

With 2,400 square feet of property for both a storefront and studio workshop, the new location will not only allow Welcher and Vroon to make their handcrafted leather-goods on site but also expand their reach to other local artists.

“Previously we were hosting and vending the work of about 10-12 local artists. Now we’re up to over 30,” Welcher said. “We call ourselves, ‘a crossroad for makers and their community.’ In our space, we’re always trying to encourage our artists to collaborate with one another, and for people to in the community to really dive into the process and purchase something they will have for a lifetime.”

Welcher points out that because the artists frequent Gemini Handmade, shoppers can form personal connections with the people who make each product. “If you’ve bought something from Gemini Handmade, odds are you met that artist at some point in our shop,” Welcher said.

The store carries work by other community artists, like this handwoven, naturally dyed cowl by Adventure Textiles.
The store carries work by other community artists, like this handwoven, naturally dyed cowl by Adventure Textiles.

As technology makes it easier for individuals to shop online, maintaining these relationships with fellow artists and community members is vital for Welcher and Vroon. Welcher wants Gemini Handmade to be a place where the experience of buying the product is almost as satisfying as the item itself.

“As the world shifts, we see so much more retail going online,” Welcher said. “Retail, as we know it, is changing dramatically, and so for us, we’re providing a space where you can have a tactile experience with our goods. You’re not ordering online and having it be a total guess of what that leather is going to feel like or what that color is going to be when it finally comes in the mail.”

Welcher adds that having this tactile experience with retail is not the only benefit of local shopping. She says by purchasing goods from craftsmen and artisans in the community, it allows individuals to grasp a better understanding of where products are coming from and how they are made.

It is important to Gemini Handmade that people can see and feel the products.
It is important to Gemini Handmade that people can see and feel the products.

“It’s a far more ethical way of making things. You’re talking about artists and designers who are sourcing their materials to be ethically produced. They, themselves, are making a fair living wage. We’re talking about things being produced within a reasonable space. It’s not a sweatshop or a dangerous factory overseas,” Welcher said.

According to Local First, when an individual spends $100 at a local business, $68 stays in the community. Whereas if a person spends the same amount at a non-local business, only $43 remains in the community. Welcher stresses that this not only empowers the local economy, but it also continues the education of artistic traditions.

“When you purchase something handcrafted, you are not only supporting a dream and creative passion, but you’re also keeping that money within the community,” Welcher said. “It’s also important that we’re not losing these crafts and skills that otherwise, if nobody is doing them, they don’t get taught anymore.”

To educate the community on artistic practices and cultivate talent, Gemini Handmade will hold a series of workshops throughout 2019, including how to make a leather wallet and how to build your own moccasin.

For more information, visit Gemini Handmade’s website.

*Photos courtesy of Gemini Handmade

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