Robyn Marriott has spent nearly a decade honing the art of fusing glass to make plates, jewelry and other glassware. Several years ago it was just a hobby, but she wondered if tourists would buy her products.
So one day she packed her glassware and nervously ventured into the downtown business district, peddling her goods to merchants. It is not a fond memory.
"It was scary and it was kind of disheartening when you got turned away or told the store doesn't carry glass products ... when you look around and all you see are glass products," Marriott said. "It wasn't what I would call the most enjoyable experience."
Marriott made some sales but eventually tired of the local wholesale market and joined a downtown artists' cooperative - one of several options open to people who want to sell to tourists.
No one has published a guide for novices on how to tap Juneau's lucrative tourism market, but merchants and artists have some advice. The Empire recently contacted some veterans in the business, who shared their experiences.
Selling through retailers
People generally hook into the market by joining the artists' co-op, or selling through retailers - either selling directly to merchants or displaying items on consignment. A few artists also have opened their own shops.
Some of the artists contacted by the Empire preferred selling directly to merchants, even though it's not always easy. Potter Tom Meyer made his first sale in Juneau 20 years ago by knocking on doors until a merchant bought his goods. He still goes store-to-store today.
"You just walk around and ask people if they want to buy things, and show them if they're interested ... if they're not, they figure some way to tell you no," said Meyer, who has his pots in three stores. "I find it awkward. I don't like to do it."
Kurt Tripp, a 24-year veteran, markets soapstone carvings the same way.
"You just have to knock on a lot of doors, and you have to keep an open mind to the market," said Tripp, who sells to six shops. "The people you're trying to sell to they'll tell you whether it's a good product with a good price."
Tripp said Alaskans have an edge over artists in the Lower 48 because merchants and tourists want locally made products.
"There aren't really enough locally made objects on the market to satisfy the tourist," he said.
Merchants offered another piece of advice: Don't market mediocre stuff.
"I look for the quality," said Jack Tripp, owner of Mt. Juneau Trading Post, co-owner of Gallery of the North and Kurt Tripp's brother. "The most important thing is that they take their time, and it's a quality product."
"Generally, if someone has something very unusual or very well-made, there's going to be a spot for it in town," said Kathy VanderJack, owner of the Bear's Lair. "All of us downtown are looking for quality, Alaska-made items."
Merchants sometimes reject even top-notch products because the presentation is sloppy. One of the biggest mistakes people make is they neglect the packaging, said VanderJack.
"That is so important because if people walk by and the label looks sloppy or not professional, they walk on by," VanderJack said. "They probably won't pick it up and be interested."
Gallagaskins owner Rod Swope agreed, saying his store likes artists to provide biographies. He also wants to know artists can meet demand if their products prove popular.
"Hopefully, they can promise us they can provide the quantities we'd like to have," Swope said.
Although door-to-door selling works well for some artists, many merchants said they prefer vendors to first contact them by mail or telephone, not in person. Roughly 50 people make appeals to Gallagaskins every year, and the store buys products from only six or seven, said Swope.
"We get so much of that. Not just locally but from all over the state," Swope said. "I would never recommend somebody just walk in."
The owner of the Alaska Peddler agreed, saying she buys most products once a year at the Made In Alaska show in Anchorage or through the mail - not from vendors who drop by.
"I do look at everything that comes through the mail," said owner Lynn Reinwand. "If it's of interest, I will contact them and make arrangements to meet with them. It's much more time-efficient for me to operate that way."
Some merchants like to arrange exclusive agreements with vendors, meaning they will buy the product if the artist sells only to them. Tripp, the soapstone wholesaler, said he avoids those arrangements, adding that merchants usually will back down if they really want the product.
"A lot of people will ask for exclusives but not really get them," said Tripp, who sells several hundred pieces a year. "I don't think that one-store exclusives are conducive to good business. I think that really limits your market."
But VanderJack, of the Bear's Lair, said sometimes she'll pass on a product if the artist declines an exclusive agreement. She is known for stocking unique products and she wants to protect her image, she said.
"Local customers - they like the fact I carry things most people don't have ... when you get that kind of reputation, you want to hang on to it," said VanderJack, noting exclusive arrangements generally are more agreeable to artists who produce in small volumes.
Every merchant contacted said they usually buy products directly, rather than put them on consignment. With consignment, stores display products free of charge but take a percentage of sales. The percentage taken depends on the merchant and the product: Some merchants take 30 percent while others take 60 percent. However, many shop owners and artists said the consignment ratio usually is 40-60, with 40 percent going to the merchant and 60 percent to the artist.
Jack Tripp, owner of Mt. Juneau Trading Post, said it's difficult to make money at 40 percent, and if he likes a product, he prefers to buy it outright. For artist Mick Beasley, former wholesaler turned gallery owner, consignment is usually a lose-lose arrangement because often neither party is satisfied.
"As an artist, you think it's atrocious and as a gallery owner, you want more. It's a never-ending cycle," said Beasley, who quit the local wholesale market in 1999 to open Beasley's Art Gallery on Front Street.
Marriott, the glass artist, said some merchants wanted 60 percent of consignment sales, and for her, it just wasn't profitable.
"There were a couple times where I just bit it in the shorts just to get out there in front of people, but it wasn't something my pocketbook could make a habit of doing," said Marriott, laughing.
For Marriott, the downtown artists' cooperative proved the best place to market her work.
Selling through the co-op
Although the artists' cooperative has been around since 1984, it has gone through several incarnations. Today, it's called the Juneau Artists Gallery and is located in the Senate Building on Franklin Street.
The store is managed by the co-op's 20 members, who pay rent, clean the space and volunteer time as sales clerks. Members pay up to $110 monthly rent, depending on the amount of space they need - plus the co-op takes 10 percent of sales. The store also collects an initial $250 fee, which is partially reimbursed if the artist stays at least a year.
The store displays a range of items, including jewelry, photography, ceramics, quilts and glass. The co-op decides whether to admit new members by looking at their work, then voting. The members look for high-quality items that don't compete too much with other merchandise, said member Charlie Detjen.
"We don't like duplication," said Detjen, an artist who draws elaborate designs on eggshells using melted beeswax and dye. "We don't want five photographers or five potters."
The co-op may be on oasis for artists weary of selling store-to-store. However, all members are required to help with sales. The time commitment varies, but they generally donate roughly 15 to 20 hours a month in summer and 9 to 10 hours a month in winter, depending on the number of members, said Marriott.
That might be a drawback for some people reluctant to take a turn behind a counter. Meyer, the potter, has avoided the retail market because he'd rather deal with merchants than customers.
"I don't have the personality for it," Meyer said. "It's hard work. It takes the right temperament."
For others, the chance to meet customers was incentive to join the co-op.
"You get to meet the tourists and people who are buying your work - I've had sales generated from that as follow-ups," said egg artist Detjen, noting artists keep all profits from sales outside the shop.
"I enjoy meeting people that come here and knowing a piece of your artwork just went to Ireland or Ohio," said co-op member Patti Baumgartner.
Marriott said the co-op is a good choice for artists unable to mass-produce products. Although many merchants and artists told the Empire retailers look for Alaska-made items, that wasn't always the case with glassware, she said. As a wholesaler, Marriott found herself competing against Lower 48 glass companies able to churn out large quantities at lower prices. The co-op is a good venue for her one-of-a-kind pieces, she said. Although the co-op has not been very profitable for Marriott, she stays because she likes the environment.
"There's a real camaraderie there and everyone works together for a common goal," Marriott said. "It's like a big family, and it's worth it to me - even if the checkbook doesn't see as much that way."
Baumgartner, who also produces in smaller quantities, sells nearly everything she makes, but earns only enough to pay her part of the rent, she said. Part of the reason is she swaps some of her stuff for other art.
"I'm a terrible person - I also trade things. I'm into barter," she said, laughing. "I'm art rich."
Kathy Dye may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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