By Patty LaNoue Stearns and Tom Tracey • Photo by Brian Confer
In the depths of the recession last October, Rick Paid was rollerblading down Traverse City's Front Street and saw a prime retail spot with huge windows and vast floor space about to go empty. With his own business, Rare Earth Hardwoods, in an unusual slump after 25 years, Paid needed something to do – and he was ready to take a gamble.
"When I get an idea, I do it," says Paid, a Traverse City native who at age 16 and 110 pounds convinced his parents he could handle a cross-country tour on his 1947 Harley-Davidson Knucklehead that weighed 700 pounds. And a guy who, without any formal business training, started up Rare Earth, an exotic hardwood lumber and timber-frame business that included his own 2,000-acre patch of sustainable Brazilian rainforest and 80 employees.
But as the 56-year-old Paid recounts, "the last three years have been brutal." Caught up in the double whammy of the banking and building crises, Rare Earth was down to 11 employees. "I went from being extremely busy to a guy with a lot of time on his hands." He had made some furniture pieces and thought, "What do I do with them? Why not start a co-op?'" So he called every woodworker he knew, set up a meeting at Rare Earth in Long Lake Township, and made his pitch: What about the space he saw downtown in the old Stewart-Zacks building?
Their interest was great, but their concerns were even greater. The monthly rent was high. Nobody was feeling flush. The idea of a furniture co-op had been bandied about a couple times before, but fizzled before even a name was decided.
"People can overthink an idea," he says, "but for me, when I want something, I want it now. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't."
Several meetings, much discussion and three months later, Paid and a core group of 10 artisans who put up seed money and countless hours of sweat equity had completely transformed the historic, brick-walled, planked-floor space into something more SOHO than T.C., with deep-gray walls, track lighting and enough fine handcrafted furniture and mixed-media art to fill this generous downtown gallery space -- most of it from many of the Grand Traverse region's nationally recognized artists.
With a temporary sign in the window and a slick closed-loop video presentation of members' work streaming from a kiosk in the rear, the Artisan Design Network (ADN) with just 16 members held a soft opening in January. It was a risk, everyone agreed, especially for Paid, whose signature is on the $60k annual lease, and whose persona defies the button-down image of a downtown businessman with his hippie hair and penchant for extreme sports like kite surfing, snowboarding and rollerblading.
Paid, who grew up on the corner of Front and Division where a bank now stands, says his wild hair "represents what's going on inside my brain." George Powell was one of the first people Paid approached with the co-op idea. "I've been involved in co-operatives for many years, so I know a little something about assembling one." says Powell, a Suttons Bay boat builder, photographer, computer whiz and now president of the Artisan Design Network board. And, he adds: "Rick Paid is a very clever seat-of-the-pants entrepreneur."
Larry Fox, one of the original organizers of the popular Leelanau Furniture Show that ran for many years in the fall, agrees with Powell's assessment: "When he gets an idea, he goes for it." Now Fox, as well as his wife, artist Martha Eldridge, are members -- as are most of the former Leelanau Furniture Show exhibitors. Unlike private galleries that represent a handful of artists and charge 40 to 50 percent commission on sales, ADN members pay a 10 percent gallery commission, $50 monthly membership fee and $5 per-square-foot rental charge. A $5,000 sale at the co-op could net thousands more than a conventional gallery.
Of course, a co-op also means volunteering time to staff the gallery. In return, members' portfolios are displayed along with their streaming catalog on the gallery kiosk, exposing their work to visiting design professionals. A new website, when fully operational, will allow for international marketing.
Interest is already huge. Since its opening, Paid says thousands of people have come through this 3,000-square-foot gallery, about 70 percent from out of town. Several shows have been tied in with other evening events downtown, and sales have grown enough to keep members enthused.
"We have 54 members now," Paid says. "The first 10 will be glad they joined, because we are pretty close to being full. It was those 10 volunteers that worked their butts off to make this happen."
Sleek geometric displays dappled by light create a meandering path throughout the gallery, half of which is rentable space. Members Fox and Traverse City painter Nancy Crisp teamed up to create a subdued atmosphere that, according to Fox, "really shows off the works, unifies the space and makes the art pop, especially the paintings."
Visitors will find no jewelry or souvenir trinkets here; rather, the focus is on original fine art and handmade furnishings for the home, each piece juried in by a member committee comprised of Fox, Crisp, woodworker Gary Cheadle and mixed-media sculptor Rufus Snoddy, both of Suttons Bay, and Leelanau County designer Anne Noble. Modern paintings and sculptures mingle with one-of-a-kind furnishings – ceramics, tables, chairs, dining sets, benches -- and price tags of $100 to $10,000.
Aside from the well-established Sawbridge Studios in Chicago, there is nothing like it in the Midwest. Which clearly delights the man who signed that bottom line on the lease.
"This little venture has got legs. It's a bright spot in my life."
The gallery: 118 E. Front St., 231-935-1955.
This story appeared in the July 27, 2010 issue of Northwest Michigan's Second Wave.