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Magazine

OPEN | Make a Mercantile

OPEN | Make a Mercantile

Grey Fox Felting pop up display. Photo: Erin Gardner

It’s one thing to make beautiful things and sell them on the internet; it’s another to open a brick-and-mortar shop selling those objets d’art.

The first requires guts, a vision, a strategy, and time. The second requires those four plus an exceptional business plan. As lovers and sellers of handmade creations from across the state, we are always thrilled when one of our makers begins the journey from virtual to tangible retail.

When we learned that Erin Gardner, the visionary behind Grey Fox Felting and the creator of indescribably adorable palm-sized barn dwellers, among other gifts of nature, was opening a shop in her home community of New Hartford, we asked her to share her journey with us, in pictures and words.


Below, our Q&A given by Erin in between needle-felting and building out Grey Fox Mercantile.

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New York Makers (NYM): What should the reader know about who you are, and how you came to turn your love of creating into a business?

Erin Gardner (EG): For starters, I'm 35 years old. I grew up in the Catskills, and I spent a lot of time playing outside as a child. I remember being captivated by occurrences in the natural world, particularly the colors, and how they changed not only with the natural rhythm of the season that we experience in the northeast, but also with the time of day and the weather. This is probably why I went on to become a painter. I studied art first at SUNY Potsdam and then went on to earn my MFA in painting from UNC Chapel Hill in North Carolina.

Original artwork by Erin Gardner. Photo: Erin Gardner

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NYM: Many people are creative, but few become artists. Who gave you the courage and inspiration to devote your life to art?

EG: My parents — Stanley and Susan Paroubek — were both great inspirations to me as I grew up. My mother is an artist, and I know that I inherited much of my artistic sensibility and my eagerness to try any creative medium I could get my hands on from her. She is the one who introduced me to painting and drawing, and she often organized craft projects for my sister and me when we were young, using materials from around the house and our backyard. We still enjoy sitting down together to create when time allows. My father taught me to appreciate the natural world. He showed me the moon and the planets through a telescope in our backyard, and he made sure our family vacations included interesting historic sites and museums. When I was in fourth grade, I remember my father took my sister and me out of school so that we could witness a solar eclipse and watch crescents of light dance on white paper.

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NYM: Do you have siblings? If so, are they also makers?

EG: My sister, Heather, was my co-explorer growing up. Together we navigated our backyard and the woods beyond. We searched for fairy castles in the frozen earth and pretended that a small moss-covered mound in the woods with a single tree in its center was an island and made many treks there. While I don’t think she would self-identify as a maker, she is certainly creative. She studied photography early on, and then went on to earn an MA in art history. She is now the Manager of Visitor Engagement at the Thomas Cole National Historic Site in Catskill, NY.

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NYM: When did you turn to needle-felting as an art form?

EG: Needle felting came to me as an adult, rather serendipitously, about 10 years ago. It was after graduate school, and I was living in southern Vermont at the time. One day I stumbled across some needle felting supplies in a small art store. I simply could not believe that with some wool fluff and a special needle, I would supposedly be able to sculpt a three dimensional form. So I picked up some supplies and watched several online tutorials, and began to teach myself this meditative and rewarding craft. I kept up with this form of making, and, though I still love to paint, needle felting has been a wonderful art form to continue with since having children, as it’s very portable and can be picked up and put down very easily.


"WIP" aka work-in-progress by Erin Gardner. Photo: Erin Gardner

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NYM: Is there an artist or movement on which you have tried to model your business?

EG: I’ve noticed a trend of hybrid studio/retail spaces popping up in the last couple of years, and that whole idea really appealed to me. There are so many artists and shop owners I admire, and each for different reasons. I’ve seen artists start these spaces in unique ways that work for them, from artist collectives to individual artists with a space that is split for studio and retail purposes. It is the general idea of inviting the public into a space that is alive with creativity and encouraging engagement, both with the artist(s) and the work that is being produced; it is this idea that I’m modeling my career after.


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NYM: Where do you seek inspiration for the work itself?

EG: I try to get outside often. I love to hike, garden, and stargaze. My inspiration comes from slowing down when I’m outside. Having two small children can at times make the pace of the day seem chaotic; but when we take a walk in the woods or explore the gardens we’ve planted, we will often take turns telling each other what we notice, whether it be a flower that has finally bloomed or wild turkey tracks in the snow.

Original artwork by Erin Gardner. Photo: Erin Gardner

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NYM: Tell me about the mercantile store you're opening: how did you pick the space? Why now? Why a store?

EG: I’ve been running Grey Fox Felting mostly out of my home studio for the past four years, with the exception of teaching occasional workshops and participating in craft shows. I’ve always enjoyed meeting people and sharing what I do, and it’s also very important to me to support the work of other artists and makers. I’ve begun to grow out of my home studio and office, and so opening a physical storefront seemed like the logical progression for my business. When my husband and I found a 700 sq. ft. space just minutes from our home and surrounded by other local businesses, it felt right. I look forward to having a physical presence in my community where I can meet my customers and guests in person, and assist them in finding just the right color of wool for their felting project or selecting the perfect handmade gift for a loved one. I will also host free craft nights for the community, as well as workshops, so that I can share the craft of needle felting with others wanting to learn.

Erin outside of the future Grey Fox Mercantile, 70 Genesee Street, New Hartford, NY. Photo: John Gardner

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NYM: Any partners involved? How does your family feel about the project? Friends? 

EG: My husband, John, is my partner in Grey Fox Mercantile. While Grey Fox Felting has pretty much been a one-woman business, I owe so much to my husband and family because it never would have worked without their support. And when we told our friends and family about our plan to open a store, they were, and are, incredibly supportive and excited for us. The plan for Grey Fox Mercantile is that it be a family-run business from the start. Our mercantile will house Grey Fox Felting, the business I started four years ago, as well as our workshop space, a gallery wall, and a curated selection of artisan-made goods. My husband and I will share a lot of the behind-the-scenes responsibilities, and with his gallery and curatorial experience, he’ll be managing our gallery wall. If you stop in on any given day, I will probably be the one to greet you, most likely alongside at least one of my two daughters!

Erin and John's daughter. Photo: Erin Gardner

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NYM: Are you renting / buying? Are you nervous about making payments?

EG: We are renting our space, and we are optimistic that our community will support our store and our vision. I will also continue to run Grey Fox Felting online, which we expect will help cover the costs of operating our storefront. That being said, our space does need a lot of work up front to help it transform into the beautiful retail and workshop space we envision, so we are launching a funding campaign on Kickstarter.com this week for anyone interested in lending us a hand. And we’re working on some very special gifts we’ll be offering for different levels of participation!

Future Grey Fox Mercantile. Photo: Erin Gardner

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NYM: Do you have a business plan with specific goals or are you taking it a day at a time?

EG: Both. Since we’re expanding a mostly online business into a brick and mortar storefront with a broader inventory and a built-in workshop space, we’ve had to change up our business plan a bit. We have the structure there, but we’re keeping it flexible to allow for adjustments as we start this new adventure.

Building out Grey Fox Mercantile: Erin (top left), John (top right), John with their daughters (bottom left), and pulling up the carpet (bottom right). Photos: Erin and John Gardner

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NYM: What were your greatest challenges so far in terms of opening a store?

EG: I think the greatest challenge my husband and I have faced so far in opening our store was simply to decide to do it, to believe in our vision, and the way that this store and the creative space inside it will allow us to serve and be a valued part of our community.


Video of the future Grey Fox Mercantile provided by Erin Gardner

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NYM: What are your goals in terms of growth? 

EG: By opening a storefront and creating a physical presence in our community, we hope to grow the Grey Fox Felting brand by offering our community a warm and inspiring space in which to be able to sit down with other creative individuals, as well as find specialty crafting supplies and unique artisan goods.

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NYM: Any other thoughts / insights into the process you'd like to share?

EG: We are planning for our Grand Opening to coincide with the vernal equinox. We are both so excited to welcome our community into Grey Fox Mercantile this spring!

Original artwork by Erin Gardner. Photo: Erin Gardner

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NYM: One final (important) question: how did the name Grey Fox Felting come about?

EG: I’ve always had a strong affinity for animals, so when deciding on a name for my business, I wanted it to center around an animal with special meaning for me. There are many symbolic connotations for the fox, depending on the geographic region and culture where one seeks to find meaning. In Celtic symbolism, the fox is a guide and a master of the woods, helping us to navigate the grey areas in our lives. It seemed fitting to call upon this animal to help me find and trust my own strengths and creative instincts as I decided to start a new business. The Grey Fox is a great learner and is able to adapt to new situations. She is also the only fox that can climb trees. When I imagine her unique perspective from up in a tree, while she remains connected and rooted to the earth, I am reminded to center myself and to be ready to approach new situations and challenges with an open mind. These sentiments feel ever more significant as Grey Fox Felting becomes a part of Grey Fox Mercantile.

Editor's Note: As I was speaking with Erin moments ago about publishing the story today, she told me a red fox ran through her yard earlier this morning