Story last updated at 9/18/2013 - 1:53 pm
One of Kathy VanderJack's favorite aspects of her downtown Juneau store "The Bear's Lair" is the connection she develops with the artists whose work she sells. Wood turners, glass blowers, potters, metal artists, and those that work with fused glass, copper, stone or tile: she's met most of them and has a personal relationship with almost all of them. She knows who's sick and who's well. She tells stories about how she found certain artists (at the Public Market, when he or she was teaching her children, through research) and how their relationship has evolved.
VanderJack, who has a B.A. in French and a Master's degree in Library Science, started out designing gift baskets out of her Juneau home. The display of those gift baskets led to the Bear's Lair, which she began in 1996. The store's aesthetic has evolved for the better over the years, she says. She started out with what's called a "rustic" theme. That soon evolved to "lodge," which is "a little more finished," helping her to accomplish her goal of representing U.S. artists and fine craftsmanship. Much of the art in the store is also functional (a lighthouse lamp made by local wood-turner, mugs from local potters, cutting boards, and hand-made cards with Southeast images on them, to name a few).
Out of what ranges between 110 and 125 artists displayed at the store, more than 90 percent are from the U.S. or Canada. About 50 of that number are Alaskan artists. Many are from Juneau.
On a recent day at the shop, local wood-turner Kevin Miller stopped by to check in. He's sold pieces through the Bear's Lair - the only store in which he sells his work - since 1997. He and VanderJack began discussing the histories of some of his pieces. Miller's gotten wood from trees cut down at the House of Wickersham in downtown Juneau (if he or another person hadn't collected the trees, the city would have had to pay to haul them away). He got walnut from cabinets that were listed on Freecycle, a website providing a place for people to give unwanted possessions to those that will use them, instead of throwing them away.
Watching artists' processes "gave me a newer appreciation of all the work that goes into one piece," VanderJack said.
Working closely with artists allows VanderJack not only to keep up with the stories behind the crafts she sells, but to frequently learn their post-sale stories, as well. One lighthouse Miller created, for example, sold to a local Juneau resident who re-wired it so that it blinked. Occasionally she'll find a problem with a product; sometimes, employees Janie Freer or Rose Janes will fix it.
VanderJack describes the shop as having two main challenges - finding affordable shipping (she currently uses the U.S. Postal service for crafts made outside Juneau) and maintaining a variety of quality North American products. She said she's always looking for specific things.
"I buy with locals in mind," VanderJack said. "Every single thing I buy I have that in mind."
She also works to stay in her store's niche and to avoid competing with other stores. Tourists seem to appreciate that as well; she receives a lot of comments, once tourists get past shops near the docks, on the variety of locally-owned shops in Juneau. She has loyal Anchorage customers as well.
Her goal for the next five to ten years is to have everything in the shop be made in the U.S. or Canada.
"My passion is really finding unusual, U.S. or Canadian-made art - preferably Alaskan-made," VanderJack said. "The closer, the better."
She describes that passion as one of the things that makes her proudest of her store. "It makes me feel really good that I'm helping to support, in a tiny, tiny way, the American arts community, and especially the local (arts community,)" she said.
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