The Movement Of Makers In St. Louis: An Interview With ALIVE Stockist Urban Matter

 In Culture, Feature

Cover photo by Megan Magray

Stepping into Urban Matter—a boutique offering gifts and home accessories—feels like entering a home. The sounds, smells and lighting feel evocative in ways that other curated boutiques rarely achieve. The space beckons. And the co-owners, Mary Hennesy and Amy Schafer, welcome anyone who comes to Virginia Avenue in St. Louis’ Dutchtown neighborhood.

Happenstance isn’t always what brings visitors here. It’s a destination spot unto itself, and its draw is fundamentally relational: personal at first, then business. Connecting St. Louisans to the works of unique makers and artists is one of Urban Matter’s prized hallmarks. Read our interview with Mary Hennesy to learn more about the history, inspiration and essence of the shop, where you can purchase the latest issue of ALIVE.

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When did you open Urban Matter?
We opened Sept. 14, 2014. We have a unique space. It’s about 140 years old now. Amy has had it for 14 years, and I’ve lived here for seven. We live upstairs, so some of the quirkiness and the warmth is that this is our actual living space. I don’t want it to feel prissy and pretentious. I want people to be able to pick things up and look at them without feeling intimidated. The store is an extension of our home. That wasn’t intentional, and when we underwent an expansion, it was a big challenge. We completed the expansion last April, so now we are just under 1,000 square feet.

When you opened your doors initially, what was your goal with the space?
Truthfully, it was just to open a store. Shortly after, our friend Angela from the Enamel Project and her husband came in one day. They lived in the neighborhood at the time, and through that conversation we started carrying her work. We were actually her first stockist in St. Louis. She graciously introduced us to people and we were also going to a lot of art events, which helped expand our network. Shortly after we opened, we knew we wanted to carry locally made goods.

Tell me about the artists you work with. 
70 percent of what we have is made in Missouri, and the bulk of that 70 percent are goods made in St. Louis and right around the surrounding areas, like the Ozarks, Springfield, Columbia. But I also didn’t want to limit it to just St. Louis, because there are some fantastic artisan makers in other areas, especially with jewelry. I wanted to find work that wasn’t necessarily represented in St. Louis—very specific curated things you can’t get anywhere else. We have work from Austin and Chicago, several makers out of Portland, some from Seattle.

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How do you decide what you want to stock?
I want to make sure it’s something that is sellable. That doesn’t always happen, especially with artwork or more expensive items. You don’t know if those things are going to move, so that can be risky, but I tend to go with what I like. Since we are getting a little older, the bulk of our business is repeat business. We have a lot of people who come in frequently and I start to learn their style, or they will tell me what they want and I start to seek that out. It’s fun to look for things for people. I go with my gut a lot.

How do you support artisans and makers?
What I’ve started realizing is that there are many talented makers who have never done a line sheet or who have never sold in a store before, but they want to. And so sometimes you’ll get people who have a really great product, but they don’t know where to begin. Sometimes they don’t have the confidence to get their product in stores, so I have helped a few people with that process.

That is a jump in knowledge, to go from making to marketing.
Yes, and it has helped me grow. Even just pricing things, and building a stronger relationship with that maker. That’s been something else that’s happened spontaneously and organically, which I really enjoy. If you asked me what I would do if I weren’t running Urban Matter, it would be helping artisans take that next step and get their products placed in a store or gallery. Usually, price is the biggest thing. Artists will often say, ‘I don’t know how much to sell this for.’ Sometimes they’ve aimed too high or too low, and that’s when I can say, ‘No it’s worth more than that. Be confident and proud of your product.’

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That is hard—placing a quantifiable value on something you’ve created.
There’s rejection, fear. Makers think, ‘What if someone doesn’t like what I’m doing or making?’ It’s a bigger conversation, and I think it’s really empowering to be able to help them in that way. It’s something I really enjoy. But sometimes you have to let people down and say, ‘I don’t want this piece.’ I always have an idea of where they can look in state or out of state. Hopefully that helps other stores fill their shelves. I love supporting other stores.

Right. Why not share the love?
Exactly. For instance, Union Studio. We carry a lot of the same makers, but they have a very different aesthetic, color palate and vision for their store. That doesn’t mean we can’t carry the same makers and support each other. I am always sending people over there. I think it’s really refreshing to not have to look at other businesses as competition, but as a complement. So, when I send people over there, it’s fun to also become a tour guide for people who aren’t as familiar to those places, and push them along to other places in the city.

We are really only as successful as the people we represent. They have to have a reason to produce. And if people are buying their work, and when I am continuing to buy their work, of course, then it grows into a really great thing. It’s an empowering way to experience commerce in our city. The movement of makers is growing here, and it’s pretty amazing to watch that happen.

Do you have any special events coming up?
On Sunday, May 7, Sylvia from Snapdragon Studios is doing a flower workshop, and we will also feature Phil Finder’s ceramics. It’s a pre-Mother’s Day event. The Sunday before, we will have drinks, food and we will be outside under our pergola, if the weather is nice. Attendees will be able to make their own flower arrangements and will also have the opportunity to upgrade and buy vessels from Phil Finder. The result is a real piece of art.

We are constantly having events, so anyone interested can check on our website or social media to see what we have coming up.

To learn more about Urban Matter, visit the boutique’s website.

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