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Mall artists stock up for Valentine's after successful December

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Jan. 24, 2010 - In 1985, desiring jewelry to match a special outfit, Christine Dee rummaged through her boyfriend's basement for any implement she could find to cut wire. After spying a pair of pruning shears, Dee, then 18, gathered a few glass beads and quickly crafted the perfect earrings.

Twenty-five years later, and with more sophisticated tools, the self-taught jeweler and metalsmith is taking in thousands of dollars a month -- $6,500 in December -- as a Crestwood Court artist and vendor at Deesigns. Hers is the biggest success story among the more than 200 ArtSpace artists that began to dot the mall in December 2008.

A year after ArtSpace debuted, the December 2009 rush took Dee by surprise.

"If I would have had a lot more jewelry finished ahead of time, my sales would have been even more," Dee said.

Mall Spaces Better Than Art Fairs?

While holiday sales were larger than Dee expected, she'd already exceeded $4,000 in November.

Dee's income comes not only from custom bracelets and other jewelry, which range from $10 to $1,200, but also from classes and events. A birthday girl or boy and some favorite friends can come in and make their own one-of-a-kind creations for about $150 a party.

Dee's monthly intake is closing in on that of the in-and-out-of-town art fairs in which she used to participate before she set up shop at the mall last summer.

While such fairs can bring in as much as $8,000 in one weekend, there are the expenses for the artist's travel and shipping the jewelry. Plus, a variety of hassles come with the experience.

"This is easier than an art fair. You're not setting up and standing around all day," Dee said.

For many years, former newspaper editor-turned-jeweler Sandy Wood participated in fairs and home parties to sell her wares part-time. Before she was laid off from her newspaper job, she'd already made plans to house her Gracelily Designs in the former Crestwood Court. While sales at the former Bissinger's Candy space have been sweet enough, Wood is still not making a profit.

Declining to provide exact figures, Wood did say her sales doubled from October to November, and then doubled again for December. Now, though, she has some days without one sale. Hope Walker, sales manager for the adjacent Pashmina shawls and scarves, had a similar October-through-December experience. One reason for the seasonal increase was additional foot traffic from her other next-door neighbor: the U.S. post office.

"It was the peak mailing time and they could see right in our display window," Walker said.

Unusual Shopping List: Jeans, Flatware, Oil Painting

Buying jewelry, clothing or household items at a mall is status quo for many shoppers. But purchasing art there? Not so much, according to painter, sculptor and photographer Robert Cornman. Part of Anejo Studios at Chesterfield Mall's new Artropolis, Cornman said it's a challenge to make people comfortable with finding artwork outside a fair or a gallery.

To draw people in, Cornman and other artists of the 2-month-old Artropolis recently got some assistance from the nearby Chesterfield Arts, which was holding an art opening. Those who attended were encouraged to also stop by Artropolis, where mall artists welcomed close to 100 visitors with wine and other refreshments.

"It was a meet-and-greet to introduce ourselves," Cornman explained.

Cornman, who also sells his work at the Crestwood Anejo location, said that ArtSpace offers the advantage of being better-known because many of its artists have been in place for over a year. But Chesterfield Mall draws more people in general. According to Sean Phillips, who does marketing for Chesterfield Mall, 2009 holiday traffic was heavier than that of the previous year.

Declining to divulge sales figures, Cornman did say his Chesterfield sales were "better than expected" for December but are lagging thus far in 2010.

"January is a hard month for anybody," Cornman said.

Rents Low, Utilities High

When it first opened, Crestwood Court charged a flat $100-a-month fee, plus utilities. Now, rental rates vary, and according to mall marketing manager Leisa Son, all are "well below market," though she declined to give specifics. Low rents have helped secure enough ArtSpace to fill a quarter of the mall's non-department store square footage.

Leases for both malls are negotiated with each individual tenant. For her Crestwood ArtSpace store, Dee pays $100 plus 10 percent of sales every month. Her individual share of the utilities can run up to $300 monthly. Studio 42, which houses two dance companies, pays $100 plus utilities. Woods pays $100 a month plus a flat $30 for utilities for her smaller, corner Gracelily space. Pashmina's agreement is $330 a month, which includes utilities.

Anejo's Crestwood Mall location is coming up for renewal soon. The current rent of $100 a month pales in comparison to utility costs which have run as high as $700. Requests for rental rates for Anejo's Chesterfield space were not answered, and Cornman said he wasn't sure of the amount but believed it to be comparable to that of Crestwood.

Will Cupid Spread Wealth And Love

Every Crestwood artist is looking forward to ArtSpace signage going up soon at each of the mall's four outside entrances. But jewelers and other makers of gift items are also anticipating another upcoming event: Valentine's Day. They're counting on Cupid to bolster their January and February sales.

Dee, who's still filling her December orders, doesn't want to be caught unprepared for the February holiday as she was at Christmas, but she doesn't want to overstock either. Dee's ambivalence is illustrated by her recent purchase of sterling silver heart charms for Valentine's Day.

"I ordered 50 at first, and I called them back and said, 'Make it 100,'" Dee said. "Now I'm second-guessing that because I'm already getting orders for them."

Nancy Fowler Larson is a freelance writer. 

Nancy is a veteran journalist whose career spans television, radio, print and online media. Her passions include the arts and social justice, and she particularly delights in the stories of people living and working in that intersection.