EAU CLAIRE — Chelsea Higley’s new store has a little bit of everything including clothing, jewelry, handicrafts, stationary, candles, decorations and food.
But among the wide variety, everything has a common trait — all the merchandise is made by Wisconsin entrepreneurs, many of whom run their small businesses from home.
Dubbed Wisconsin Makers Market, the small shop at 106 W. Grand Ave. opened on July 1 and exclusively carries products made by state residents.
Currently Higley carries merchandise from about 50 people, but has a growing list of others who are trying to get in.
“I have a wait list for vendors because I can’t fit everyone in because it’s a small space,” she said.
If all goes well with the store, Higley hopes to expand with a larger space in about a year.
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Higley, who lives with her family on a hobby farm in Mondovi, got the urge to open a store through her own entrepreneurial journey.
She started her own small aromatherapy and jewelry business, Essential Healing, in January 2020. But just a couple of months later the COVID-19 pandemic struck and the burgeoning merchant had to switch her sales tactics.
“I found myself in a position that a lot of makers found themselves in. We had to find a way to get our work out there,” she said.
Higley chatted online with others struggling to find a venue for their local goods and she ultimately coordinated a series of online vendor fairs through Facebook.
“It was all Wisconsin handmade products,” she said.
Lasting for a long weekend and featuring products made in Wisconsin, the online events found a larger audience than Higley had anticipated. At its height, the market’s Facebook group had about 2,500 members, she recalls, the majority of them customers.
Online sales were good for a few months, Higley said, but their popularity waned as pandemic restrictions eased and more people returned to shopping in stores.
Though they’re no longer done online through Facebook, Higley has continued her makers’ markets as in-person seasonal events planned three to four times a year.
The first was in November with about 30 vendors gathered at the Eau Claire Children’s Theater. Her next one is scheduled for Sept. 17 at Durand Memorial Park.
In talking with fellow makers, Higley found that it is a community of entrepreneurs who are eager to share information.
When she started Essential Healing, Higley recalls seeking advice from others. Soon enough though, she found herself fielding questions from novices looking for wisdom on small business matters including incorporating and dealing with taxes. Higley found that role fit her well.
“I realized I liked the consulting, helping people out a little more,” she said.
That desire to boost fellow makers along with a long list of vendors she’d amassed from her market events helped Higley form the basis of her store.
And $10,000 provided by Main Street Bounceback Grant — a Wisconsin pandemic recovery program encouraging new businesses to fill vacant downtown storefronts — helped get the shop started, as well.
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Higley noted there are already a few downtown Eau Claire stores focused on goods made locally or with a Northwoods Wisconsin vibe to them, such as Tangled Up In Hue and The Local Store.
She’s trying to differentiate herself from them by not tapping the same pool of crafters and goods-makers.
“I really wanted to make something different,” she said.
The front of her store operates as a consignment shop. Vendors drop off merchandise and Higley takes care of organizing and selling it. She pays the vendors each month for their goods that sold at the store — minus a percentage she keeps for carrying their items.
Farther back in the store, a trio of smaller rooms are reserved as “pop-ups” that individual vendors can rent to spotlight their items.
One of these pop-up spaces currently showcases the work of Inspiration Lately, a mother-daughter team who artistically use laser cutters to make and engrave wooden gifts.
Sara Antonson, who runs the 3-year-old Chippewa Falls-based business alongside daughter Andrea Fleishauer, said Higley’s store gives them another outlet for selling their goods.
“We’re really excited,” Antonson said. “We’ve done well, and we’re excited to continue to grow there.”
Aside from its space in the store, Inspiration Lately also sells its decorative wooden signs, earrings, cutting boards, key chains, ornaments and other precision-crafted products through its website, weekly artists markets in Eau Claire and occasional crafts shows.
Several of Higley’s vendors are based in the Chippewa Valley, while the rest are from across Wisconsin.
Originally the store was open 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Wednesdays through Fridays, but Higley soon discovered that didn’t match times for the best foot traffic from shoppers.
The store’s video security system showed that curious passers-by would stop by after hours to gaze into the windows. So Higley switched to be open 3 to 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays and 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Saturdays.
Currently she’s the lone one in charge of the business though, so Higley noted the hours may change around depending on her schedule once her son goes back to school in the fall.