Urban Escapee profiles the artists, changemakers, and entrepreneurs revitalizing our smallest urban areas, our oft-overlooked, but-oh-so-vital micropolitans (woot!, woot!).
Today we interview two artists who relocated from New Jersey to a tiny downtown in the midwest so they could pursue building a business that combines art, retail, and service.
- Why they recently changed locations
- How they stay motivated
- A creative, DIY retail flooring idea
Thank you for being part of this community! A shout out to James P. who made the introduction. If you like reading these interviews, be sure to comment and share — it’s good for your karma, vintage & today!
You’ve recently celebrated 5 years in business. That’s quite an achievement! How did Vintage Karma, your tattoo/art studio business start?
Why did you move the business to Tuscola, Illinois?
Laura: Plus, the cost of living in the Midwest is so much lower than in New Jersey. We felt like we had won the lottery!
Why tiny Tuscola (pop. ~4,500)?
Ainslie: They’re a very niche business and they’re able to find success and pull people from faraway places to come here. We knew we could, too. We opened here on April 10 of this year.
The art studio and retail are on the ground floor and tattoo parlor is upstairs. How did that evolve?
Ainslie: We always wanted to keep [retail and service] as separate but equal parts of a whole, and the building layout really played to that. We had the business model in our mind and the building fit perfectly.
Laura: You walk into the shop downstairs first. There were built-in shelves waiting for merchandise so we lucked out with that. In the back, we set up a lounge area where we hold our craft nights. That’s where you’ll find the steps up to Ainslie’s studio.
MICRO-BIZ TIP: People crave “something to do”. Activities and social events cannot be outsourced or purchased online so they’re great to incorporate into a brick-and-mortar indie biz. Vintage Karma’s craft nights are a great example; the events diversify their service offerings, build and solidify community relationships, and offer another reason to come downtown. — Katie
Ainslie: Getting a tattoo is not the first thing that hits you when you walk in; I don’t want it to be front and center. I don’t need neon signs in the window. Everybody feels comfortable being tattooed because they’re not out in plain view. It’s a safe space, very one-on-one. Being tattooed is a very intimate thing.
Laura: It’s pretty funny to watch some folks try to figure out whether we really do tattoos here or not. They’ll say, “Oh, that’s just a sign they have up. They don’t really do tattoos.”
We’re challenging people’s ideas of what a tattoo shop is.
How important are your online sales to your physical storefront success?
Laura: Yeah, some of the artists aren’t that keen on computers, so it’s nice to be able to tell them, “I shipped your lamp to San Francisco the other day.”
Let’s go back to the beginning. What were some of the most difficult moments you faced?
Did you ever consider closing?
Even my worst days as a business owner are still better than working for The Man.
What made you stay the course?
I feel like this idea is helping me find my true self, and I’m growing as an artist.
Laura: I think of the years I spent at my old job miserable, and that makes me grateful every day for my new life. To keep sane, I make an effort to take care of myself — getting plenty of sleep and eating right. I also keep a check on not working too much. Since we live in an apartment above our business, it’s very easy to work all weekend. So, we make an effort to not do that. One thing I don’t do enough of is making art. That’s a great way to stay sane!
Ainslie: To stay sane, I decompress. I focus on one of my other narrow obsessions for a while as a way to recharge. I pet cats. I watch weird documentaries. I maintain a web site for my hero, G.E. Smith.
How do you make adjustments to the business along the way?
Ainslie: We go with our gut. Any time we’ve compromised ourselves in anyway, thinking it would be a good thing, we’ve pretty much immediately regretted that. Branding has been something that I’ve had to reevaluate.
Laura: We are constantly tweaking things. Even now, we have ideas about what direction we want to take the business in. I’ve not been at it as long as Ainslie, but I’m learning it’s all a work in progress.
Ainslie, I really love what you wrote on your blog:
“I think the main lesson I took from this time is that I needed to have the business be an honest reflection of who I am as a person and to not try and make it something that both it and I am not.”
What advice would you give someone struggling with their business identity?
Ainslie: By moving here and opening the new Vintage Karma, we’re actually going through another kind of evolution of what the identity of it is as a business and what our identities are. We’re definitely going through a period of growth that requires a lot of hard introspection. Especially since it is very important to us that the business be a reflection of who we are.
How can someone regain this sense of self in their business?
You have to go through a cleansing process, which is very difficult because oftentimes it requires abandoning a lot of work you’ve put in.
How is building an indie, micro-business a form of creative self-expression?
Ainslie: Like any sort of creative act, it starts with having ideas and motivation and following through.
Thank you for reading and sharing! Are you a fan of an indie business helping revitalize your micropolitan’s downtown? Leave a note in the comments!
* P.S. Wondering about how Ainslie and Laura got their building? I did, too. Here’s how Laura explained it:
“Yes, we did buy the building, and we received a government grant that is used to help downtown properties. It was through a grant program, Tax Increment Financing. We were obligated to only spend the money on the building itself. Grant money could not go toward fixtures or anything removable.”
Do you have first-hand experience with Tax Incremental Financing, aka, TIFs? Tell us about it in the comments.