November 2005 Issue
Made By Hand
There's a shop in the center of Columbus' bustling German Village that doesn't sell necessities, but does sell the kinds of things people attach themselves to, that add a richness and texture to life. That's how Sara Kellenberger Harpham, the owner of Hel
She considers it a challenge, in this age when there's a designer stamp on so many mass-produced items, to encourage her customers to "find value in things made by hand," and to help them discover that you can have both beauty and function in a piece.
These sentiments echo those of the shop's owner for its first 58 years, the late Helen Winnemore, who began selling her friends' handmade crafts in the living room of her Columbus home in December of 1938. Because of space limitations, she filled dresser drawers with handmade items and encouraged her customers to explore and discover the pieces on their own. The business soon outgrew her living room, and she moved into a commercial space just east of downtown Columbus. In 1966, she settled the shop in German Village, at the onset of the neighborhood's renaissance. Today, German Village is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Winnemore, who graduated from Iowa's Penn College in 1928, attended The Ohio State University's College of Fine Arts, and started her own business during a time when most women did not pursue either higher education or a career. Still, she was reportedly so shy that she began offering customers something to drink as a conversation starter. She was often quoted as saying, "No shop is worth anything unless it is a gracious place."
Brimming with what she called "crafts of exceptional quality and design," the shop featured Winnemore's favorite work. She was particularly fond of wood and established a long-term relationship with the internationally known woodworker Bob Stocksdale of California. "The way he makes his pieces, they just balance out," she once said. "It's really truly art."
Winnemore also featured many Ohio artists: glass blower Robert Eickholt, goldsmith Jack Siebert (whose own shop has been in Columbus for more than 25 years), sculptor Ann Entis, and the early work of sculptor Don Drumm, who now has a nationally known studio in Akron.
Helen Winnemore Craft has been recognized for its support of Ohio artists and its contribution to Ohio's crafts industry by the Ohio Designer Craftsmen and the Columbus Gallery of Fine Art, among others. Nationally, Niche Magazine, a publication dedicated to connecting art galleries and craft retailers with artists and their work, specifically noted Winnemore and her shop in its special "Millennium" issue, which saluted the crafts movement in the United States, and named the shop "One of the Top 100 Retailers of American Craft" in 2003.
Winnemore died in 1996 at the age of 95. Early on in the business, she had hired a young designer, Jack Burrows, who became not only a close friend, but also the store manager and eventually its second owner. He was with the shop for more than 37 years before he sold the gallery to Harpham, who credits him with teaching her everything she knows about the business. Burrows stayed on full time for a while after the store changed hands, then stopped in every Saturday morning for the next few months to check in. He accompanied her on her first trip to the Buyers Market of American Craft in Philadelphia, from which she now purchases nearly all items for the shop.
As only the third owner in the business' 67-year history, Harpham is well aware of the Winnemore legacy. Both her grandmother and mother were regular customers, and she fondly remembers her many visits there as a young girl, when she loved to discover the "treasures" in those drawers. Through the years, Sarah and her family exchanged countless gifts from the shop, but one in particular led to her most beloved acquisition of all.
When she was in college, Harpham purchased a whimsical mobile for her mother, and several years later her mother stopped in the shop to buy the same mobile for Sarah. Coincidentally, the staff had begun spreading the word among their regular customers that Helen Winnemore's was for sale.
Within a few months, Harpham, then 28, began to guide the shop into the 21st century. She compares taking the plunge to having a child: "You have no idea what you're getting into, but you do it anyway."
She says that what she always loved about Helen Winnemore's was simply "the feel of it - stimulating yet comfortable. There has always been a constant stream of new work, yet the shop manages to feel the same."
And of course, she continues the founder's gracious traditions. Customers have more than 40 drawers of jewelry alone to explore (more drawers were added at the request of longtime customers after the shop's move to German Village) and each guest is promptly offered tea or coffee, served in miniature stoneware mugs - the same ones that Winnemore offered customers before Sarah was born.
During the first few years she owned the gallery, Harpham was surprised to hear countless customers use the word "magical" to describe Helen Winnemore. Not the shop, but the woman herself. Perhaps it was her easy elegance and quiet manner, her gracious hospitality, or even the way she dressed, often in flowing, colorful fabrics and bold, original jewelry. But it was more likely the intense passion she had for the artists and their artwork that infused her and the shop with that magical aura.
Harpham maintains that genuine affection for the artists whose work she sells. With just a handful of exceptions, she has met and knows the history of all of the artists selling pieces in the shop. "After all," she proclaims, "I carried my baby around in a sling to all the craft shows - these artists have held my baby!'" She also encourages customers to engage with the art by touching the pieces and reading about and discussing the artists' history with her and her staff.
After eight years at Winnemore's, Harpham still gets a lot of satisfaction seeing people come into the shop and enjoy what they buy. "When customers are excited about the work, it feels like I've given a party and everyone had a good time." For example, in the 1950s and '60s, many young couples bought their wedding bands and had their registries at Winnemore's. Today, customers still come in to show Harpham and staff their rings they that were purchased 50 or more years ago.
Other dedicated customers include a woman who cherishes a silver bracelet that her husband bought at the gallery to celebrate her first Mother's Day, which literally has not left her wrist in 37 years. Another customer, whose husband discovered the shop only after Harpham purchased it, makes a point to support individual artists whose backgrounds and inspirations are detailed on a card given to customers when they buy one of their pieces. And on a practical note, she appreciates that the shop gift-wraps and mails most items.
The Christmas season is a special time for Helen Winnemore Craft, when its largest inventory is on display, and the shop is fully dressed for the holidays by the end of October. The largest downstairs room holds a tree weighted down with handmade ornaments crafted from every imaginable material, and the drawers are filled with even more ornaments and decorations. The two upstairs rooms are overflowing with handknit stockings and other fiber arts, and the best selections from toy artisans around the country.
This will be Helen Winnemore Craft's 67th holiday season, and the founder's legacy continues - not only through the shop and its promotion of "crafts of exceptional quality and design," but through the scholarship that was established in her name at the Columbus College of Art and Design. The award has been given to one or more students each year since 1991. A close friend who helped establish the scholarship in honor of Winnemore's 90th birthday said at the time, "She's recognized nationally, and she's helped a great many artists. She's the mother of the craft movement."