Local interior designer and columnist for St. Croix Valley Magazine Kelli Kaufer recently embarked on an exciting adventure that benefits artists, art lovers and the local art scene. Kaufer partnered with Erin Quast to co-found Smith + Trade Mercantile on Main Street in Stillwater, Minn. The whirlwind timeframe from conception to open for business seems to have been a kismet type of experience for both women. Affiliated artists agree that this unique concept is especially exciting and they’re enthusiastic to participate.
Kaufer has collaborated with local artisans for years in her interior design work. But she always wanted a place where the work of those artists could be more readily seen because all of them have a story to tell. People also have a renewed interest in wanting to make things with their hands, and Kaufer notes that the audience for her concept venue might also appreciate an educational component where anyone could learn a new creative skill.
But Kaufer knew her idea was too big to undertake alone. Enter Quast, who Kaufer had first connected with when Quast hired her to curate and install some custom glass light fixtures. The two later met again at a wine party and discovered they shared a similar desire to have a storefront for showcasing local artisans. Three months later, the duo would open Smith + Trade Mercantile in May 2019 in the space that once housed a Christian bookstore.
“The walls were lined with bookcases,” Kaufer says. “And the back windows were covered so that sunlight wouldn’t damage the books.” Now, with the windows uncovered, the space with its brick walls and wood plank floors is completely re-imagined. Shoppers enter a bright shop with an airy and artsy industrial vibe. All of the displays are created from repurposed materials, giving everything you see and feel a handmade authenticity. Many of the creative and cool light fixtures were handmade by Kaufer and add to the imaginative and “outside the box” design aesthetic. “I want to inspire people to make things for themselves at home,” Kaufer says. Quast adds that part of their core beliefs is to support an upcycling concept.
The shop showcases jewelry, paintings, sculptures, bath salts, candles, leather goods, macramé plant hangers, greeting cards, home décor and more. The items—many one-of-a-kind—rotate, and Smith + Trade Mercantile allows only two artisans per medium so as to support a truly unique variety of merchandise and a more interesting shopping experience.
Each artisan has leased space within the shop designated with a plaque that describes their work. QR codes on the plaques link shoppers instantly to digital platforms like websites or YouTube videos for more in-depth exploration of the artist’s work and behind-the-scenes action.
Midway into the shop is a huge work station for hosting creative classes. The 600-pound worktable was created by Nic Lang, owner of SeaNic Solutions. Kaufer had hired Lang before to create countertops for her interior design clients using a technique called granicrete fabrication. For the Smith + Trade worktable, Kaufer gave Lang the go-ahead to create a unique custom piece he’d always wanted to try but never had the opportunity. One end of the table shows copper pipes just below the surface. The pipes look as if they’re melting into the center of the table in a lava-like flow. It’s a true piece of art that serves as a functional work bench for creative classes. “Our goal is to host seven classes per week,” Kaufer says. “We also want to host artist events with live music and demonstrations and sponsor evening meet and greets with artists.”
She’s calling Sunday “Smith Day,” a day when artisans can come into the store and work their craft so that visitors can see what they’re doing and how they create. Other community opportunities include scheduled corporate team building and group or private classes.
The concept seems perfect for Kaufer and Quast as the two bring different skillsets to a similar goal. Quast—who is also involved in the local “rat rod” scene, helping to organize events to fund the eradication of cancer—brings her business savvy to Smith + Trade. She manages the books and developed the website. Kaufer is in her creative playground, arranging displays and curating a unique selection of craftsmanship while always networking with other artists to find ways to collaborate. Artists are open to the concept.
Caitlin Gerdes owns Pressed Flower Shop. She makes art, jewelry and more using pressed and dried flowers. “I have been pressing flowers since I was a young girl and started making and selling art and jewelry with them in college. I press anything from wildflowers to wedding bouquets,” she says.
Gerdes arranges the flowers to make art and encapsulate them in resin to create jewelry. Each features a bit of nature. “I found Smith + Trade when I was growing my business on Instagram,” Gerdes says. “I contacted Kelli as soon as I heard about the new store opening, as it has always been a dream of mine to sell my art in a physical store. It was so exciting to be a part of the store opening and to see how it has come together so beautifully.”
At Smith + Trade, Gerdes sells her personal collection of art made with pressed flowers in the shape of Minnesota, Wisconsin and other well-known imagery as well as her unique resin jewelry. “The arrangement at Smith + Trade has been so great for me as an artisan because those of us that are creative aren’t necessarily always the best at marketing. Being a vendor at this store has helped me to reach the audience I was always aiming for and connect with the customers. We are always invited to work on our craft in store. I also love the opportunity to teach classes pertaining to our art. We can really dig in and get others involved in our passion. I think the store gives people a greater appreciation for handmade work,” she says.
Tom Velure creates custom lake maps at Smith + Trade. He likes to blend the accuracy of laser cut models with reclaimed wood. Kaufer says it’s hard to keep Velure’s work in stock, it’s so popular.
“The majority of the pieces I sell at Smith + Trade are either laser cut lake maps or laser cut silhouettes of the old Stillwater Bridge,” Velure says. “The old Stillwater Bridge pieces are very popular. I offer to make any rover map for the same price, no matter what or where the body of water is. One of my joys in the process is creating new images of the lakes that I haven’t made before.”
He adds that working with Smith + Trade has been a good investment in his business. “I could likely never afford to have my own brick-and-mortar for a store front, so working with Kelli and Erin has given me a very fair pricing model that allows me access to some retail space, along with very high traffic of customers to see my work. I have generic order sheets available at the store so I am able to do custom woodworking for anyone who might be interested and asks at the shop.”
Marlo Cronquist is a glass blower who also makes kinetic art tables for Sisyphus Industries. She was working at the Home + Garden Show for that company when she met Kaufer.
“We were chatting and hit it off,” Cronquist says. “I told her I was a glass artist and she commissioned me to do some lighting for a bank in Hudson. Smith + Trade was just evolving and [Kaufer] asked me to be an artist. I was honored.” Cronquist notes that Smith + Trade operates a little differently than a typical gallery when it comes to profit sharing and she finds it more advantageous.
“We pay a fee for space and Kelli and Erin are so great at social media and marketing,” Cronquist says. “The videos, websites and social media are such an important part of our lives and [doing it well] benefits everyone. I’m excited about this concept.”
Cronquist, like Velure, also appreciates that Smith + Trade offers customers information about how to commission custom pieces from the featured artists. She says, “They’ll tell customers, ‘if we don’t have what you’re looking for, Marlo can custom make it for you.’”
The St. Croix Valley has long been home to many artists, art lovers and arts supporters. Smith + Trade Mercantile is another wonderful addition to that special local tradition.