Friday, October 5, 2007

Stylemaker Q&A

Katy Schalles
Owner, Katy’s American Indian Arts

1817 Monroe St. 251-5451.

Katy’s American Indian Arts is a one-of-a-kind business in Madison that’s been around for an amazing thirty-three years. That’s a long time in the retail world, especially for a local, independently owned business. We explore Katy Schalles’ secrets to success.

How did you become interested in American Indian art?
I always was interested, from a kid on. My father hunted and fished, and almost all of the people he hunted and fished with were Wisconsin Indian friends. To this day I maintain friendships with people from the Ho-Chunk Nation, Menomonee, Ojibwe people, the Oneidas.

When did you start the business?
I started it in May 1974. I moved in to a Monroe Street space in 1983, and I’ve been in the current location eleven years. (Her current location is 1817 Monroe Street).

Why did you start your business?
I was teaching school in New Mexico—English as a second language and Spanish as a second language. I enjoyed it, and kept running into kids and their parents who made American Indian jewelry. Combine that with my mother, who owned a number of small businesses—a dress shop, sewing business, ran a bakery had an antique shop. I set up my business first in her antique shop. That was in Waunakee.

Why did you move back here?
Well, I’m originally from Madison. I was lonesome for my family. I knew there wasn’t any shop for what I had in mind back here.

Why did you think an American Indian arts store would work in Madison?
I just had a feeling. I’m a Midwesterner and I liked what I saw. I just felt that what I liked, other people would like. Fifty percent of the reason was that I wanted to have a business to support myself, and second was that I wanted to have a business to support the artists. Because they needed a place to show their work.

How do you classify your business?
[Jewelry is] a best seller. It’s American Indian arts, so that covers things besides jewelry that indigenous artists create both here in the Midwest and the Southwest.

What’s your most popular selling item?
Turquoise and silver earrings.

How do you find your artists?
When I was living in New Mexico, I would travel around and go to different places and look at how other people set up their shops. I would ask them where the artists were living, and where they got their stuff. There are fifteen million acres of these reservation areas [in New Mexico], where these people live.

How often do you go down to New Mexico for merchandise?
I go down in person at least three times a year. I’m very fortunate and the [artists] come up to here and sell to me. We either have a big show and sale when they’re here, or we sell in private.
There are also established trading posts in the Southwest. There are third- and fourth-generation families that run these trading posts. A lot of families prefer bringing their things to trading posts than bringing things directly to me for a number of reasons: they’re shy, they don’t speak English. So they prefer to deal with these long standing trading post families. So I also buy from those trading posts.

What unique experiences do you have dealing with an artist who is perhaps more traditional, or doesn’t speak English?
There are some very distinct differences. Buying from these indigenous artists, whether they be Pueblo, Ho-Chunk et cetera, you have to pay them immediately. These people make a living doing this. You can’t just give them a charge card. You have to pay them directly and immediately.
Second, I have learned in these thirty-five years how to readjust myself culturally and adapt to many of the ways that will allow them to feel at home and feel comfortable in me and trust in me.

What do you look for in the things you carry?
What I think my customer prefers. That includes really good, quality, clean, silverwork. Top quality stones, originality of designs.

What kinds of stones do you carry?
Most of the pieces are turquoise because that’s native of the area geologically in the Southwest, and part of their [Native Americans’] cultural upbringing. It’s part of the cultural background. They also work with other stones too.

How do you compete in a marketplace that’s ever changing? How does traditional American Indian art fit in with our retail culture of designer jeans and trendy accessories?
There are already among the jewelers and the potters, people who are way up there. They demand the most. On Antiques Roadshow, for example, the most expensive item represented American Indian culture.
Many of these people have taken their art form to such a level that they have learned to market it themselves. A number of the artists that do show with us in the store are very well known on their own. People immediately know their names.

What changes have you noticed in the Madison marketplace?
As the years have gone by more people, especially up until this war, had more money. What was happening is that we tended to travel more. I noticed that when I first opened versus twenty years later, people knew more about what they wanted because they had visited Santa Fe. People became more sophisticated buyers. They knew what they wanted. As they years go by, the world gets smaller and more people know what they want.

What’s the most expensive piece you sell?
In my opinion the prettiest and most outstanding piece right now is a round pendant. It’s has a silver border around it and it’s inlaid with orange and purple spiny oyster shell. It’s the fall look. It’s $600 for earrings and the pendant.

Do you have advice for other small-business owners?
I think you have to build slowly. You have to have integrity and patience. And you have to really enjoy people.

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