When you have a bright idea, sometimes it is that first step that can be the most daunting. Cristine Levitre is no stranger to this. Her next adventure all started with a phone call.
Cristine is a jewelry artisan, creating handmade pieces that include gemstones from the late 1800s-early 1900s. She was involved in several shows and felt there was an unfair gap that made it difficult for makers to succeed.
“I kept thinking that it shouldn’t be this hard. I had a lot of ideas, but I was too busy making my own living to do them. A few years ago, I had the thought ‘I need to do something.’ The political climate is so bad and people are so depressed. And I actually thought ‘if we all elected ourselves president and we had the freedom to do whatever we wanted, what would I do?’” Cristine said.
What was Cristine’s first course of action in her personal oval office? A phone call to Thorne’s Marketplace in Northampton. “I asked them for a store and they said yes. I thought, ‘Man, this being president stuff is good!’” Cristine said.
In 2016, Cristine’s goal was to open a holiday pop-up shop that would house several local makers. Artisans were invited to display their products. Instead of paying an outrageous fee to be featured, Cristine offered makers 80% of the profit from sales of their products. This is how Flair was born.
“It totally changed my attitude about trying new things and taking a risk. I learned a lot in terms of the fact that you can’t create a store overnight. I mean, you can, but you can’t create a cooperative. You can’t pull strangers and say ‘let’s play well together’ because everybody is so different,” Cristine said.
At the conclusion of 2016, Cristine decided to rent a booth at a show in Boston for the 2017 season. After a tumultuous experience, Cristine knew it was time to take her craft back home. “I said to myself, ‘You know, I think it’s time to go local,” Cristine said.
Cristine met Nick Behrens, a maker in his twenties who sold wooden boards under the name Behrens Boards in March 2018 at the Whitingham Maple Festival in Vermont. The pair became friends after being booth neighbors and quickly exchanged their big ideas.
Keeping connected through the spring and summer, the friends decided to amplify Cristine’s business pursuit of 2016 and make it bigger.
In 2018, Cristine joined forces with Nick to create a holiday pop-up shop at a storefront located at 18 Center Street in Northampton. The shop housed items from over 30 local vendors. The pop-up shop met all holiday shopping price points, from $5 to over $1000. Paintings, photography, chocolate and jewelry, among other items, packed the shelves of the storefront. The shop began with just simplicities, such as fixtures made from plant stands that Cristine personally owned. Cristine also sells her handmade jewelry in the store.
“It was the same kind of belief of bringing it back to local. It’s not the customer’s responsibility to walk into a store and think something is handmade when it’s not. If people walk into here and have a question, I want to be able to have all of us answer it from a human perspective,” Cristine said.
Cristine and Nick knew they wanted to offer artists something that was atypical of the industry. “Artists are never given anything, they’re always asked questions like ‘Will you donate?’ or ‘Will you stay late and clean up?’ It’s really crazy. So we decided we would turn it around and basically tell artists ‘We like your work, we want you in the shop and you don’t have to do anything.’ We offered to give them 80% of the revenue, which is unheard of. They didn’t have to do any work in the shop,” Cristine said.
The work put in by Cristine and Nick paid off. “One of the most exciting moments is watching somebody come in and looking at work that wasn’t ours even and purchasing multiples. Somebody came in and bought six mugs. Nick looked at me and I looked at him, and we both got these big smiles on our faces. It was as exciting as if we had sold our own work,” Cristine said.
The shop opened for the holiday season on Nov. 15, but Cristine decided not all good things must come to an end.
“We were open for the holidays and I decided I didn’t want to start fresh next holiday, I wanted to see if we could make a go of it year-round,” Cristine said.
Cristine shared that it was tricky and a different process to keep the shop up year-round. “The way to keep the shop open was to reach out to part of the group and basically ask people who felt they wanted to keep it open to contribute to the rent for three months to get through the wintertime. Once people know we are here, they are so excited that we are here, it’s just about getting them off of that main street,” Cristine said.
While Nick has since separated from the business to pursue other opportunities, Cristine is thankful to have joined with him to create the now blooming business. “He was the best business partner I’ve ever had. He totally renewed my faith that a potential business partner does not have to be anything like you. You just have to have the same values to work together. We decided we weren’t going to make a cooperative; we were going to pull a shop together on our own. No financial help or asking for help from anybody. And we did,” Cristine shared.
Cristine said she does admit that making the move from Thorne’s Marketplace, located on Main Street to Center Street, which is a side road, has had an impact on foot traffic to the location. “We had to take turns going out and handing out postcards. People immediately came in once they knew we were here. It was a slow go, but we realized that people want to buy local,” Cristine said.
Cristine said she feels that shopping local has a unique transparency that isn’t typically found in big box store shopping. “If you pick up, for example, the glasses with confetti designs that we sell, I can tell you everything about the maker like how he started, where he fell in love with glass and how having a baby influenced some cheerful new designs. I think that’s the thing that Nick and I both loved: introducing a customer to a maker,” Cristine said.
Cristine continued, “Purchasing something became more than buying a product. You’re buying a little bit of getting to know a neighbor.”
When it came to diving into her dream, Cristine said realizing that there may be bumps in the road is important. “I think if you want to do something, no journey is ever completely straight without any bumps. You can give up or you can find solutions and then get excited,” Cristine said.
Cristine recalled the first time she saw her previous location at Thorne’s Marketplace. “He said, ‘Cristine, let’s go look at your store,’ and at that moment, life changed. It felt real, real and scary,” Cristine said.
As Flair continues to grow, Cristine is looking to the future and the larger opportunities that the shop could hold. “Part of the larger plan is to offer workshops for the community, provide support and information and opportunities for local artisans and the public to become an active part of Northampton’s arts community,” Cristine said.
Cristine said Flair would always be about sticking to their mission statement: “Support local makers and buy local — the fairest trade of all.”
Flair will be launching a Kickstarter campaign to help with operating expenses. “We receive no funding and are driven solely by the important of supporting our many talented makers to earn a sustainable income locally and to provide more local economic opportunities,” Cristine said.
Cristine continued, “We have done a great job of supporting our local farms over the years and the time is right for extending that support to all of our talented local makers.”
Currently, Flair is open Thursday through Saturday, 12 p.m. to 6 p.m at 18 Center Street, Northampton, MA. To contact Flair, please email firstname.lastname@example.org. Cristine said, “If anyone is inspired to jump in and offer support of any kind, it would be gratefully welcomed.”