BUSINESS The Handmade Tale

Crafts are a family business-a big one-for the Coomer clan.

THE HAND-LETTERED SIGN

points the way down a country lane in Parker County, west of Fort Worth. “The Farm,” it humbly proclaims, although the spread is anything but humble.

Meadows dotted with cedars and live oaks roll along for 160 acres. A couple of horses and Labrador retrievers play as Joe Coomer pulls his black Honda up to a spectacular three-story Vic-torian house that looks as if it were airlifted from the gingerbread kingdom of Wax-ahachie. Inside, it’s all antiques and personal treasures-heirloom sideboards, etched glass windows, painted wall murals, Joe’s collection of cast-iron toys and fine old leather-bound books, even an antique porcelain toilet (you pull a chain to make it flush). It’s a house full of stories and the richness of things with a history. Things other people have touched.

The Farm isn’t a town, but it might as well be called Coomerville: a sanctuary from the mass-produced, homogenous modern world. Three generations and four families of Coomers live on the property, albeit at far-flung corners. In addition to Joe and his wife, Heather, there are Joe’s parents, Rufus and Linda-in the process of transforming their country home into a New Mexican adobe-and brother Phil and sister Sally’s clans.

It’s unusual enough in these days of splintered families that the Coomers live within shouting distance of each other. But they also work together-grandparents, brothers-in-law and cousins-in a family business that reflects their personal taste for the unique, the original, the handmade.

In a twist on the traditional family pattern, father Rufus followed son Joe into the business of selling unusual things. They each opened a different kind of mall for people burned out on typical shopping centers.

Joe and Heather started one of the area’s first antique malls in Azle in 1986. They constructed a metal building, divided it into booths with walls and electrical outlets and rented the spaces to antique dealers. That same year they opened a second mall in Burleson. Although skeptics wondered whether an antique mall could survive in the country, both quickly filled up. The Burleson mall now has a waiting list of dealers who want in.

Rufus. seeing how well the concept worked for antiques, opened a crafters mall next door in an old saw shed. He hung up a hand-scrawled sign advertising space in the building. “Call Quick,” it said.

They did.

Three and a half years later Coomers is a chain that claims to be the largest retailer of handmade crafts in the United States. The company already has 19 crafters malls in four states and plans to open 30 more this year.

The expansion will include three malls in Dallas and locations in California and Florida. There’s even talk about taking the company public, although Rufus says right now he and his two business partners don’t need to do that to raise new capital.

“I was a little surprised how fast we grew until I realized everything used to be a craft,”

Rufus says from Coomers main office in an English Tudor building near Lake Worth. At 55, he’s a stocky man, with a gray mustache, a folksy manner and 20 years’ experience as a manager at IBM Corp.

“Every time you want to say something is fine-whether it’s jewelry or an automobile-you say it’s handcrafted,” Rufus continues. “People want things other people have touched.”

Walk into one of the nine Coomers malls in the Dallas/Fort Worth area and you’ll see every variety of craft for sale-flower arrangements, painted wooden shelves, handmade toys, ceramics, jewelry, baby clothes, wearable art. Most of the work is high quality. The stores have two criteria: The merchandise sold in Coomers must be hand-crafted; and it must be made in the United States.

Most of the Coomers crafters malls are 12,000 to 15,000 square feet, with 200 to 300 dealers in each paying anywhere from $25 a month to lease a wall to about $150 for larger booths. A trained sales force actually sells the merchandise; crafters bring their works in, set them up in their booths and then leave if they want to. Shoppers browse through the booths and take their purchases to the front counter, where cashiers ring them up and record the crafter’s dealer number written on the price tag. A computer inventory system keeps track of purchases. Crafters receive a list of the merchandise sold along with their checks.

Last year Coomers malls in Texas, Arizona, Colorado and Georgia rang up $15 million to $20 million in sales-$3 to $4 million in December, traditionally the heaviest retailing month. The average item sold costs $6 to $7. The average total sale is S35 to $40. Crafters can make hundreds or even thousands of dollars a month, depending on their booth size and how many malls they rent space in.

“What we have are everyday things that aren’t ordinary” Rufus says. “Everything we have is original and unique. These are heirlooms of the future.”

Rufus may have struck a sociological nerve. Today, when so much merchandise is mass-produced and mass-marketed, consumers are increasingly looking for something creative and original, retail experts say. In a way, it’s a return to simpler days, like when Rufus was a kid growing up in Kentucky. Families and friends lived close to each other and made things that were passed down to children and grandchildren.

“Now there are more people involved in making crafts, buying crafts, selling crafts,” says Dennis Telzrow, a Dallas retail analyst who doesn’t know of another crafters mall chain like Coomers that operates on a national level. “If you take Michaels Stores, Inc., (the Dallas-based arts and crafts chain that sells supplies as well as some finished crafts) as a proxy for that, it’s a booming business.”

The typical Coomers shopper used to be a married woman with children, says Jill Scroggin, Coomers director of real estate development. But the company is expanding its target market to include working women without children, and men.

“I’m our typical shopper,” Scroggin says. “I love crafts, but I don’t have time to make something.”

Rufus doesn’t see a paradox in mass-marketing the original works of crafters and artisans. Until the crafters malls started, artisans often had to travel all over the state or country to attend shows, state fairs and other events to sell their wares.

“One out of three people makes something,” says Rufus, who does bronze sculpting. “We provide an outlet for that.”

Since opening its first crafters mall in October 1988, Coomers has expanded and now has 250 employees and 4,000 to 5,000 crafters in its stores. Rufus says all the employees are family, and some really are. Son Phil, 31, is the director of information systems and wrote all the software for the company. Wife Linda is in charge of installing the new stores. Her mother works part time, helping out with administration chores. Son-in-law Bobby handles the contractors and floor plans. Brother-in-law Tommy is in charge of maintenance at the malls. Daughter Sally also has worked at Coomers. Even Linda’s father, Tom, 85, works at the Azle mall with Joe.

“There’s a lot of nepotism in the business,” jokes Joe. a boyish-looking 33-year-old who is also an author. He’s written three critically respected novels-The Decatur Road, Kentucky Love and A Flatland Fable, which has a movie option-and just finished a fourth novel. He’s also written a non-fiction book about the house he and Heather designed and built themselves-called Dream House– that will be published this spring.

Rufus says he thinks his colleagues who also happen to be friends and relatives probably work harder. “I don’t feel like anybody in this business will let me down,” he says.

After opening his first two malls Rufus brought in two business partners, Sheldon Steinbock and George Slahor. They are old friends. All three went to college together at Syracuse University in New York and worked at IBM. Not surprisingly, computers play a big role in the business. Store procedures are fully automated. Floor plans are now laid out on computer.

Despite the soft economy, Rufus believes the crafters’ malls will continue to attract tenants-and customers for their wares. Some of the malls already have waiting lists of prospective tenants.

“People who are retired and have hardships have been able to use these malls for extra income,1’ says Rufus. “That’s the great thing about this business-providing work for people. We’ve made a place for them.”

Despite the folksy image, Coomers is still a savvy retail business. The company does extensive market surveys now to pinpoint new mall sites, analyzing demographics, traffic patterns and income levels. Coomers is looking for high-visibility “power centers” to set up its new stores and is targeting shopping centers in higher-income areas, Scrog-gin says.

Coomers also is advertising heavily-billboards, print ads, radio. The campaign focuses on gift giving and on family. “If I give my husband another necktie, he’ll string me up,” says one flier.

Other tactics to get shoppers into the malls include discount nights or evenings in which consumers can meet the crafters.

Rufus expects the crafts business to grow quickly over the next two to three years. The company’s three-year business plan calls for Coomers to double in size every year.

And Coomers continues to refine its approach. A prototype for future crafters malls is in Carrollton at Trinity Mills and Midway Road. The mall is carpeted, with aisles laid out in tile to lead shoppers through the maze of booths. Coomers is aiming for a standard “look” at its malls, Scroggin says.

“There’s a lot more to running this business than people think,” Rufus says. “It takes really good business practices to keep going. With thousands of dealers, many in several locations-it gets really complicated.”

And when it gets too complicated, Rufus can always leave the family business behind and head back to the family business at The Farm.

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