Browse through the aisles of the Pine Mountain-Letcher County Craft Co-op and you’ll see items such as intricately carved wooden figurines, cornhusk dolls of all sizes and handcrafted cabinets and bookshelves. “We’re really proud of our crafts,” says Ruth Shackleford, a founding member of the Co-op, a group of 45 artisans who volunteer their time to run the store in Whitesburg, Kentucky. Promoting local crafts is one of the goals of the group.
Charles Hawkins, president of the Co-op, says, “The crafts are a traditional thing that families have been doing for years and years. The Co-op is about preserving the traditional way of doing crafts and encouraging others to try it, too.” To that end, Co-op members have presented workshops on local crafts such as basket-making and quilt tacking to area school children and other community members.
But the Co-op is also about the bottom line: earning income. “The idea was to give local citizens a chance to market their crafts by providing a place to sell them,” explains Ruth. “We get people from all over who drive a long way to get good quality and a good price.” Adds Charles emphatically, “People just needed a place to sell their crafts. With all the unemployment from mine closures, I always said there’s a market out there for anything you’re willing to do.”
And Co-op members have been willing to do a lot. Members commit to volunteering at least twice a month on everything from mowing the lawn to manning the cash register. The Co-op sponsors a farmer’s market in the summer months. “We’ve even done a bake sale or two when we’ve gotten low on funds” says Charles. “It’s hard to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear,” he adds wryly, “but under the circumstances we’ve done pretty well.”
The Co-op was not able to secure financing from traditional banks that require collateral or expensive pre-financing requirements. “We’ve done so much with so little. MACED loaned us money to pay off a credit card bill and improve the building. We have one more bill that will be paid off in August, and then we want to build a better facility. The potential for growth and filling large orders is there, but we don’t have a place to do the work.”
Though the Co-op has often been short on capital, they have always been long on ideas. One that Charles hopes to bring to pass soon: selling crafts on-line. “We’d use high school students who want to work part-time and let them be responsible for it all. They’d earn a commission on sales made. It wouldn’t require us to put a lot of money out.” Another idea: collaborating with the beekeepers association to add local honey to the display shelves.
When asked the reason behind the Co-op’s 15-year success, Charles says, “The members. The Co-op is a partnership between good people. No… add a word. It’s about good mountain people! We take advantage of the things people are good at, and it works.”
“The Co-op is a perfect fit for MACED’s microloan program,” says Greg Doyle, MACED’s senior lender. “It’s a group of people working together to build a sustainable and vibrant local community. MACED invests in good ideas, particularly those that support important cultural assets of Appalachian communities.”