Editor’s note: Our series Enterprising Spirit documents how businesses and workers are managing the economy’s slow return to life after its sudden shutdown in March – and adapting to new challenges ahead.
Linnell Hinchey said she never wanted to be a business owner.
But that changed when the owner of The Clay Connection – a clay and fused-glass art studio that offers classes, studio space and firing, along with a retail space – decided to sell about two years ago.
Hinchey decided she had to save the studio and its community, which she had grown to love over a decade as a regular. She bought The Clay Connection and has been running it since.
But when the COVID-19 pandemic threatened a place that has been a haven for creativity and community for decades, Hinchey had to adapt again to keep it going.
After initially closing the studio, Hinchey decided to offer shop-by-appointment and curbside-pickup services to bring the business back to life.
And just as she did by stepping in two years ago, other regulars responded, buying supplies and otherwise supporting the studio.
For Hinchey, running the Clay Connection has never been about making money but instead about facilitating the community – something that she knows will be hard to do if she can’t pay the bills.
Before COVID-19, a handful of customers paying a $100 monthly fee worked at any given moment in the Clay Connection’s studio space. A similar number of experienced teachers led classes throughout the week, teaching novice potters new techniques and helping them hone their craft.
“I guess this is what small businesses are like,” Hinchey said after taking a call from a customer. “My regulars have my cellphone number.”
Studio regulars all know not only each other, but also Hinchey. They often call her to ask questions, see if she has the supplies they need or ask if they can drop something off to be fired.
Selling clay, glazes and other pottery-making supplies normally accounts for about a quarter of Hinchey’s business.
“Most of my profit came from classes and studio use,” Hinchey said, noting that those who come for classes or to use the study also buy clay and glazes.
Hinchey said she has seen a huge increase in demand for clay and glaze over the past couple of months. People are shopping less frequently but also buying more with each purchase. With extra time on their hands, some customers have been purchasing large amounts of clay to create at home.
Hinchey estimates retail sales have increased 20-30%. In recent weeks, the store has drawn customers from as far as Wenatchee who are picking up supplies since many stores are closed completely.
Despite the increased sales, Hinchey said she can barely pay her bills. Her landlord reduced her rent for May and some regulars are paying for studio time they’re not using.
Hinchey received $1,000 from the Small Business Association to help with costs, but the grant wasn’t as much as she was expecting.
“I mean it’s not not a help, but it’s a very small help,” Hinchey said.
Hinchey has just one employee, plus shop regulars who trade work for free use of the kiln.
“I don’t really make any money off of this business,” Hinchey said. “And most of the people that come in here already know that.”
Many of the regulars can’t wait to get back into the studio space. Hinchey said she will be thrilled to welcome them back when regulations allow.
In the meantime, Hinchey has been cleaning, repainting and reorganizing to get ready to reopen in a limited capacity.
For people who want to get started in pottery, Hinchey suggests a two-day workshop to learn how to use a pottery wheel and throw pottery. Her business also offers five-week classes.
Hinchey plans to start out with appointment-only studio time and reduced class sizes to allow for social distancing. She also plans to order face shields to have available for clients.
The best part about reopening, Hinchey said, will be reconnecting with her regulars.
“It’s a community,” Hinchey said. “It’s a very mutually cooperative, warm and inclusive environment.”
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