Sarah Kelley and Mary Beth Bussen have known each other for more than 20 years, but they never dreamed they’d be running a shop together. But here, in 2019, the duo operates Union Studio in St. Louis’ Botanical Heights neighborhood, selling a wide variety of handcrafted goods and fine art. The best part? Everything in the shop is made by area residents.
Years ago, Bussen had been using the space at 1605 Tower Grove Ave. for her own personal textile work, sharing the storefront with another artist and maintaining a small retail footprint. Within her first year in the space, though, Bussen knew that she needed to figure out the focus for the storefront and that she’d need additional help.
“Just as I was writing up a job description and making the decision to expand the retail, [Kelley] walked in and said she was looking for a job,” Bussen says. “I wanted to create ongoing access to the high-quality work of artists in the community, and once [Kelley] came aboard, we really expanded that.”
When they first started Union Studio in April 2014, the duo carried the work of eight artists in the corner shop. Today, they carry more than 80.
“We’ve grown the retail aspect of things substantially in the last four years,” Kelley says. “What’s been nice about this space is, everything’s always happened organically. The combination of the community’s response and artist interest has led us to take on more and cultivate more relationships.”
Visitors to the shop will find a new selection of wares regularly, as the duo shifts out their supply to feature new pieces frequently. From local granola to pottery to handbags to skin care, Union Studio has a little something for everybody. Although the selection does change out regularly, there are a few things customers will always be able to find in-store, known as the Union Studio Collection. The set of items includes Al Westcott’s handleless mugs, Christiane Danna’s leaf earrings, Stone Leather Goods’ envelope purse and more.
“When people first walk in, we always ask if they’ve been in before,” Kelley says. “We tell them that everything is handmade and all artists are from St. Louis. [Bussen and I] personally know each and every person whose work is in here, and our customers have come to expect and cherish having that story to go with [their purchases]. I think that’s something really special.”
Oftentimes, customers use Union Studio as a gift shop and are drawn back repeatedly by the ever-changing selection, Kelley says. She notes the popularity of the shop’s “pantry” section, which features things like local honey, tea and granola.
“People like to give gifts that can be consumed and don’t have to have a place in somebody’s home,” she says of that popular exceptional section, which functions rather like an elevated impulse-buy area.
Customers are also drawn to the shop’s selection of clothing and accessories, including cozy pants from Annamaya Clothing by Alison Hyde, colorful pieces by Olivia Rae Designs and intricate jewelry from makers like Leia Zumbro and Jenny Walker.
The duo spends a lot of their time interacting with customers, taking the time to get to know them and find out what pieces they’re drawn to in the shop.
“There’s something special that happens in this space,” Bussen says. “People really are drawn to the work and the people that are doing it, whether it’s a cord wrap for your earbuds or a piece of large art for your home. I think people don’t always know what they’ll find, but they’re confident they’ll find something.”
As they celebrate their five-year anniversary this spring, the Union Studio ladies seek to open up the conversation even further.
“I think five years in, the shop is still ever-changing in its dynamic, but we want to have more sit-down conversations, whether it [be] with the artists or other business owners or members of the community in general,” Kelley says.
Bussen agrees, noting the reflective and loyal qualities in the shop’s customer base, along with the artists she and Kelley work with.
“We have a whole group of artists who are creative and generous to take a chance with us,” she says. “When you look at the people we have engaged in this space, it sure seems like there’s so much work to be done. Whether the work occurs in this physical space or broader, I think our hope is that we can start to understand what we can do with all these incredible people.”
Union Studio, 1605 Tower Grove Ave., St. Louis, 314-771-5398, stlunionstudio.com