Small-scale craft manufacturers bringing back ‘cottage industry’

Josh Vogel and Kelly Zaneto of Blackcreek Mercantile. (Photo by Nancy Donskoj)

In a recent column in the New York Times Magazine, Adam Davidson lauded craft manufacturers as “model 21st century capitalists” and “guides of the future American economy.” That’s good news forKingston, which already has a sizable cluster of artisan entrepreneurs. Companies such as R&F Handmade Paints, Bailey Pottery, Catskill Woodworking and Pirate Upholstery put down roots in the city because of the availability of affordable manufacturing space, as well as Kingston’s historic urban fabric and quality of life. Artisan businesses could be the key to Kingston’s future prosperity.

Lending support to that hypothesis is the arrival of two new entrants, Blackcreek Mercantile & Trading Company, which leases space on the ground floor of a former brush factory onGreenkill Avenue, and The Edelweiss Soap Company, which has opened a new storefront on John Street. Both may look to the long-term success of Broadway’s Monkey Joe Coffee Roasting Co. for hope and as an example of how a small maker of high-quality goods can prosper. Like the owners of the cottage industries that preceded industrialism, these entrepreneurs are calling the shots, working their own hours and transforming raw materials into simple, healthful, aesthetically pleasing products.

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But unlike the weavers, coopers and butter-makers of old, they aren’t limited to the local market. The ability to sell to a specialty market that’s potentially limitless, given the reach of the Web, is resulting in the new phenomenon of “global grass roots,” as Blackcreek co-owner Josh Vogel terms it. “We sell to a small quantity of people who have boutique stores all over the place,” he said. “The diversification of hundreds of cottage businesses offers so many opportunities.”

Blackcreek Trading & Mercantile Company

Launched in October 2010, Blackcreek Mercantile & Trading Company has attracted a sizeable following, receiving coverage in numerous national magazines and selling to a network of retailers around the world. It was founded by Vogel, a woodworker and artist who previously co-owned a hand-crafted furniture company in New York City, and his partner Kelly Zaneto, who serves as the business manager, salesperson, and publicist. Customers generally find the company on the web (the company has a website, blog, and is represented on Facebook and other social media), with inquiries coming in at a rate of several a week, according to Zaneto.

The products roughly fall into three categories. There are turnings — rough-hewn bowls, hollowed vessels, urn-shaped lidded vessels, and sculptural balls created by Vogel on a lathe. There are small products — hand-carved cutting boards and cutting-board oil made with propolis, the sticky substance produced by bees to seal their hives. And there are limited editions of branded kitchen implements — carved spoons and the like, whose playful, whimsical forms look like something dreamed up by Brancusi, David Smith or Miro.

Sales of the cutting-board oil, handsomely packaged in glass bottles with wax-sealed corks and vintage-looking labels, are particularly promising. The product, which sells for $35 a bottle, was featured recently in Bon Appetit and is sold in a variety of small specialty stores throughout the U.S., Canada, Germany and Japan. Starting in early spring, a major national retailer will begin carrying the oil, Zaneto said.

Each product line is subject to a different logic of marketing and selling. For example, a limited-edition of Vogel’s small wooden implements is sold exclusively through a home furnishings store in San Francisco called MARCH. (Vogel said the supply is limited to 365 a year. The idea is to carve one a day on average, which “reflects the idea of daily chores.”) His foot-high wooden urns — he calls them “lidded jars”; the first was made as a receptacle for his father’s ashes — are being sold through Eno River Urn Co., located in North Carolina, and are sealed with a beeswax gasket in the lid.

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