Artisanal Manufacturing and Marketing

One day in April of 2008, I was having lunch in a transit lounge in the Singapore airport. A news story on the TV over the bar showed me the Jerome (AZ) Grand Hotel and a number of visiting politicos. By April of 2008, Senator McCain was the presumptive Republican candidate for President. McCain has a property near Jerome. The politicos were VP candidate – wannabes visiting with the Senator.

Seeing little Jerome on TV news a half a world away strikes me as a strange story. But there a lot of strange stories in Jerome. One of those is about a Jerome shop that has become a global artisanal marketing focal point. That story is worth retelling here.

… C.H.


Artisanal Manufacturing and the Power of Stories

Were it not for a mesquite tree, Jerome would be readily visible from my bedroom window. The town of Jerome clings to the steep slopes of Cleopatra Mountain, a mile high – about half way between the Verde River and the mountain’s summit. As the 19th century turned into the 20th, in the twilight of the Wild West, rich copper mines made Jerome one of the largest settlements in Arizona Territory. Ores dwindled until the mines closed in 1953. Today, Jerome is home to about 450 souls, largely artisans and artists. A modest but growing tourist trade keeps them occupied.

Today, Jerome provides a rather remarkable story for artisanal manufacturers – a story about stories. Among the shops, restaurants and such that clutch the mountainside, two ladies run the largest kaleidoscope store in the world. It is fair to say that Nellie Bly (the store’s name) is the focal point of the kaleidoscope world.

Being a curious fellow, I wondered how a retail shop in an off-the-beaten-path tourist town had become central to a niche market like kaleidoscopes. So I drove up the mountain and asked. Mary Wills, one of Nellie Bly’s owners, said that she didn’t know. But she did kindly make time to show me around her busy shop and to chat with me for a while. I drew my own conclusions.

The Stories

Mary Wills and Sally Dryer, her partner, do not make kaleidoscopes. Their shop does provide an interface linking those who make kaleidoscopes with the collectors and retail customers who buy them. I think that the necessary network of contacts came to be largely by word of mouth, likely aided by several stories that serve to “break the ice” and promote pass-it-along conversations. Here are a few of such stories:

> Kaleidoscopes: Most of us remember kaleidoscopes as toys – paperboard tubes that display pretty geometric patterns. The kaleidoscopes that Nellie Bly sells are certainly not toys. Rather, they are artistic or artisanal creations. The juxtaposition of the familiar toy kaleidoscopes with their unfamiliar Nellie Bly counterparts fuels conversation.

Nellie Bly> Nellie Bly – Take 1: Mary Wills is a Nellie Bly fan. Nellie Bly was the pen name of an intrepid woman reporter with Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World who achieved considerable celebrity in the later decades of the 19th century. She visited northern Arizona in 1890 as part of her around the world race against time. (She beat Jules Verne’s fictional Around the World in 80 Days record by about 6 days). Her celebrity in the mining community resulted in her name being associated with several Jerome mining claims. This remarkable woman spurred conversation in 19th century. She still does.

> Lucy van Pelt: Mary’s partner Sally Dryer has her own story. As a child, she was the voice of crabby Lucy van Pelt in a number of Peanuts animated TV specials. Everybody remembers Lucy, Charley Brown and the Great Pumpkin. Again, a story to talk about and to pass along. Throw in the kaleidoscopes.

> Belgian Jennie: Nellie Bly – the store – is built on the foundation of an earlier structure that burned in the late 1800’s. That building housed one of Belgian Jennie’s Jerome establishments. Belgian Jennie was easily the most prominent Madame in the Arizona mining camps. She was also generally regarded as the wealthiest woman in Arizona at the time of her murder in 1905. Yet again, a remarkable character to talk about, then by-the-way into discussion about kaleidoscopes.

Nellie Bly – Take 2

Stories offer one means to open doors toward building relationship with prospective customers and with prospective suppliers. Once a door is opened, however it is opened, it is still necessary to build lasting relationships that generate repeat and referral business. Nellie Bly — the store – helps do this in several ways. For example, customers are actually encouraged to touch, hence experience, the kaleidoscopes, even though many are priced in the hundreds or thousands of dollars. Take a minute to check out what Trip Advisor has to say about the store:  http://www.tripadvisor.com/Attraction_Review-g31253-d5209037-Reviews-Nellie_Bly_Kaleidoscopes-Jerome_Arizona.html

Relationships with suppliers are fostered by an annual weekend of kaleidoscope workshops, experience sharing and social events. Sally and Mary, the owners, also take deep personal interest, especially in those who make the kaleidoscopes. Its about relationships.

For Smaller Manufacturers

For many smaller manufacturers, artisanal or otherwise, accessing markets and building sales is the primary constraint to sustainability, let alone growth. Smaller manufacturers face a big world and well heeled competition. Getting the word out in a cost – effective manner is tough, but not impossible. Stories like Nellie Bly’s offer one inexpensive approach that some businesses may find useful.

Quick BS check: Suppose that you are one of the four million plus people who visit Sedona AZ this year. Now that you have heard the stories, would you be more likely to take a short side trip to Jerome? If you did, would you be more likely to visit Nellie Bly? If you did, would you be more likely to buy a kaleidoscope as a gift or for yourself?

Chuck - SedonaThoughtful comments and experience reports are always appreciated.

…  Chuck Harrington (Chuck@JeraSustainableDevelopment.com)

This blog and associated website (www.JeraSustainableDevelopment.com) are intended as a resource for smaller manufacturers in the pursuit of Sustainability. While editorial focus is on smaller manufacturers, all interested readers are welcome.