SHOPPING : Helping Art to Pay Its Way : At Handmade Gallery, artisans are free to concentrate on their wares while the staff takes care of business.


A few brows furrowed when Andrea Spyros first told artists that their displays at Hand made Gallery should look "dressed." And it may have seemed odd when she started talking about "re-merchandising" or explaining the "psychology of the customer."

But at Handmade Gallery, art and commerce collide. Spyros, who bought the store in March, tries to make the two fuse in a way that is enjoyable--and profitable. The gallery makes money only if its artists make money.

The Handmade concept is simple. The 5,000-square-foot store on Ventura Boulevard is divided into display spaces--shelves, booths, corners, walls--that artists rent for $75 to $330 a month. Each space becomes a mini-store for the artist, who chooses what to display and how much to charge. The gallery provides the sales staff and gets a 15% commission.

The arrangement has worked well for artist Brian Andreas, who used to live in California but moved to Decorah, Iowa, last year. His colorful StoryPeople, made of cut wood and wire with words stamped on them, are sold in 143 galleries nationwide.

"The majority of stores that we are in around the country, we do pretty much a 50-50 wholesale arrangement with. [At Handmade] it's like almost having a staff of people who know your work, and work for you for a 15% commission," he says. He earns between $1,500 and $2,000 a month from sales at Handmade, he says, near the median for the galleries that carry his work.

Managing the store is like operating a mall, says Greg Hughart, 36, who runs the store with Spyros. It's been his job to recruit new artists and determine which ones have items appropriate for Handmade. The store is trying to take a more artistic tack, but Hughart is wary of drawing any bold lines between art and more traditional crafts. There are paintings and sculptures available. But he also just accepted a line of teddy bears to sell.

"The creativity in this store just inspires me. It wasn't until after I started to work here that I started to sculpt," Hughart says. So far, he's sculpted one hand--and has 24 pounds of clay left over--but the process gave the former game-show contestant coordinator a greater appreciation for the products he sells.

Although each of the 80 artist's spaces--up from 50 in March--has an individual identity, the overall effect is incredibly eclectic. In a cove toward the back is a 1940s refrigerator converted into an entertainment center. There are custom-finished wooden boxes, hand-bound leather journals, funky switch-plate covers and clocks with painted faces--including one with a mug shot of O.J. Simpson. Prices range from a pair of earrings for $5 to a Tiffany-style floor lamp for $16,800.

"What do you get someone who has everything? You get them something that can't be had anywhere else," Hughart says. "One of our artists makes fruit and vegetable jewelry out of bread dough. Where else are you going to find that?"

While the artists themselves are responsible for the inventory, Spyros and Hughart have an obvious interest in sales: Artists who aren't breaking even won't rent store space. So Spyros and Hughart make suggestions about displays, help with pricing and tip off artists as to what the hot sales trends are. (These days, it's sunflowers.) They also limit intra-store competition. If a pillow maker has a booth, they won't rent space to another one--a policy that keeps merchandise diverse.

Handmade was in a lull when Spyros bought out the founding owner. But she knew what she was getting into. After five years as a retail manager for Express and I. Magnin, she spent two years as a retail consultant. Handmade was one of her clients.

"It was a really good idea with so many possibilities that were unexplored," Spyros says.

She'd always loved art and crafts--and in fact paints floor mats and finishes furniture for herself and friends--but an interest in fashion led her into retail. Now, at 29, she owns her own business.

"I kind of went crazy, I think," she says. "Some days I view it as: 'What was I thinking?' But most of the time I think we're really on our way."

In addition to sprucing up the place, she has revived a newsletter for the artists, in which she keeps them up to date about everything from parking issues to how to prepare for the Christmas season, when gift stores do about 70% of their business.

For the artists, Handmade offers more than potential income. Burbank resident Claire McCulloch, 44, has sold jewelry and pottery at Handmade since it opened 2 1/2 years ago. "It's a wonderful opportunity to be able to experiment with your product--with colors, shapes, sizes and prices--and then move into galleries," she says.

The store has the potential, Spyros thinks, to be a Valley landmark. And in 1996, she'd like to use a space in the back of the store as a gallery. It could give artists a chance to show some of the work that they don't usually sell at Handmade.

"You're not going to rent a space for thousand-dollar pieces of artwork," she explains. "You're going to do OK in the end, but you're going to be waiting forever" for that sale.

The changes have artists excited--both about a potential increase in sales and their role in a larger collaborative effort. Christy Botkin Reeves, who paints jewel boxes and furniture, says that Spyros and Hughart encourage suggestions and nourish artists, who can feel vulnerable displaying their work.

"I just feel like I'm in good hands with these two, as a friend and as an artist," says Reeves, 38. "They're going to be a source--rather than just a store--where people want to come."

Where and When

What: Handmade Gallery.

Location: 14556 Ventura Blvd.

Hours: Noon to 8 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday, noon to 9 p.m. Friday, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Saturday, noon to 6 p.m. Sunday.

Call: (818) 382-3444.

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