Jamie Bichler's latest project was a pair of wedding bands, each featuring the fingerprint of the wearer's spouse.
Instead of going to a big-box store in search of a flashy diamond or brand, a lesbian couple she met at the Sawdust Winter Fantasy three years ago opted to symbolize their commitment in this personal and increasingly popular way.
Although the hands-on process of developing the design was deemed special by everyone involved, the product wasn't perfect — or, at least, not in the generally accepted sense of the term.
"It is handmade," Bichler remarked. "Love went into it and I think that is felt, cheesy as that sounds."
Bichler, 45, of Laguna Beach, is one of about 30 artists whose work is on display in Kavita Reddy's year-old store, Buy Hand. Vibrant alphabet photography lines the walls of the sunny space, in which peace sign-toting organic onesies mingle with beady-eyed crocheted plush toys and polka-dotted animal collars.
The store is advertised as a marketplace for reasonably priced handmade gifts, including gold and silver trinkets, witty one-liner cards, heavily scented Buddha candles and funky, sequined flamingos. The merchandise — which is either on consignment or purchased outright — is mostly provided by local artists, while a portion comes from residents of Los Angeles and San Diego counties.
Most everything is priced below $100, while some 22-karat gold jewelry goes up to about $400 and artwork to $550.
Reddy, 42, who spent more than a decade as a computer programmer and software architecture, was no stranger to the effects of the recession. While she and her husband retained their jobs, several friends weren't as lucky.
"I started thinking to myself, "Well, we keep outsourcing our production jobs — everything is mass produced and we're losing our connection to the human sources of those goods,'" she said. "Every time we buy something from somewhere else, we are not supporting one another, especially in these hard times."
'I wanted to put down roots'
When Reddy stumbled across a report by the pro-local-business 3/50 Project stating that of $100 spent in locally owned businesses, $68 returns to the community through taxes and payroll, versus $43 spent at a national chain and zero online, she decided to "stem the tide" in her own small way.
Once the idea took hold, she rented an approximately 1,500-square-foot store and named it Buy Hand — a play on the phrase "made by hand."
"When somebody comes into this shop and buys something, they're literally and figuratively supporting their neighbors, because the artists and I are from this town," Reddy said.
At the grand opening last year, she invited guests to place their palms in white paint and leave a permanent mark on her wall, which lists celebrating humanity, strengthening communities and supporting families over factories as benefits of choosing handmade goods.
A few patrons took decorating a step further by using their pets' paws and babies' feet to make an indelible print. One even put her lips into the dye and gave the wall a smackeroo, Reddy recalled with a laugh.
Such interactions have cemented relationships between the shop owner and community members — a connection that she craved.
Reddy, who relocated from Ottawa, Canada, to Dallas and then to Boston, Irvine and Huntington Beach, moved into her Laguna Beach home in 2010, thrilled by the cosmopolitan yet small-town feel of the beach city.
"I was so sick of moving around, and missed belonging to a small community and meeting new people," she said. "I wanted to put down roots, start a business and try to fit in with the unique artistic nature of Laguna Beach."
Seeking local artists
Spending nearly every day at Buy Hand — with its influx of tourists, locals and artisans — has helped Reddy to bond and feel at home. As has being able to use the space at the back of the shop for community events and craft classes.
Joking about her year's worth of "vast experience," Reddy remarked that her busiest months are May through August, with December bringing a flock of gift buyers. In contrast, January and February are a struggle to get through.
"If you think about Laguna Beach, every part that is really popular and has a lot of support has some sort of anchoring restaurant," she said. "We used to have one — Mosun Sushi — but that's been out of business for a couple years."
For Bichler, Buy Hand is one of 15 stores nationwide that sell her wares, enabling her to pursue an activity that she loves. Her clamshell necklaces employ recycled metal and are some of the venue's best sellers.
"[Kavita] was really seeking out local artists, which really impressed me," said Bichler, who often wakes up in the middle of the night to sketch something she has dreamt of. "It is unfortunately not the norm here in Laguna."
While the two connected via Etsy, an e-commerce version of her business, Reddy has also met exhibitors at Laguna's Sawdust Art Festival and fairs in Long Beach, Encinitas and San Juan Capistrano, as well as online. Jill Cooper is someone Reddy was very happy to meet.
Cooper, who works with cast and fused glass, layers individual sheets in a pattern and fires them in a kiln. Her multi-hued artwork is wildly popular, said Reddy, adding that customers often call in orders during the holidays.
"I think people enjoy having something in their home that is unique, one-of-a-kind and created by an artist rather than in an assembly line in China," said Cooper, 64, who lives in Laguna Beach. "Hopefully, my glass panels will bring back a memory of their stay in our beautiful [town]."
A good luck charm
A look around the store reveals that Reddy, who is originally from Hyderabad, India, is a fan of her native culture.
Based on Indian customs, a woman, once married, is presented with an assortment of saris — a four- to nine-yard piece of cloth that is draped around the body. Reddy, with a closet full of silk, printed and embroidered saris, is no exception.
Some of these she has converted into capes and dresses.
A brass wall hanging above Buy Hand's entrance seems at odds with the rest of its merchandise. Closer inspection reveals bells and symbols of Lakshmi — the Hindu goddess of wealth and prosperity.
"My mother sent it to me when she heard about my plan, with instructions on where to hang it," she said. "It's meant to bring good luck."
If You Go
What: Buy Hand
Where: 670 South Coast Hwy., Unit B, Laguna Beach
When: 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday