For more than 30 years, members of Chicago's Oak Park Women's Exchange have been pooling their resources in order to sell handmade crafts and creations. Together, they enjoy a cooperative business arrangement that celebrates creativity, community and commerce.
By Matt Alderton
Diane Symonanis has always enjoyed working with her hands. A paralegal by trade, she's a crafter at heart. She's designed stenciled clothing, handmade greeting cards, knit accessories and artisan jewelry. More artist than businessperson, she never dreamed she could make money by selling things that she enjoyed giving away for free.
That changed in 2000 when Symonanis discovered Oak Park Women's Exchange in west suburban Chicago. A nonprofit cooperative, Exchange runs a consignment store in Oak Park, Ill., where local artists can sell their handmade arts and crafts.
"My main reason for becoming a member was to sell my things," Symonanis says. "But it's also a great way to meet people and get involved in the community. It's a very, very interesting organization."
More than interesting, Exchange is also innovative. Ninety-nine percent female, it's a place where women of all ages and abilities can experience life as an entrepreneur.
Art Turned Enterprise
Oak Park Women's Exchange was established in 1974 by a group of female artists who were looking to transform their crafting hobbies into cash. Then a small club selling things out of a basement, Exchange has grown into a large collective of 80 diverse members who sell everything from blown glass and crochet to handmade jewelry and watercolors from a dedicated retail space near their city's arts district. Those members range from teenagers to senior citizens — the oldest among them is 90 years old — and include stay-at-home moms, full-time career women and retired professionals.
"It's a very good group of women who've been brought together because they have common interests," says Deanne Alexander, who sells handmade soaps and lotions at Exchange as an extension of Sweet Thyme Soaps, her home-based private label soap business. "We're small, but we're unique."
Chief among members' common interests, of course, is Exchange itself, of which all members are considered equal owners. Here's how it works:
- Members pay an annual membership fee of $72.
- Members volunteer to work at Exchange six hours per month as retail clerks.
- Members set their own prices and keep 75 percent of their sales; the other 25 percent goes back into the organization.
"We have people who do incredible work," Alexander says. "Going through us, they can price it, sell it and make a decent amount of money doing it."
Of course, extra income isn't all Exchange members enjoy. They also receive a valuable education, as Exchange gives women with little or no business experience a risk-free environment in which to learn about inventory, finance, marketing and customer service.
The education is purely optional, however. For those who like being crafty more than corporate, Exchange offers a convenient way to earn money — without having to wear white collars. That's because members elect a board of executives charged with handling bookkeeping, staffing, publicity, promotions, inventory and record keeping for Exchange and all its members.
"You don't have to worry about the things that a small-business owner has to deal with," Alexander says. "You come in and you drop off your things at the price you choose. The rest is taken care of."
Community is Key
Oak Park Women's Exchange isn't all about crafts and cash; it's also about community, collaboration and camaraderie. Members are friends and mentors, equal parts professional and personal. In order to support their strong sense of community, they:
- Accept and coordinate custom orders from customers.
- "Jury" their products.
- Staff the shop themselves in order to interact with their customers.
- Organize annual fundraising promotions.
- Donate time, money and products to local charities.
Starting a Successful Co-op
If you're interested in starting your own co-op, consider these tips from Oak Park Women's Exchange:
- Compromise. With multiple owners, not everyone can be 100 percent happy all of the time. Be willing to choose your battles.
- Set rules. In order to separate business from pleasure, create rules that govern your co-op, including who can be involved, what they can sell, etc.
- Find a niche. Co-ops can't always compete with big box stores. Differentiate yourself by offering excellent service and unique products.
- Elect leaders. Because there's no boss it's important to elect a board of executives who can provide guidance and leadership.