It’s fitting that Earth & State is located in the town of Media, Pennsylvania. After all, the store is teeming with mixed media, not only from artists who live in or near this quaint suburb of Philadelphia, but from artists all over the world.
The shop is known for its extensive collection of handmade pottery, earthenware and porcelain pieces, fashioned by a variety of potters with different styles. Several other artistic mediums are represented here as well, from glass to wood to textiles. In all, Earth & State carries works from more than 200 artists.
The store’s name is also apt, denoting both its location—along State Street, in the state of Pennsylvania, on the planet Earth—and its use of materials from the earth itself. According to co-owner Drew Arata, some of the materials used to make earthenware are about as locally sourced as it gets. “Some of the clay used is from the creek here in Media,” he reports, adding that the close-to-home clay makes for particularly beautiful pottery.
That local-global focus has served Arata and his wife, Heather, well since they opened the store a decade ago. Despite continual ups and downs in the overall economy during that time, the Aratas have been successful by staying true to their commitment and vision for the shop.
A significant part of that vision has been to showcase the works of a diverse group of artists. For one thing, having local and regional artists as vendors allows the store to carry truly unique merchandise. “People realize that they are purchasing things made by a person who cares about the community and also cares about the products they are selling. That is why they are special,” says Arata, adding that he and Heather work closely with the artists whose works grace their shelves and displays. “We do our best to get to know them. Whenever we have a chance to visit one of our artists, we do. It’s important to know where they are coming from.”
In addition, by supporting such works, the Aratas are helping talented individuals find a platform and an audience for their works. That’s something that the couple understands well, since they have a similar background and skill. “We are artists and actually met in art school,” notes Arata, who still fires up the kiln for his own works.
While they work with a plethora of local and regional artists, the owners also think globally in many ways and that, too, is part of their vision for the shop. They constantly strive to be earth-friendly, using simple boxes with raffia ribbon and recycling boxes whenever possible. “We won’t throw away bubble wrap or peanuts. Knock wood, we’ve never had to buy bubble wrap in 10 years. We try to keep it as sustainable as possible,” Arata explains.
Meanwhile, since its doors first opened, Earth & State has carried fair-trade items, especially since Media was one of the first fair-trade cities in the country. That has allowed the Aratas to discover artists from all over the world, from those who create beautiful bracelets to those who make their own chocolates. Carrying such works improves the livelihood of otherwise-struggling artists, and again brings new meaning to the store name Earth & State.
Because community outreach is such an important priority for these artists/merchants, Arata often shares information about his store’s fair-trade artists to nearby residents. “When we can bring a person who is directly affected by fair trade and able to have a living wage into the schools to talk to third graders, that is important,” notes Arata.
Talking to third graders—and seniors, for that matter—is something that the Aratas enjoy doing, both as residents of Media and as business owners. “We get heavily involved in our community as a whole,” says Arata.
In addition to town events such as summer street festivals and holiday celebrations, Earth & State has become an integral part of several arts-oriented programs in Media. During the community’s annual arts and crafts fair, for instance, the shop hosts pottery demonstrations on several pottery wheels. “We will come out and bring out local creek clay and allow kids and adults to play with it. It doesn’t get fired, but it’s a way to have fun and get your hands dirty, and another artist and I are also there and work on collaborative pieces together,” says Arata. In recent years, the couple also has helped found a local arts council and has started a monthly visiting artist event that is held in town.
The Aratas are longtime supporters of nonprofit organizations in the area, too, including several cancer fund-raising organizations and schools. Indeed, being a visible and generous part of the community is like a form of goodwill-generated marketing. “That is really where we do a lot of advertising, through fund-raisers and making donations of pieces. We always give items to local fund-raisers, whether it’s a bake sale or someone working to eliminate poverty in Kenya,” he notes, adding, “That is how things get better.”
The Aratas are certainly social people, but they also have been canny about the use of social media, both to educate their shoppers about their store and its artists and to connect with people about upcoming events and new products. They started using social media sites such as Facebook, Twitter and MySpace early and often. “Social media was a big development. It happened right when the economy tanked on us, too, so it works out well for small businesses like us. It is essentially free and accessible in reaching out to your community and customers,” Arata says.
As with their other community outreach programs, the shop’s social media postings (usually written by Heather) are often framed around the bigger picture. “Instead of the over-the-top kind of sell, we try to tell people to come to town, based on the events we have here in Media, for example,” Arata says.
Before the couple starts ordering handmade pieces from artisans in August for the holidays (and for their 10-year-anniversary celebration in November), the Aratas will spend part of the summer leading the clay classes that they offer for kids. This year, they are focusing on how to make mud sculptures. “We have a lot of fun here,” Arata declares. “And we are always trying to juggle the retail life that comes with it.
Five Fun Questions
What’s the most unique event or promotion you’ve ever had?
“Our signature event is the Mysterious Days of Clay. It runs various times, and you never know what we’re going to do. We have one coming up, actually, and it will be our Pottery Throwdown that we position as an epic contest. It is a lot of fun doing demos like this.”
Knowing what you know now, what would you have done differently in your business?
“I would have gotten on a computer from the get-go. We started out with a hand ledger, which is honestly much faster. But when it comes down to the business end of it, the computer should do the work, and we artists should be free to do displays and unpack boxes and things like that.”
What fun things do you do for your staff?
“All of our employees, honestly, are family to us. Even if you are not related to us, you become family. We give great opportunities for fund-raisers, such as the Susan G. Komen 3-Day walk to support breast-cancer research and education. If our employees want to walk the three days, then we raise the money. We also offer first dibs on anything you unwrap. And those hold piles can become rather cumbersome!”
What is your favorite spot in the whole store?
“I’d say our main display cases. Everything is divided by color. We have a purple section, a green section and an earthy section, with all different artists mixed together in the same palette. We are able to bring things in from all around the world, but we can put them in one place and make it look cohesive.”
What is the first thing you do when you enter your store in the morning?
“Flip the ‘open’ sign! Our process is turning on lights and all that stuff, dragging the big planters and metal sculptures outside. There is a little bit of dragging and rearranging going on.”
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