April 15 2009 12:00 AM

Get crafty: Mackerel Sky brings steady stream of handmade goods to East Lansing


Fifth in an eight-part series on businesses that are members of Capital Area Local First. For membership information, see www.capitalarealocalfirst.com.

The next time you and your art snob buddies are debating the aesthetic and pragmatic differences between arts and crafts, why not stroll down to an East Lansing institution that has been offering customers high-quality examples of each for close to 20 years.

Linda Dufelmeier and her husband, Tom, opened Mackerel Sky Gallery of Contemporary Craft in 1990. They lived in downtown East Lansing, and they wanted to do something to put some life into what they saw at the time as a dying downtown. “We felt a strong urban center is important,” Linda Dufelmeier said. “We wanted to offer East Lansing something it didn’t have.”

When it came to naming their new business, the couple wanted something original. “We didn’t want a name like ‘Ye Olde Gift-e Shoppe,’” Dufelmeier joked.

As a couple of Pisces with a shared interest in cloud formations, the Dufelmeiers were inspired when they learned about the weather phenomenon known as a “mackerel sky,” a formation of high-altitude cirrus clouds said to resemble the scale patterns of the fish it’s named for. Not only are the clouds good for indicating a change in conditions before or after a storm, they’re also particularly beautiful at sunset. “We thought it was a pretty good omen for the start of our business,” Dufelmeier said.

After this many years, it seems they may have been right.

Mackerel Sky’s storefront is simple, set back from the street and watched over by a lone lamppost. Walking in, visitors will find row upon row of crafted items, stretched to the back of the relatively small shop.

During a tour of the store, employee Sara Pulver starts with the back of the shop, where local scenes painted by artist Sandra Davidson are displayed. “It’s a rotating gallery,” Pulver explained. “We change it every other month, and we display local artists. It’s really cool to see.”

Several cases of jewelry show off earrings, pins, pendants and necklaces. Prices range from the very affordable ($16) to higher end (more than $500).

In the clothing section, which features several scarves, jackets and sweaters, Pulver pointed out many articles by Lansing’s Chris Triola, the shop’s “go-to person” for clothing.

Moving to the front of the store, we encountered shelves filled to the brim with different crafts, including numerous hand-made wooden boxes and bowls and decorative kitchen utensils. One of the store’s most popular items can be found in the art glass section: Artist Josh Simpson’s “planets,” an interpretation of what his astronomer wife describes when she looks at other worlds, are beautiful orbs that immediately attract the eye.

One of the tenets of Mackerel Sky, as six-year employee Alicia Trantum explained, is to value quality over quantity, and it shows. “If things are made well and treated well, they will hold those memories you inscribe in them and will last forever,” Trantum said.

Almost everything available at the gallery is made in America, save for a few linens from France and Canada. The gallery’s owners also make a point of supporting and displaying artists from mid-Michigan. “We’re losing our middle class, our makers of things,” Dufelmeier said. “If we don’t support them, we will lose them. It’s why our economy is going down the tubes. Supporting Americanmade products enriches the whole culture and community.”

And a small community seems to have sprung up around the Dufelmeiers’ business. While Pulver talked about the shop’s customer base (“We have a lot of regulars,” she said), as if on cue, an elderly dog named Babs walked into the shop, accompanied by her owner. Babs is a regular of the gallery.

Jenine Granier Iverson, a customer who has known the Dufelmeiers since before they opened their gallery, appreciates the shop’s customer service. “It’s a very old-fashioned approach to service,” she said. “They give you as much or as little input as you need. And all the staff is very knowledgeable. It all lends to the intimacy of the place.”

Practicing the golden rule never hurts either. “We try to treat people like we would want to be treated,” Dufelmeier said. “It’s not a strategy, its just how we are.”

“People aren’t used to it,” Trantum continued. “We have fun, joke around with the customers. It’s a very familial environment. With all the recurring customers, it’s a neat little community.”

When you’re working in a business full of loaded terms like “art” and “craft,” Trantum explained why building those relationships is important. “‘Gallery’ has a preconceived notion about it, something pretentious,” Trantum said. “It’s almost like a museum that you can touch, where you can become one with the art. People hear ‘craft’ and they think church bazaar or something, not that there’s anything wrong with that. But craft is art, just useful art, and we want to get that out there.”

Mackerel Sky Gallery of Contemporary Craft

Ann St. Plaza, East Lansing 10 a.m. – 7 p.m. Monday- Wednesday 10 a.m.
– 8 p.m. Thursday & Friday 10 a.m. – 6 p.m. Saturday Noon – 5 p.m.
Sunday (517) 351-2211 www.mackerelsky.com