When you walk into The Artisans Exchange in Chelmsford, you won’t know where to look first. Visitors are often dazzled by the array of beautiful creations on display throughout this unusual store. And they should be. The Artisans Exchange, which has been open since April 2018, currently showcases the creative work of over 90 artists, more than two-thirds of whom live in the Merrimack Valley.
The Exchange represents the vision and combined energies of three women who are in the unusual position of operating a small business that supports nearly 100 other small businesses. Friends Carissa Campbell, Eileen DeChaves and Sara Hesselton wanted, as it says on their website, “to bring together local artisans, local history, and the greater community of Chelmsford and surrounding areas in a cozy and inviting space.”
Hesselton came up with the original concept for the business. For years, every time she drove past the Old Mill House property in Chelmsford’s downtown, she’d think: “That would be such a cute little craft shop.” When the for lease sign went up after Chantilly Lace moved out, she got serious and started mentioning the idea to her friends. Campbell, who overheard Hesselton talking at a school event, was the first to express interest in a partnership.
The two arranged to meet at The Java Room, a nearby cafe, where they discussed business plans and models. Inspired, they walked to the Old Mill House to look in the windows. While they were peeking, the owner saw them and asked if they wanted a tour. The place, they thought, was perfect.
Things moved quickly after that. While at a parent-teacher organization event at South Row Elementary School, which their children attended at the time, DeChaves heard Hesselton talking about the new venture and mentioned that she’d always had a dream of having a little art shop. With her on board, the partnership was complete.
All three women had entertained thoughts about a place like The Artisans Exchange at some point in their lives, and each offered talents and skills from diverse backgrounds. Hesselton’s past included medieval and museum studies, and experience with metalsmithing and graphic design. She has worked for the Higgins Armory and Hammond Castle museums. Campbell has a bachelor’s degree in art history and worked for the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, the Cambridge Historical Society, Christie’s auction house and the Peabody Essex Museum. DeChaves has the most traditional corporate background, having worked as a physical therapist and location manager for rehab centers and nursing homes.
To build their inventory, the women chose a juried consignment approach in which artisans submit their work and the three owners decide collectively if it’s something they think their customers will want. They found their first crafters by handing out flyers and networking at craft shows. Artists now contact them regularly, either by coming to the store or getting in touch through social media and email. It’s hard to imagine where the women would put more items, but they are willing to consider partnering with any artist who seems appropriate.
The Artisans Exchange boasts four rooms dedicated to retail space. Works by jewelers, painters and photographers are placed alongside items by writers, clothing designers, and glass and fiber artists. Edible products such as syrups, honeys and cooking mixes are also available. The beautiful and sparkly, from necklaces and earrings to dresses and dream catchers, sit near the practical, such as bowl cozies and one-of-a-kind hair accessories. Many of the artisans take custom orders.
Building a successful business required the owners to involve their families in the process. The women have seven children ranging in age from 7 to 14, giving them plenty to manage beyond the business. In addition to taking on more at home, their supportive husbands have helped with painting, setup, furniture moving and more. The kids have also gotten involved, with some even taking turns at the register and doing other work at the store.
The women’s commitment to the store has changed their domestic dynamic since mom isn’t quite as available as she was before, yet all three say they love the example they’re setting for their children by having their own business. In addition, they all agree that the kids come first, so if someone is suddenly needed at home, the others help cover.
While planning The Artisans Exchange, Campbell, DeChaves and Hesselton envisioned a space where people could enjoy and purchase handmade work and also cultivate their own creative side. To encourage this, classes have been offered in the building’s fifth room since the store opened. The first was drawing. Then dot painting and knitting. The classes appeal to a wide age range (most allow kids over 12), with some designed for specific groups, such as “Mom & Me” and a “Girl Power Workshop.” Recent additions have included the Zentangle Method of drawing, writing classes, and an art and music healing workshop. Offerings that combine the spiritual with the artistic have been particularly popular.
When The Artisans Exchange name was chosen, the owners didn’t realize it had a historical connection with the building. From 1949 until 1971, it housed a bakery run by Chelmsford native Ruby Emery. A few months after the Exchange opened, Emery’s niece visited and told the women that the site had been home to an operation called the Women’s Exchange before it became her aunt’s bakery. In the lean years following World War I, women used the location to trade. Where one had eggs, another had cloth. Working together, they supported each other, a tradition that continues with the current partnership. Clearly, the Old Mill House’s latest occupant is carrying on an important local legacy while creating its own niche in the community.
The Artisans Exchange