Talking Shop

How did the Artisan Center celebrate its 25th anniversary a few weeks ago? By doing absolutely nothing.

"We kept talking about it and talking about it, but the days just rolled on and we lost track," says Ellen Seale, who purchased the store, originally started as a pottery studio, in 1977. "Maybe we'll do something next year -- have a big 26th birthday party."

A longstanding Denver shopping institution, the Cherry Creek North corner store is crammed with everything from teapots and candles to jewelry and mobiles. "I had this vision of a corner drugstore where anybody can drop in, hang out, find something or meet a friend," Seale remembers. "So I slowly but surely filled it with beautiful things and warm, wonderful people." In fact, the space the Artisan Center occupies was originally the Detroit Street Pharmacy.

Shoppers are greeted by the store's country-style barn door, whose top half is usually kept open. The door, whose color fluctuates between red and purple (it's currently red), was actually rescued from a dumpster. "It was a miracle that it fit," Seale says. "We've had it from the very beginning."

Although the Artisan Center keeps the basics on hand -- longtime strong sellers include pottery, glasses, wind chimes and lamps -- the shop works hard to keep up with new trends, this year adding popular Asian items such as sushi plates, chopsticks and bamboo plants, as well as more jewelry and accessories. "Anything turquoise just flies out of the store right now," Seale notes. "Dishes, pasta bowls and teapots are also big: Everyone seems more into cooking these days."

"People know that they can get things here that are a little unusual," she says. For the young -- and the young at heart -- the store sells novelty items like wind-up toys and red fortune fish. "The toys sell well with all ages. People are always saying that they remind them of their childhood."

And the store, which is almost always crowded, is gearing up for a busy July, with both the Cherry Creek Arts Festival and the Cherry Creek Sidewalk Sale. "It definitely gets crazy around here in July," says Seale. "The arts festival is a huge event, and it's a wonderful thing to have here in our little neighborhood."

Seale has watched Cherry Creek North change dramatically in the past quarter-century. "There were no Starbucks, no galleries back then. It was basically the Tattered Cover, a few shops and us," she recalls. "But I think it's developed in a nice way. Little businesses like us have sustained and grown; I guess we have longevity."

Now businesses new to the area call on the Artisan Center for advice, which its staff is more than happy to dispense. "Customers want something original, unique and affordable," Seale says. "And they want to know that a human being did it, that it wasn't mass-produced."

"We think every customer is important," adds store manager Shadi Letson. "It's not about the sell, and I think that makes a big difference."

How much stuff is crammed into the small corner store? "Lots and lots," says Seale. "If it's not stuffed full, people will complain. Our customers definitely notice."

Seale and Letson could spend hours sharing stories about customers who come back fifteen or twenty years later to show off children and grandchildren, or about the man who came in to buy an urn for his mother's ashes because the Artisan Center was her favorite store. "I love it that there are people who have been coming here their whole lives," says Seale. "I'd say at least 80 percent of our customers are regulars." Maybe they keep coming back for the free homemade caramels and candy sitting on the counter by the cash register.

So, does the Artisan Center have another 25 years left in it? "Probably," Seale answers hopefully. "We want to eventually pass it off, because we want the store to always be around. We like to shop here."