Curating the Shop: Michele Tobin on Buying, Selling, and Etsy Pages
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Curating the Shop: Michele Tobin on Buying, Selling, and Etsy Pages

When Etsy invited its first round of tastemakers to be part of Pages, a new initiative launching today that helps Etsy visitors navigate its universe of artists and artisans, it invited retailers, magazines, and design pros — from Swiss Miss and Apartment Therapy to west elm and Tom Dixon — to share their recommendations. Only one museum shop was invited: Ours. Shop director Michele Tobin is always on the hunt for hand-crafted items that best illustrate the Walker Shop’s brand — “modern living, well-crafted” — and for Etsy she’ll be hand-picking her favorite projects from the site’s more than 18 million listings. To commemorate Pages’ launch — including the Walker’s Etsy Page — we caught up with Tobin to hear more about what she does in the Shop and how.

At the Walker we use the term “curate” carefully. But isn’t that what you do in the Shop?

In short, yes. In the Walker Shop, items are for sale, of course, so the selection criteria is different than in a gallery. But the idea of collecting items from a common point of view is the same.

What does curating a museum shop entail?

There are overarching necessities within a retail setting – price point, packaging, product type (do I have enough scarves for the fall?).  Then there are seasonal considerations – outdoor living items and vases for fresh flowers should be available in the Spring, messenger bags and hats in the Fall, for instance. For the Walker, there are several more layers. The themes and points of view of the artists we work with, along with the interpretation of our curators and the educational programs we present, inform the buying process and presentation in the Shop.

How do you keep up on ideas, products, trends, and makers?

You want me to tell you all my secrets?! Every buyer has their own methodology developed over time. For me, there are companies that work with designers that I have my eye on all the time. I also attend buyers’ shows in New York and Chicago to look for new lines and emerging designers.  There’s also a constant, steady flow of email pitches flowing through my inbox, and sometimes a hidden gem shows up there (but truthfully, there isn’t enough time in the day to read them all!). My favorite way to discover something new is word of mouth – someone I know found something I should take a look at, and I just have to have it!

Are “influencers” important to you, and if so, who are some of yours?

While I have my eye on what other retailers are doing, honestly, I like to forge my own way. I used to be much more focused on other museum stores and tastemakers, but I started to feel a little bit like I was chasing my tail. Now I get my inspiration from what designers are doing and items that excite me, and I bring them to the Walker to hopefully give our customers a fresh point of view and some of the same inspiration and excitement.

How does working with Etsy support the mission of the Walker Shop?

The Walker’s main mission is supporting creative expression, and the same is true in the Walker Shop. Etsy has allowed me to see scores of handmade items that I wouldn’t see otherwise, and now Pages will provide a way for me to tip the Walker hat to an artist or designer for a job well done.

What do you love about Etsy?

I love the unpredictable treasure hunt of Etsy. It’s fun! Sometimes you see some crazy stuff, but usually I’m just amazed at how beautiful or well executed a design is.

What non-shop/non-consumer ideas or people influence your work at the Walker?

I love art installations – how things are organized, the pedestals or platforms that are made, how things hang on the wall or from the ceiling. I’m also fascinated by public places and how people interact with them. Why do some benches always have people on them and some never do? I think those things inspire me to create an experience that is beautiful but also engaging.

What would you love to sell that won’t fit in our shop?

Well, baby animals would probably drive traffic during the holiday season…

I would love to have the space to highlight more furniture and lighting design. I bring in some select pieces to showcase, but to do it well we need a different size and location. We also currently don’t have any real walls to hang posters, organizational solutions, clocks, etc. But, I’m working on that – stay tuned!

How do you feel about online shopping?

I think it’s very convenient! I know I certainly shop online (only for things that aren’t in the Walker Shop, of course!). What’s interesting is that there are many people who prefer it. Everything is easy to see, with good photography and detailed product information.  That’s very interesting, and an important consideration when developing in-store and online strategies. For example, we have many Minneapolis online customers. That wasn’t something I expected, but I think it’s great.

What was the first thing you remember buying?

Sequined ribbon globe ornaments.  That was a long time ago… no judging!

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