Just a few months after celebrating its 25th anniversary, the Grey House Pottery Cooperative is closing. As people browse the last items ever to be sold there, Heidi Schramm laments, "there are a lot of crying customers here." Schramm, a potter, has been a member of the co-op for 25 years — longer than any current member.
THE CO-OP will shut its doors on Wednesday, March 29, to reopen as "a drapery shop," according to Birgit Henninger, also a potter and member of the co-op for 23 years. Some speculate that the small commercial area at the corner of Wilson Boulevard and Jefferson Street, where the co-op currently sits, will eventually be leveled and rebuilt. "People that come in say it’s a real loss to the community because we’ve been here so long," Henninger says. "It’s pretty painful."
Mary Converse has been a customer for about 10 years. "I was so sad when I got the postcard," she says. While she has been an Arlington resident for over 30 years, she didn’t know the cooperative existed for a long time. "After the first time I came in, I just kept coming," she says. She has purchased wedding gifts and birthday presents for years, and says she just loves to come in and "scope things out" from time to time. Her husband and children know to come to the co-op when it’s time to get her a gift. "It’s so pleasant to come look at," she says.
Recent retirements have left hard-to-fill voids in the co-op, explains Schramm. "People do not want to work hard and share responsibility," she says. Other factors contributing to the closing include higher rent due to tax increases as well as higher energy bills, according to Schramm. The lease on Grey House is up at the end of March, and the co-op members decided not to renew it.
DAYS BEFORE the closing, many longtime customers and former members came to bid farewell. Susy Fish worked at the co-op from 1987 to 1990. "I had just moved here from Oregon," she says. "I had no studio space, and then I heard about an opening in the basement here." She described her experience as "instant community."
"We really learned from each other," says Julie Baxter, who worked at Grey House from 1988 to 2004. "It was an amazingly smooth group," she says, adding, "if it hadn’t been it wouldn’t have worked."
Grey House has sold beautiful handmade bowls, platters, candle holders, and other, more unusual items for years. Mary Converse was just leaving after making a purchase when she spotted a small green upside-down bowl with a toad on top and what looked like a small doorway on the side. "What is this?" she asked Henninger. "It’s a toad house," she replied. Henninger explained that if you put it in your garden, toads will have a place to live. "I think I need this," said Converse, who proceeded to buy it.
The cooperative was originally formed by four individual potters, including Schramm, who ran the business and shared expenses and the basement studio. While working, the potters discussed everything from their personal lives to politics, and often were joined by the customers during their lunch breaks. "We had people come in who wanted to share everything," says Schramm. She remarked that some current customers came to the opening 25 years ago.
The co-op held eight shows a year, each with a different theme — such as Christmas or Mother’s Day, in addition to an annual bowl show. The partners shared the responsibilities of stacking shelves, helping customers and maintaining inventory. Once a month they freshened up the place by rearranging items and changing the displays. "It’s been wonderful to work for a co-op," says Henninger. "I will miss it."
The remaining co-op members, besides Schramm and Henninger, include Dana Mitchell and Jennifer Dinkelmeyer. Over the years the co-op began to rent out selling space, and current renters are Elke Seefeldt, Karin Abromaitis, Kim Ju and Matt Freitas. All will have to find new places to sell or create pottery, and some have suggested the Torpedo Factory in Alexandria as an alternative. "But it’s not in Arlington," says Henninger. Converse remarks, "It’s too hard to get to and more inconvenient."
WHILE THE potters of Grey House will be able to retire or move on to other venues, the co-op will be hard to replace for members of the community. There are few other showcases for local arts and crafts, and none that are run as a cooperative partnership like Grey House. It takes years for small businesses to forge relationships with their customers, and this institution will be sorely missed.