By JEANNIE WILEY WOLF
CAREY — The front window at Gray Mare & Co. is decked out for the holidays with Santa, his elves and a reindeer, and trimmed with glittering tinsel and lights.
But the real treasures are to be found inside the turn-of-the-century storefront which houses a breath-taking array of items crafted by more than 30 artisans. Booths offer everything from handmade jewelry and essential oils to crocheted afghans, appliquéd baby quilts and buckeye “candy canes” sure to delight any Ohio State fan’s Christmas tree.
“I try to come in here with blinders on because I’d be spending so much,” laughed Mary Kromer, who owns the building along with her husband, Tom.
‘A nice project’
The structure has gone through several incarnations prior to the Gray Mare opening in 2013. In the 1950s, it was home to Jacob’s Soda Grill. Later, it served as the Carey American Legion and most recently, My Place Restaurant.
The Kromers bought the property in 2011 but had no plans for it. “We just thought it would be a nice project,” Mary explained.
They started by renovating the large three-bedroom apartment upstairs.
“Once we got that done and got it rented, then we started focusing on this,” she said, referring to the open first floor area. “It was funny because we had such a mess, it was ridiculous. And so many people would stop (and ask), ‘What are you going to do with it?'”
Some people suggested turning it into a record shop.
“My husband’s into music and my son’s into music, so that would have been cool. But then as time went on, I just thought there might be a need for this type of thing in Carey,” she said. “There’s a lot of local talent.”
The couple spent countless hours restoring the first floor to more closely resemble the building’s original style. A large bar fronted by soda fountain stools — dating back to its time as a restaurant — now serves as the check-out counter with a giant, old-fashioned cash register.
“The bar was here, but it was orange. And it had carpet on the outside. It was really chic,” Mary joked.
Two layers of paneling were removed to reveal red brick walls. And a dropped ceiling hid tin tiles.
“They (the tiles) were rough,” she admitted. “It was probably easier to cover it up at the time. We had to scrap it. We had to prime it. We had to paint it. But once it was done I said, ‘You know, it’s not going to have to be done again in our lifetime.'”
The Kromers opened the building for the town’s 2012 Christmas festival, allowing some crafters set up in the space. A meeting was held in January to gauge interest in expanding on that idea.
“I was surprised how many people showed up. We had a nice turnout,” she said. “So I said, ‘We’re going to open in February.'”
Meet the vendors
The business, named Gray Mare & Co. Artisan Marketplace, started with about 20 crafters occupying the front half of the building. Now, the entire first floor is full. Crafters lease a space for as little as $20 a month, with the rent going up as the square footage of their space increases. They are not charged a commission fee.
“We used to have a waiting list. We don’t anymore, but we don’t have any spaces, either,” Mary said.
The artists come mostly from the Carey area, but also from Findlay, Leipsic, Upper Sandusky, Nevada, Sycamore and Fostoria. They are all ages, too.
“I’m actually going to have a student from Carey High School have a spot in here starting in December. She’s really into these thrifted items like clothing,” said Mary. “There again, I think she’s putting her own twist on it, her own spin on things.”
Each crafter sets up their own space. There are handmade greeting cards, boutique items, candles, stained glass, paintings, and clothes for American Girl dolls and cement goose. Angeline Industries, the adult sheltered workshop of the Wyandot County Board of Developmental Disabilities, has a booth offering seasonal home decor and upcycled products.
“There’s always something new to see,” said Mary. “And most of it, you’d better get it when you see it or it won’t be here next time. And if it’s handcrafted, chances are it won’t be the same.”
Each crafter is also required to work at the store each month.
Deb Gosche is a seamstress who makes and sells baby items — appliquéd bibs, burp cloths, car seat covers and baby quilts — at Gray Mare. She typically works at the store twice a month.
“It’s been a good experience,” she said. “You meet so many neat people.”
A native of New Riegel, Gosche learned to sew as a youngster in 4-H. She also makes memory quilts and pillows, and was one of the first vendors to set up a booth in the store.
“It’s fun to be a part of,” she said. “There’s a lot in there. Even working four hours at a time, I always see new things I’ve never seen before.”
Jean Cossey, a longtime art and Spanish teacher, makes papier mache items. And she recently created small journals that are being sold at the shop. Her business is called Paper Mache by Jean.
She noted that renting a space in the store is a good outlet for her craft.
“You make so much. You can only give so much away,” she said.
Cossey said she enjoys being part of the Gray Mare: “It’s a bright spot in Carey.”
Mary said people like to come in and roam around or just sit at the counter and talk. They also like to dig through the old photographs being sold by Steve Zender, editor and publisher of The Progressor Times.
“People can sit here for hours and look through those photos. Because they go back to the ’60s and ’70s and they see pictures of people that have passed, it can be very emotional sometimes,” said Mary. “It’s almost sort of like being a counselor.”
The Kromers are happily surprised by how well the idea for the Gray Mare has gone over in Carey.
“My husband said, ‘Did you think it was going to last more than a year?’ I said, ‘You know what, I had no expectations’. And as long as there are people who still want to be in here, we’re going to be open,” she said.
Store hours are 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays and 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturdays. Through Christmas, Gray Mare will also be open from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Sundays.