GLENS FALLS -- Sometimes it can be difficult to know what to make of the brick behemoth that sits at the corner of Cooper and Lawrence streets. Its name — The Shirt Factory — references its previous use, but inside a renaissance is under way, as local artists, crafters and people with wellness practices have gathered to do business.
“As it happens, artists are really drawn to the space because of the beautiful light from the windows,” said Kate Austin-Avon, a co-manager of The Shirt Factory. “It’s a cool space and there was cheap rent. It’s come a long way.”
The building operated as a shirt factory until 1996. Three years later, Eric Unkauf bought the building and launched its transformation into an artistic and healing center. When Austin-Avon started in her management position a few years ago, the building was well-established as an arts center, but its other purpose as a healing and wellness center, was “still a little bit of a mish-mash,” she said.
“Some (of the spaces) were being used for storage, there were a couple offices,” she said. “It wasn’t completely in line with wellness and healing. That’s really come into focus in the last couple years.”
Since then, the focus has sharpened — the old shirt factory has a website with a directory, a main gallery that serves as a welcome center, signs on every floor that make the big building more
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user-friendly, and clustering of the retail shops mostly on the first floor, leaving the other floors mainly for studios.
The building has about 45 different spaces to house shops and studios, but has about 90 separate tenants — individual artists and merchants. Two of the spaces will open at the end of this month, and the building has a waiting list for people who want a space, Austin-Avon said.
Shops and studios throughout the building hold different hours, and it is open daily. But most places are open from 1 to 5 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays and that is now a requirement for anyone who signs a lease for a first-floor space.
The Shirt Factory gallery, just inside the loading dock entrance, serves as a welcome center and a one-stop shop for customers — some of the items from each shop are sold in the gallery.
“You can shop the whole building in this one place,” Austin-Avon said. “The cool thing is that it’s all stuff that’s made right in this building.”
The gallery is normally open from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays, and it will be open daily in the time leading up to Christmas in December, Austin-Avon said.
This weekend will be one of the busiest times of year for The Shirt Factory, as it stages its 11th annual open house from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Friday, Saturday and Sunday.
Many of the shops and studios will offer discounts and hold demonstrations, and 20 guest exhibitors will be part of the event.
“We’re known for the open house,” Austin-Avon said. “We hope people come for that and love it, and then come back throughout the rest of the year.”
The building’s newest addition is Dickinson’s Delights on the first floor, which offers coffee, soup, sandwiches and baked goods.
Jon and Tamberlyn Dickinson opened the shop at the end of October, after spending a lot of their time traveling to various farmers markets to sell their goods.
“Within about three minutes (of being inside) we
said, ‘Yeah, we’ll take this space,’ ” Jon Dickinson said. “It’s unique and it’s in this building with all these amazing different tenants. Painters, sculptors, photographers — we’re happy to keep them fed and hydrated.”
Early on a recent Thursday afternoon, fellow tenants of the building stroll into Dickinson’s Delights, looking at baked goods such as lemon margarita cake, and grabbing a coffee to take back to their shops. Their customers have so far been a mix of people who work in the building and visitors or other people from the neighborhood, Dickinson said.
The shop is open from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays.
Next year, tea shop Sensibiliteas will move from its current location in the building to near Dickinson’s Delights, which will keep a lot of the foot traffic in the same end of the building, Austin-Avon said.
The old factory still has some way to go before the vision for it as an arts and healing center is fully realized. Austin-Avon still gets calls from people who think it’s a factory and want to order T-shirts, she said.
The goal is to make The Shirt Factory an attraction and to put up even better signs so the building is less of a maze, Austin-Avon said.
“There’s a bunch on the to-do list, and we want people to know it’s a public building, not some scary factory,” she said. “We’re still up against the fact that we’re off the beaten path, but I think regular retail hours are a good start. We want to keep progressing and we have big dreams.”
Adirondack Quilts has been in The Shirt Factory since 2004, and Shannon Duell has owned the business since 2008.
“I love historic old buildings like this,” Duell said. “Given the history of the building, it’s perfect for a business like ours. It’s women sewing.”
Adirondack Quilts, unlike most of the other Shirt Factory businesses, is open seven days a week. The shop caters to the needs of quilters, selling fabric, patterns, quilting machines and machine repair services.
The shop shares a lot of the same customers with nearby Sensibiliteas, which shares customers with some of the wellness-themed businesses in the building, creating a synergy, Duell said.
“I think the tea shop kind of links us together,” Duell said.
Duell has watched the open house grow every year since she has owned the business. The first year, she was able to work on a baby quilt as people filtered through the building. Now, the shop gets so busy, she brings on additional staff for the weekend, she said.
One of the building’s most established businesses is Lemon Tree Yoga Studio, which Tobey Gifford co-owns with her daughter, Missy. When Gifford first saw The Shirt Factory, she wasn’t sure about opening her studio there, she said.
“It was pretty rough around the edges and I wasn’t sure about it,” Gifford said. “But when I went inside the space we’re at, even though a lot of work had to be done, there was something great about the energy of the building that we really liked. The wood floors feel good and there’s open window space and all the light.”
They opened the studio in 2005, and just recently created a defined boutique space, where they sell yoga accessories and supplies.
The collective of shops and galleries can share marketing strategies and work together, which is helpful for the small businesses to cut down on costs, Gifford said.
“When we first came here, I remember a handful of people being in there,” Gifford said. “Now there are these different artists in the building and there’s a steady creative energy.”