East Lansing has a unique art gallery store that’s been around for 30 years. The Mackerel Sky is more than a catchy name, though; it’s also a long story.
A mackerel sky is a cloud formation that sailors talk about. It’s well-known on the coasts, and it looks like the scales on a mackerel fish. To sailors, it means a great change in atmosphere pressure is coming, which means a big shift is coming.
The East Lansing version of Mackerel Sky provides handcraft and quality services to customers and is named after the cloud formation. It was established in 1990 and, like an atmospheric shift, moved to East Lansing in 2010 and is now located at 211 M.A.C Avenue. The store is named this way because of the owners’ experiences.
Tom and Linda Dufelmeier, the owners, worked previously at another type of store together for many years, and after leaving that store and deciding what to do with their life, they decided to open their own store.
“When Tom and Linda decided to open the gallery, they thought it was such an appropriate name because there was a big shift in their life,” said Gwynna Lapham, manager of the store, who is also the Dufelmeier’s niece.
The store exhibits various handmade products such as jewelries, ceramics, garments, woods from different artists all over the world for 30 years. Tom Dufelmeier said there’s a specific reason why the store has attracted customers.
“Because we are able to find things that people want to buy, ” he said.
When it comes to getting new artists to showcase, the store also has no troubles.
“After you have been doing this for 30 years, one artist tells it about another, it is sort about word of mouth thing,” Tom Dufelmeier said.
The Dufelmeiers decided to open a gallery store because they wanted to be something like an art fair in the store, so someone can come in and get handmade things in a lot of different media. Additionally, East Lansing only has few stores like this one.
Besides the attraction of real artists, the store comes to people’s mind in terms of gifts.
“I love the store because it is one of the few places in the area where you can buy artist-made gifts,” said Chantal Tetreault, a resident of East Lansing who has been shopping at the store for nine years. She was specifically looking for some jewelry made from an artist that she really likes for her friend’s birthday.
Heather Kay, who lives in Okemos, was shopping for a wedding gift with her spouse, Bryan Kay. This couple has been shopping in the store for more than 10 years.
“We think of Mackerel Sky any time we have a gift,” she said. “The handmade beautiful items are also useful. We think they are just lovely gifts for people and for ourselves too.”
Mackerel Sky is a family-owned business that has already run through five generations over the past 30 years. Lapham’s daughter is the fifth generation of the family and started to work in the store this summer.
“It has been a family business, and then we have always had other employees who then become family,” Lapham said.
Jenine Grainer, who lives in Okemos, became a customer of Mackerel Sky since its inception in 1990, then became a friend of the owner and now is an employee.
“Tom and Linda asked me if I would like to work on a part-time basis, and they are so wonderful, and it was easy for me to say, ‘I would love to,’” she said. “I do not think I could work here if I did not like the owner so much,” she said, laughing.
Unlike Tom Dufelmeier, who used to be a leatherworker, Lapham is not an artist but instead a great appreciator of all different forms of art. She appreciates how things are made and why they are made. It is meaningful for her to try to inform people why functional art, art that you can use, is so important.
“Manufacturing gets more and more prevalent, and items that people manufacture become easily accessible and less expensive,” she said. “People tend to buy a salad bowl from Ikea instead of buying a wood-turned bowl that somebody made with their hands. But the wood-turned bowl will last 100 years, the plastic bowl, at some point, you will get rid of it.”
In addition to conveying the value of artists, Mackerel Sky carries merchandise in every price range, so that if a customer does not have enough money to spend, he or she can still get a wonderful item.
“If people really like ceramics, an artist might have a platter that is really beautiful, but it is $425,” Lapham said. “But we have coffee cups by that same artist that might only $40, and so you can get a wonderful example of the ceramic for less money, or we have tiny ceramic dishes that are $10.”
The owners are serious about providing a special experience for people who come to the store. Whether customers are getting gifts or collecting well-designed art, they can always ask for the store to wrap the products in its signature box with the purple bow.
“We offer gift packaging free of charge for any item,” Lapham said. “Compared to other places, our profit margin, how much we make when we sell things, is a lot smaller than other places because we put a lot of the money back in to making it special.”
“Having interesting retail opportunities and places for people to go that are different and unique and sort of have a different experience is going to continue to diversify the retail mix and make it interesting for folks,” said Thomas Fehrenbach, community and economic development administrator of East Lansing.
“I think that Mackerel Sky does a good job in sourcing interesting items that give people a chance to stop and really look at neat things,” Fehrenbach said. “And I think that sense really adds to the overall environment.”
Elaine Masters, who used to go to art school and lives in Ann Arbor, was trying to find a card for her friend who likes cats. She said she comes to the Mackerel Sky every time she visits for many years and likes the handmade things of the store.
“Because it has things made by artists and unusual pieces that you do not see everywhere else,” she said.
The store is open from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Saturdays and Noon to 4 p.m. on Sundays. The store is closed on Mondays.
Here are three behind stories of some products of Mackerel Sky told by Gwynna Lapham.