Consignment vendors emerge from the pandemic with a collection of crafts in time for Christmas sales
By Bill Brewer
Necessity is the mother of invention, and never was that oft-repeated phrase truer than in early 2020 when the pandemic hit East Tennessee.
That is when Kathy Willard went into action, distributing scores of her custom-made COVID-19 masks as quickly as she could make them.
And with a creative flair, she transformed mundane facial coverings into faith-based fashion statements.
Mrs. Willard set about embroidering crosses and other easily recognizable Catholic symbols on her masks as well as secular images such as sports logos and personalized dates of importance.
Those masks attracted the attention of Deacon Walt Otey and Sara Lauer, who had just taken over management of The Paraclete Catholic books and gifts store in late 2019. Mrs. Willard and her family are members of the Cathedral of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus Parish. By spring 2020, Paraclete customers were clamoring for masks effective against COVID-19.
Deacon Otey and Mrs. Lauer became aware of Mrs. Willard’s custom-made masks through the Sacred Heart community and asked Mrs. Willard if she would be willing to make her masks available to The Paraclete through a consignment sales arrangement.
And just like that, supply met demand.
Mrs. Willard has grown her product list to become The Paraclete’s most prolific consignment vendor, with a retail sales section in the store dedicated to her wares.
Joining her on the team of Paraclete consignment vendors are Fran Harris and Georgina Harris, both of whom are also Sacred Heart Cathedral members.
In the hyper-competitive world of retail sales, these three Diocese of Knoxville parishioners are combining their creative talents and their faith through the unique partnership with The Paraclete.
That partnership is providing the women valuable retail shelf space in The Paraclete for them to sell their creations. And during the Christmas holiday season, it is proving to be a win-win-win situation for the store, the budding entrepreneurs, and Paraclete customers.
Sara Lauer, manager of The Paraclete, explained that the vendors have portfolios of Christmas fare that customers crave as gift ideas. And she said those gift items are helping Paraclete sales.
“It adds to the gift feel here. They are great gift ideas,” she said.
Mrs. Lauer cited an example. A diocesan church group was wanting to give out coffee mugs with a prayer inscription and image of the sacred heart of Jesus. A company that distributes personalized coffee mugs quoted the church a price of $16 per mug. The church approached Mrs. Lauer for help, and she in turn approached Mrs. Willard, who was able to provide the requested mugs for a fraction of the quoted cost.
As another example, Mrs. Lauer said The Paraclete sells about 100 copies of the Magnificat each month, and Mrs. Willard creates personalized covers for the Catholic canticle that are popular with the faithful.
Similarly, Fran Harris and Georgina Harris create special touches for custom crafts, artwork, ornaments, shirts, tumblers, and many other items. Their products also occupy valuable shelf space in The Paraclete.
Georgina Harris formed Harris & Co. about two years ago as her craft business, specializing in customizing and personalizing gift items like shirts, tumblers, pictures, glittered pins, wine glasses, plates, etc. Harris & Co. is a sideline for her. She is a full-time dental assistant for a Knoxville dental office.
She first delved into crafts about four years ago, but she said her business has really picked up in the last two years.
“Probably because of word of mouth. People carry their personalized cups and others want one,” she observed.
Many but not all her products have a religious theme. Her first products were personalized T-shirts, which led to reverse canvas pictures, cups, and the other items.
“I started out doing one cup as a test, an experiment because I really didn’t expect to stay with it. It’s turned into a business. One cup turner has led to eight turners to produce cups,” Georgina said, explaining that a turner is a device that allows her to customize cups and tumblers in a step-by-step process.
She can complete a customized cup in about three days, allowing for the various processes to dry or cure. “It takes about a day per layer. It’s very time consuming.”
Her husband, John, who works at The Paraclete, assists her.
“I do the production work, and he is the research person. He does images for me and lets me know what works best, what he thinks the clientele base for The Paraclete would like, what would sell,” Georgina said.
She said cups with the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe have been a best-seller for her, and cups made with the Sacred Heart of Jesus and St. Michael the Archangel are selling, too. Other cups have Scripture verses on them. She also takes special requests.
Georgina estimates that her craft business now occupies about 30 percent of her personal time and is growing.
She wants Harris & Co. to continue being a hobby, at least for the immediate future.
“I really enjoy my day job. But we all dream. We all have goals. And one day it might become my full-time job. But I do enjoy my day job.”
She said she is gratified by her creations, especially when it brightens someone’s day or is inspiring to others.
“Maybe someone can explain to another person getting this gift who a particular saint is or what they represent. Maybe it can draw attention to someone interested in the Catholic faith and be a witness. And helping the seminarians through my sales at The Paraclete is kind of my way of giving back to the community,” she noted.
She converted to Catholicism and came into the Church at Easter vigil 2021 and is a member of Sacred Heart Cathedral with her husband, who converted to Catholicism as a teen. She has a special devotion to St. Apollonia, the patron saint of dentistry.
She said while her business has grown in the last two years, it has done so via The Paraclete, Facebook, the retail website Etsy, and word of mouth. Because of COVID-19, she hasn’t been able to take her creations out into the community through craft fairs or other in-person outlets.
Like Georgina, Fran Harris’ FH Custom Artwork venture is a hobby. And it also has attracted the attention of Mrs. Lauer, who found Fran through the Sacred Heart community.
Fran attends the Cathedral of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus with her husband and children.
FH Custom Artwork allows Fran to pursue her passion and use her college undergraduate degree. She was a fine arts major at the University of Georgia.
“Right now, I’m just doing it as a hobby. Eventually I may look into it (forming a company),” Fran said. “I do all sorts of items and work with all kinds of mediums.”
Her paintings, sketches, and silhouettes can be found framed, on ornaments, keychains, shirts, and other surfaces. And she is getting into graphics.
At The Paraclete during the Christmas holiday, she hopes her ornaments are in demand.
And like Mrs. Willard and Georgina, COVID-19 has had an impact on Fran’s talents, prompting her to get back in touch with her creative side.
“Sacred Heart is the reason I did my first artwork since undergrad,” Fran said, explaining that she offered in 2018 to do a charcoal drawing of the new cathedral for a 2019 Sacred Heart fundraiser, and that drawing sold.
After that, Fran gave cathedral rector Father David Boettner several of her specially designed Christmas ornaments to give as gifts.
“Deacon Walt saw those and reached out to me about selling them in The Paraclete,” Fran said, noting that Deacon Otey and Mrs. Lauer met with her, and they agreed on a consignment arrangement where Fran’s artwork could be featured in The Paraclete.
Now, Fran’s ornaments can be seen in The Paraclete along with Mrs. Willard’s and Georgina’s creations.
“I hope they will do well, especially for the Christmas season. I just dropped them off for the first time in October,” Fran said about her ornaments.
She also has created ornaments of the Tennessee Theatre, the Greenbrier Resort in West Virginia, the Sunsphere, Scrambled Jake’s breakfast restaurant, Cherokee Country Club in Knoxville, and Holy Ghost and Immaculate Conception churches. And she has donated her artwork to events for the Helen Ross McNabb Center and for the Friends of the Smokies organization.
“These are places that are very special to me. It truly feels like a dream that I’ve created artwork for people who will display it in their homes for years to come. It’s fun and personal, and something someone can have in their home,” Fran said.
She agrees with Georgina and Mrs. Willard that The Paraclete offers exposure to the public for artisans to sell their crafts in a popular retail setting.
“I think it will be good exposure to be in The Paraclete. Sacred Heart is just so dear to me, so I enjoy doing things for them,” Fran said.
And like Georgina, Fran enjoys her day job too much to venture out and become a full-time artist and business owner.
Fran works for Discovery’s Food Network.
“It’s been super fun, and I’ve met a lot of great people (re-establishing her artwork). But I love my day job. I think right now I have the perfect balance that makes me feel invested in the community and allows me to work with my day job at Food Network, which I love,” she said.
Mrs. Willard, who also is a business professional, has pivoted to being a small business owner who now operates KozyChix, a shop on the online retail site Etsy. KozyChix offers customized and personalized reading pillows, towels, masks, bottle holders, bags for toys and games, shirts, ornaments, keychains, book covers, magnets, blankets and pillowcases, and other items.
“I am a certified project management professional by trade. I have had the love for crafting and making items for family and friends for years. My friends encouraged me to move my love from a hobby into a business. When COVID-19 began, I started creating high-quality masks to help protect my friends. Word quickly got out about my masks, and I was approached by the cathedral school’s second-grade teachers to help with Holy Communion masks for 2020. After this event, other people across Facebook wanted a special mask for their special event, and the product then launched my business and Etsy shop,” Mrs. Willard said.
She explained that KozyChix is the family’s company with a small business license from the state of Tennessee and is operated from the dining room of their home.
Similar to Fran Harris and Georgina Harris, Mrs. Willard was approached by Deacon Otey and Mrs. Lauer in July 2020 about providing religious-themed masks to The Paraclete to help meet the demand for coronavirus protection. KozyChix was The Paraclete’s first consignment vendor.
“It has greatly grown from there, and I love the artistic products that other fellow consigners are bringing to our community,” Mrs. Willard said.
Mrs. Willard’s husband, George Willard III, who is a data engineer, came up with the name for the sole proprietorship and logo that represents the spirit of giving gifts that make people feel happy and comfortable. Her business partner is her daughter, Kathleen.
Mrs. Willard explained how the consignment agreement works.
“The Paraclete tags the products for its computer system to track the items as consignment products for each vendor. The product price is agreed upon by the consigner and The Paraclete. The Paraclete employees then become an advocate for the consigner and manage everything from product presentation through sales. Then once per quarter the store sends a sales report and we invoice them for the total minus a consignment percentage for managing the sales. If items are out of season, then we pick up the leftover inventory for the next year or donate them to charity,” she said.
And she, too, is grateful to have a venue to showcase her creations.
“Unlike other public retail outlets, The Paraclete offers the personal interactions and service that allows for customizable products like mine to meet the specific needs of the customer. In addition to being a great sales avenue, it has been a great source of feedback that has helped guide my new product development. My relationship with The Paraclete continues to be very successful and has become my primary sales avenue,” Mrs. Willard said.