“I love this place!” exclaims a jubilant child returning to the vibrant store where scraps and junk are offered as low-cost art supplies. In this joyous space, entrepreneurs RR and Darcy Anderson encourage creative re-use and artistic economy. Collecting assorted plastic tubes, wood shapes, and colorful wires, the youthful inventor gathers materials for a still undefined project. In their shop, Tinkertopia, RR and Ms. Darcy offer everyone an opportunity to engage their imagination.
At Tinkertopia customers enter a space where unusual ideas float above their heads. Creative displays and anthropomorphic art projects grab attention and pull shoppers into an inspiring world. Dubbing themselves “Creative Reuse Specialists”, RR and Ms. Darcy prompt all young-at-heart people to think about the environmental impact of waste.
Ms. Darcy previously worked as a Montessori pre-school teacher. As a child she had a close relationship with her grandfather, a bee-keeper and tinkerer. He was always fixing household items and fiddling with things in his workshop. She grew up learning not to throw anything away. They had a catch-all box that provided entertainment during long winter nights when Ms. Darcy enjoyed making her own toys. “I had this big fabulous doll house,” she remembers, “but my favorite was the one I made myself out of Pepsi boxes. I kept adding little furniture that I made out of stuff. There is so much pride in being able to say: ‘I made this’.”
RR has worked as a political cartoonist and a graphic designer for a local advertising firm. He has always been inspired by repair cafes and junk shops, especially a business in Lynnwood called Creative Station. After being laid off during a downturn in the economy he began searching for his next adventure. His imagination was captivated by the challenge of finding creative reuse for discarded items.
Growing up in a small town in Alaska, Ms. Darcy and RR had been friends since first grade, then in college. They got married, started their family and now have an imaginative son, Max. When RR was laid off Ms. Darcy motivated him to follow his old dream of opening a junk shop. They developed an idea for a business that would promote creativity and conservation. Working with local industries they planned to divert safe, clean remnants, seconds, scraps, off-cuts, discards, misprints and overstock from the waste stream, then redistribute these goods as low-cost art and crafts supplies. Through the unemployment office RR got connected with SCORE, a non-profit organization that provides free mentoring to small businesses. At SCORE he learned how to develop cash flow projections and a business plan, essential tools to start his own company.
Following the Tacoma Art listserv newsletters, the couple was familiar with Spaceworks projects focused on filling vacant spaces with creative businesses. In 2012 RR applied to Spaceworks’ Creative Enterprise program and explored opportunities in the 6th Ave business district, MLK Jr. Way, and other places until finding a match for his business with a new property partner downtown. With strong support from Ben Mauk, Senior Real Estate Manager for The University of Washington Tacoma, the school offered a big opportunity for this creative startup.
Spaceworks provided technical assistance, helping the new entrepreneurs learn what questions to ask and how to find the right resources. RR gathered necessary documents, including financial projections, to show the university how their business would benefit the area. He was glad for the help and encouragement from Spaceworks Manager Heather Joy who he calls a “fierce tinker advocate” and after a lengthy application process all parties came to a mutually beneficial agreement.
This growing business district was a good fit for the innovative shop. Their colorful displays, quirky atmosphere, and a large selection of bulk alternative art supplies draw a growing customer base and media attention. It also showed UWT the value of collaborating with new businesses. Since then the university has welcomed other permanent tenants who participated in the Spaceworks’ Creative Enterprise program.
Securing their ideal space, Ms. Darcy and RR opened the doors in 2013, and the daily work of managing a business began. They were still learning how to do everything on their own. Meanwhile, Spaceworks had developed a small business training program (now called Creative Enterprise Tier I) in which the Andersons participated to hone their business practices. Through talking with other entrepreneurs RR and Ms. Darcy gained confidence about their direction, and learned that revenue goes up and down and a new business doesn’t always trend upward. They also valued meeting experienced professionals at Tacoma-Pierce County Chamber, who provided useful feedback along with other helpful Spaceworks connections.
Working at their new business, they tackle the needs of their shop together relying on each other’s strengths. RR’s cartooning and graphic design skills engage shoppers through in-store signage and followers on social media. Ms. Darcy’s teaching background makes her a helpful guide for the tinkerers. They set up a “makerspace” inside their retail shop, hosting regular creative workshops for kids and adults. “For us it’s bringing the love into brick and mortar and providing experiential shopping, creating a personal connection. I keep thinking of Cheers, the show, it’s that familiar place you want to go,” says Ms. Darcy.
After three years of growing the business and contributing to the development of downtown Tacoma, Tinkertopia owners began paying closer attention to the systems of running their business. To help these and other entrepreneurs further, in 2016 Spaceworks used funding from the JPMorgan Chase Foundation to develop a pilot program (now called Creative Enterprise Tier III) which provides networking opportunities, small business microgrants and individualized coaching. With the guidance of coach Miriam Works of Works Consulting, Tinkertopia owners focused on planning, procedures, daily operations and hiring. Leaning on Miriam’s experience in merchandising they developed a yearly marketing calendar. Coach Jason Atherton worked with them on growing the business, helping Tinkertopia explore marketing strategies like company t-shirts and a membership program as well as technology solutions.
Any small business owner will tell you that being your own boss is more than a full time job. Ms. Darcy, RR, and their son all spend time at work keeping the shop open. They are always searching for work-life balance and highly value family and personal time. They make the most of the time they spend together, tinkering at the shop or sharing fun stories of the day at home. As creative drivers of the business the Andersons are irreplaceable, but they are looking for ways to streamline their routines, and aim to hire an employee who can become a part of the “tinker family”.
RR ensures the shop is stocked with all kinds of new materials to spark inventive fantasies. Ms. Darcy’s workshops help schools imagine new approaches to promoting problem solving and inquisitiveness. Though the logistics of open-ended creativity may feel intimidating at first, many teachers ask Ms. Darcy for advice. “More and more teachers are coming to me about setting up maker spaces at their schools. That’s where I feel our future is going.” With Spaceworks’ property partnerships, business training and coaching to support their creative enterprise, Tinkertopia is thriving as a whimsical shop, a promoter of recycle and reuse, and as a leader in creative innovation.
1914 Pacific Ave
Tacoma, WA 98402
Videos and Photos by Kris Crews
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