If you heart local, you will love I Heart Denver

The idea of selling merchandise that celebrates a place is not new — especially along Denver’s 16th Street Mall. But Samuel Schimek has come up with a new and hip model for locally made goods that not only highlight Denver and Colorado but give customers a feel good buzz for supporting artists and craftsmen.
“It’s more like a museum shop than an art gallery,” Schimek says of his I Heart Denver Store in the Denver Pavilions on the 16th Street Mall. “It’s more of a philanthropic model and we’re the only company I know of doing it.”
On the website for I Heart Denver, Schimek describes it as “a special retail project to support the local creative economy.” What this means is that all of the merchandise in the store is from local artists and designers and 70 percent of sales goes directly to those creators.
It’s the economy, stupid
Schimek’s background is in retail sales and management, with a bit of artistic exploration on the side. He started I Heart Denver as a pop-up store in 2010, which was so successful he did another and in 2011 was the grand opening of the 2,000-square-foot space. Initially the space was donated and now the lease is partially subsidized by Gart Properties.
“Over two years we became a destination,” he says. “It was $500 and me for the first pop-up store and now it’s five part-time retail clerks and a store manager.”
So far the local artists and other vendors at I Heart Denver have earned a whopping $469,210, with $268,789 of that total in 2012.
“One of our main focuses at the store is to export Denver culture,” explains Schimek.
That, and a desire to support not just artists but a local economy. He refers to research showing that when people spend money at local businesses, more money — about double, some studies have found — stays in the community.
“If we don’t build these new economic models to support art, how do we expect people to buy something they can enjoy and afford?” Schimek asks, noting there are fewer millionaires to support the arts and a struggling middle class who cannot be depended on to support the arts.
What’s in it for me?
Certainly consumers are doing good when they shop at I Heart Denver?especially the locals who are putting money back into their own economy. But the artists are really benefitting from the 70/30 split.
“I Heart Denver does more business than any other single retailer I have — maybe more than I do online, for that matter,” says Adam Sikorski, whose “Coloradical” t-shirts and other items are bestsellers at the shop. “The theme and location of the shop are just dead on for the products I create.”
And this is where the personal relationships come into play because Sikorski says he thinks he should — wait for it — earn less. “Samuel’s business model is more favorable to artists than other shops,” he says. “begin with, the seventy percent commission on the first $1,000 of goods sold in a month unheard of.  Everyone else wants to give you 60 percent or less on commission-sales and they don’t come close to comparing on monthly volume. Many smaller stores only offer 50 percent on commissions, which for me is about the point it’s not worth dealing with in a low traffic store.  I’ve tried to convince Samuel to drop his commission rate to 60 percent across board just for his own well-being, but he still refuses. The amount livelihood and exposure as an artist has increased since I started with Samuel is insane to think about.”
Courtney Leapley of Urban Bird and Co. makes printed linens that are sold at the shop. “I really love working with I Heart Denver, the business model, the branding, is really exceptional,” Leapley says. “I don’t do a lot of consignment with other shops, but I make an exception for I Heart Denver because my product does well there and they are so awesome to work with. Not to mention, the payment rate back to artists is higher than any other consignment model I’ve worked with, which is so nice. It can be difficult for a small business to front their product and wait for payment, but with their location, branding and marketing it brings more sales and makes it easier when you see a nice check each month.”
Dan Sjogren of Sjotime Industries makes wooden bowls, vases and other items that are sold in I Heart Denver, but explains that his furniture is a bigger part of his business than what he sells here. “Relative to other retail outlets, I think I Heart Denver is great and I appreciate what they do — communicative, respectful of the work, very supportive, truly dedicated to local makers,” Sjogren says.
Schimek is adding new vendors on a regular basis, so that variety of merchandise includes things like the “Coloradical” t-shirts to soaps, cards, shoes and a lot more. Schimek has also become a vendor making his own products for the store.
The best place to find out what’s new in the store is to go to the Facebook page, which is updated often with photos of new products.
Denver Picard, cutest shop dog in town
What isn’t for sale at I Heart Denver is Denver Picard, Schimek’s adorable corgi. Named for his owner’s love of the Mile High City and Star Trek, the little dog is friendly and has become a sort of product, with his image gracing various items in the store. There’s even a felting kit from Fancy Tiger to make a felted version of Denver Picard.

Check out the corgi’s blog to find out what he’s up to in the shop.

The story originally appeared in Confluence Denver here