Natural Home Earth Mover: Kalli Halpern

Natural Home salutes Kalli Halpern, whose art gallery is a beacon for a Midwestern downtown in transition.

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Photo by Travis Silvas

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About a year ago, Kalli Halpern faced a tough decision. Crime and homelessness were taking a toll on inner-city East Lansing, Michigan, where she and other small, independent business owners had set up shop. One by one, neighbor merchants were closing their doors. Indeed, the situation for shopkeepers in the area was so bleak, she recalls, that one dispirited independent bookstore owner said he hoped the last business to leave would turn out the lights.

According to Halpern, civic planners had determined that the solution to East Lansing’s inner-city decline was to attract national chain retailers, which would act as cornerstones for the city’s central business district and stimulate business for independent merchants. “That plan truly didn’t work,” Halpern says. “The chain stores settled in, but small shops continued to close.”

For Halpern, this discouraging climate meant she might have to close Trillium, the arts and crafts gallery in which she represented a number of artists, including glassblowers, fiber artists, potters, and ceramic tile makers. Her only options were to hang on, downsize, and find a different space.

Fortunately for the talented local artists who show in her gallery—and for the craftspeople from all over the world whose fair-trade goods she offers—Halpern chose to find a new space. Ironically, she says, it turned out to be a storefront that had been storage space for a national chain: the mega-retailer Gap.

Her new 500-square-foot space, which she describes as a “long shoebox,” is only a third the size of her previous store. “You can see everything at once,” she says. “It’s a challenge.” To accommodate the smaller space, she had to return some artists’ work, but she’s philosophical about it. Many of the artists she’d represented had outgrown her ability to represent them—which is a good thing, she says. What’s important, she says, is that the new space is enough to keep her afloat.

It’s also clear that maintaining Trillium continues to stoke Halpern’s twin passions for art and rebuilding her community. Once she’s back on her feet, she hopes to organize a gathering of locally owned businesses so they can inspire each other and work together to create success. “We need to keep small businesses alive,” she says. “They’re the heart and soul of America. If they die, we’ll be missing something that will be hard to get back.”

That something is connection, she says; not only connection with community but with personal spirit. “As a society we’re trading down on the things that are meaningful to us,” she points out. “We’ve become so hungry for material possessions that we buy things because we get a good price break, not because they speak to us. What’s been put into the artwork I represent is a feeling, a connection.”

Halpern says she’ll keep her business in downtown East Lansing for the long haul. “My intention is to stay strong and viable and to hold ground not only for myself but for the return of small business to our downtown,” she says. “I’ve placed the gathering stick firmly in the ground, and I’ll watch for others on the horizon.”