Local kids create tasty retail experience
It had been a long spring of social distancing and 14-year-old Ayla Belsby and her 11-year-old sister, Maeve, were trying to figure out what to do with their summer, since many of their usual activities and outlets were unavailable during the pandemic.
“We were just at home or at the lake all the time,” Ayla said. “We had all this time and freedom to mess around and experiment. It seemed like we should do something with it.”
One hot day the girls were floating on Pearrygin Lake with their aunt, Mara Zepeda, and the creative wheels began spinning. “Mara kept throwing ideas at us,” Maeve said. “She asked us, ‘What if we had a business?’ So then we just had to figure out what to do.”
Ayla continued: “Mara said, ‘What if we had a maker space where people could create things and we could teach people things that they want to know how to do?’”
This idea sat well with Ayla, who had begun selling her homemade lip glosses on Etsy earlier in the year, and Maeve, who had discovered a simple way to create homemade stickers. Not long after, Winthrop’s Riverside Avenue welcomed The Mind Buffet: a new retail shop and maker space on Riverside Avenue in Winthrop showcasing the artistic creativity of Methow Valley youth.
Riverside Avenue real estate isn’t easy to come by, but serendipitously, the French Quail boutique had recently remodeled, separating a section of the store into an additional retail space with a workshop area. “It was a great space for us,” Maeve said, “but it was really hard to understand the lease. It was long. Just too many words on too many pieces of paper.”
Zepeda signed the lease for her nieces, helped them open a bank account across the street at Farmers State Bank, and guided them through the process of completing the seemingly endless paperwork involved in starting a business. Said Ayla, “We had to get a business license and insurance. We had to create a website and email accounts. We had to find a Square cash register and search for an iPad that would work with it.”
Brainstorming a name
The Mind Buffet got its name on a drive over the Loup. “We were just brainstorming business names in the car,” Ayla said. “We had ideas like ‘The Golden Door.’” Maeve said, “I was hungry. And I was thinking about those all-you-can-eat-buffets, like in Las Vegas. And then my brain wandered to learning, and using your brain to learn things.”
Maeve quickly rejected her first thought: The Brain Buffet. “Gross,” she said. “But then I thought, ‘Well, your brain is kind of like your mind, and I thought of ‘The Mind Buffet. It’s like all-you-can-eat, but instead it’s all-you-can-learn.”
The Mind Buffet name is curiously appealing, not just for its imagery, but also for its sound. The long “i” and hard “d” in “mind,” and the airy “ff” and silent “t” in “buffet,” contrast and complement. It’s also apt. The business offers not only an array – a buffet – of attractive products, but also occasional workshops and artist-in-residence opportunities designed to stimulate the creative mind.
With a name selected and the initial set-up complete, the Belsbys focused on establishing the retail section of the shop. To source materials, they reached out to other young valley artists who they knew were producing items with retail appeal. Currently, eight valley kids sell their items at the Mind Buffet: Ayla Belsby (lip gloss), Maeve Belsby (stickers), Violet Chrastina (jewelry, tie-dye apparel, knit hats), Amelia Evans (tiny charms), Willow Frady (candles), Melody Loucks (drawings, paintings), Ila Newman (soap), Ingrid Venable (jewelry), and Wynter Woras (jewelry).
“It’s pretty cool to be selling your art in a store where people can see it,” Maeve said. “It really tells you, ‘you can do this.’”
The Mind Buffet is inclusive and invites valley youth to explore the possibility of selling their art at the shop. Mind Buffet artists all contribute a portion of their sales to shop overhead; retail hours at the shop are staffed by Zepeda and the Belsby girls. Eventually, when the Mind Buffet’s financial situation allows, the Belsbys plan to give a portion of shop proceeds to local organizations.
Engaged and inspired
The Mind Buffet’s workshop and artist-in-residence series has so far included a calligraphy workshop (Zepeda is a well-known calligrapher) and a week of sewing, mending, and clothing modification with a costume designer from Seattle. “We’re hoping to engage kids and inspire them to create art,” Zepeda said, issuing an open invitation to artists and makers to suggest workshops and residencies.
Zepeda, who is the business’s adviser and self-proclaimed janitor (“from Janus, the Roman god of beginnings and ends and, through metaphor, doors and passageways,” the Mind Buffet website tells us), is an entrepreneur who started a company and did “small business ecosystem work” in Portland, Oregon, for years. Her husband, the Belsby girls’ maternal uncle, is on sabbatical this year from his job as a college professor and chose to spend it in the Methow Valley, so the couple is living here for the year. They will eventually return to their home in South Carolina, but Zepeda is hopeful that the Mind Buffet will continue under local leadership.
“Kids aren’t always given the chance to apply learning in real world situations,” Zepeda said. “Through the Mind Buffet, they’re learning the fundamentals of entrepreneurship. They’re learning to read financials, to understand systems of tracking inventory, to run sales reports. They’re learning about keeping a website up-to-date and running.”
Zepeda is passionate in particular about female entrepreneurship. “Women are the fastest-growing sector of entrepreneurs. A successful small business is the fastest path to economic liberation,” she said. She also believes that all strong communities embrace small businesses and is “excited about how the Mind Buffet can contribute to the local economy.”
COVID can’t claim the credit for the Belsby girls’ creativity, but it’s clear that the pandemic gave them the mental space necessary for the Mind Buffet. Now, the Belsby girls say, they realize how much they’re learning. “It has just given us so many great things for our minds to absorb,” Ayla said.
For Zepeda, the endeavor is equally rewarding. She said, “Just look at kids – look where their creativity and imagination can carry them.”
The Mind Buffet is open weekdays from 3-6 p.m. Learn more at http://www.themindbuffet.com.