Michele Craft

Michele Craft places crafting supplies on display on Feb. 10 at the Holiday Inn Express in Cheney. Craft and her daughter, Lauren Seals, run an Airway Heights scrapbooking supply store called the Coop.

When she moved to the area in 1999 for her husband’s post at Fairchild Air Force Base, Michele Craft knew she’d feel at home if she could meet one person who shared her love for crafting.

With her apt surname, Craft now regularly connects with some 175 like-minded hobbyists in Spokane, across the U.S. and globally who enjoy “crops” – get-togethers for scrapbooking, paper crafts and similar projects.

She and her daughter, Lauren Seals, have watched sales and customer numbers rise during the pandemic for a family-operated scrapbooking supply store, the Coop, and online at 3craftchicks.com. Growth for the 8-year-old Airway Heights business is largely tied to its retooled virtual retreats featuring “Retreat in a Box,” shipped to customers’ homes nationwide, in Canada and overseas.

“When the pandemic hit in March, I had a retreat scheduled in May, and instead of canceling, right away we thought of a retreat in a box,” Craft said. The first virtual retreat drew 100 customers compared with 60 women typically at in-person sessions.

“It was successful, so we’ve been ironing out the kinks since. We thought it was a way to keep people connected.”

“It’s not just scrapbooking anymore because it encompasses many things. There’s wood projects, a lot of mini albums, traditional scrapbooking and card-making. I think that’s why it has expanded. It is so versatile.”

For a Feb. 11-14 session, they mailed out 175 retreat boxes. Sized 13-by-10 inches, each box was filled with separate project kits for retreat classes along with merchandise and gifts, all which Craft said were valued at $300. People paid $225 for three days of retreat sessions, the retreat box and shipping.

February’s theme, “Made With Love,” delivered baking and cooking inspirations along with a kickoff party Thursday night and swag bag. Each retreat has a different theme with coordinated kits, products, weekend challenges, drawings and prizes, Craft said.

And it’s family-fueled. Her husband, Jim Craft, now retired from the Air Force but working at Banner Bank, helps in many ways, from making woodwork pieces for kits to setting up for retreats with a mini storefront inside a conference room at Cheney’s Holiday Inn Express. The hotel held the Crafts’ previous in-person retreats four or five times a year.

Now, virtual retreat members connect via a private Facebook page and 24-hour Zoom. Mom and daughter do team-teaching or individual classes, invite guest instructors, offer live sales and cover demos for ideas.

Michele Craft said during virtual retreats, some women continue interacting on Zoom late at night doing projects in East Coast, Midwest and Spokane time zones.

“It’s been fun, with the virtual, watching people from all over the world who didn’t know each other before, and they’re now friends and getting together virtually,” Craft said. “You’re with like-minded people who get your craft.”

About half their customers still enjoy traditional scrapbooking, part of the retreats, but also popular are mini photo albums, travel logs, shadow boxes, greeting cards and home décor. If retreat viewers aren’t able to do a certain class, they can watch later and follow color-copy pictures. The Facebook page is left up indefinitely.

Craft said she focuses on fun, prizes and surprises such as collectable charms and a pin. The February box included a bag of chocolate chip cookies, like ones offered at in-person retreats, and other sweet treats. One of her customers sewed oven mitts for each box.

“My philosophy is there are a lot of hard things in this world and in life,” said Craft, who jokes that she and other women never grew out of playing with colorful paper, stickers and scissors. “If we can just be light, creative and connect through some of this, it’s a lot of fun, and I think it’s just an escape sometimes.”

Seals manages the store and runs social media. She’s watched teenagers to 90-somethings form crafting relationships. She and Craft also hold one-day virtual retreats at the store and do by-appointment shopping.

“It’s very therapeutic and very calming for people,” Seals said. “In the last year, I think that’s helped people.”

The website, created in the past year, has drawn customers from as far away as Sweden and France.

Craft is well aware that their business success runs counter to an industry decline since around 2004, when small scrapbooking stores began closing amid the rise of larger craft retailers, digital photos and Facebook. On Feb. 14, Costco ended in-store pickup of printed photos because of a decline in demand, though customers can still order online.

Seals said many people today still get photos printed but order them online or use compact photo printers at home.

From the beginning, Craft said her focus has always been more on the connections made while crafting or scrapbooking.

“When we were transferred here 20-plus years ago, I told my husband, ‘If I could just meet somebody who crafted, I could feel connected,’ ” Craft said. “That next week at church, I saw a hand-stamped card on the back bulletin.”

She then was able to connect with a woman here who crafted and did stamp art.

“When I wanted to open my store eight years ago, it actually was when all the little scrapbook stores had closed, and so the industry wasn’t doing well,” Craft said. But she shared a strategy with her husband – open a small space, limit products and ask people to join classes. At first, most customers were military wives.

Eventually, they brought in more products from “designer scrapbooking and paper-crafting companies that you can’t get at the big-box stores,” Craft said.

“It was more of a gathering place, so we could have crops and card-making. You could have the camaraderie.”

Craft said those connections were a lifeline for Seals after the loss of baby Lillian, stillborn at full term in July 2019. Seals has since had Zachary, 4 months old, often in camera view. People might also see her daughter Charlotte, 3, who calls her role “paper paper working,” or her son, Noah, 5.

Doing crafts with women again “got me back into it – it was like therapy, but that’s true for a lot of people,” Seals said. “It’s also something tangible; I created this.”

Seals also thinks part of the appeal of their virtual retreats is the mom-daughter interactions.

“We feed off each other on video. It’s very personable, and they feel like they’re just hanging out. It’s kind of like reality television, and part of the reason people love it is it’s like a train wreck (as Charlotte runs around), but you create loyalty, and we have bonds with many people.”

Retreats will be spaced out in upcoming months, and Craft said even when in-person classes resume, they’ll keep the virtual component. The one-day sessions will include one for May 1 as National Scrapbook Day. “I say it’s a holiday for our people,” Craft said.

Seals said during the pandemic, people are turning to many crafts while staying home. That includes people digging through photos for scrapbooks. The Coop has tapped into other trends for creating planners, journals and traveler’s notebooks, which might include photos.

“The social media aspect reaches such a greater spectrum of people who before couldn’t afford flying into a retreat,” Seals said. “We do work hard at making the box personal and to feel like they’re here.”

They also restarted Coop Club at $60 a year for discounts, products and classes. Craft said all the retooling has felt like starting a new business, but it’s worth it.

“Our job is their hobby,” she said. “We chose to and love it. I love to see people creating, and then just the scrapbooking part and passing down memories for your family is awesome.”