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Melissa Al-Azzawi

What is your official title?

Busy Girl at Handmade Kalamazoo.


What’s an average day in the ‘Zoo look like for you?

I think I’m like most people, I check every social media status before I get out of bed to see what’s going on, what happened the night before. I hit snooze several times, grab some coffee, and then I go to work.

I’m currently working on marketing and designs, and trying to set up events at the store; I’m working with artists, and trying to figure out how to sell what we have in store! When I first started Handmade Kalamazoo, the idea behind it was that I was always selling my work to my friends; as artists, that’s what you do. Your friends become your market, so you create what you know they’ll want, and we need a bigger market.


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When we started, I had 10 of my closest friends contributing; now we are up to 50! My partner, Bailey Mead, is at the store during the day, so we had the ability to take on more artists. Artists are constantly coming in because we can give them that place where they can use the store, not only to sell their stuff, but we can also help them market and talk about creating a brand.

The challenge with being an artist and trying to sell your work is that you have to sell to the people who know you, unless you have a brand. I could sell my t-shirts to a couple of people, but it wasn’t until I had Handmade Kalamazoo on them that people who didn’t know me started to recognize that brand.


What kind of projects are you currently working on?

Next week we are teaming up with Can-Do Kitchen. We are having some folks come in who went through the incubator program to do some food tasting in the store on Wednesday night. Art Hop is two days later, and we are having the Corn Fed Girls and Red Sea Pedestrians playing. They are going to be doing a demo of their show for New Years Eve, which is what they did last year for Art Hop.

As far as Small Business Saturday, we’ll be open, but we are down-home, and want to spend time with our families, so we’ll probably be in sometime after 11:00; no crazy hours for us.

We like having fun events here. Last week we had a little pop-up concert in the store and had some local musicians come in; they walked around and played while our customers shopped and enjoyed some wine. We really try to utilize our time here since we are only here through the holiday.


Can you tell us about your background/passion?

I was a massage therapist for 13 years. In 2007, I hiked through Central America for six months. I’ve always been a photographer, but I was never into design before then. I was in Nicaragua, and I read this article in the newspaper about this garbage dump in the capital, Managua, where 5,000 people were living, working, and trying to survive. And I had to see it.

I was staying at a hostel, and there were some kids hanging out around the hostel, so I asked one of them to take me. They told me how dangerous it was and that I shouldn’t go alone, so one of the kids took me there. We took the bus, rode about an hour from Granada to the capital, and when we got there we went to a Quaker House and met this woman who told me about how in the middle of this garbage dump she had built up four make-shift walls so the kids of the dump could get away from all of the bad things that were happening there. She told me how she fed the kids once a day, she taught them lessons, and she had a little kiddie pool in there for the kids to bathe.

So, I asked her to take me there, and it was the most excruciatingly painful thing I’ve ever seen. The sight, the smell, and the shock of seeing kids with their heads over bags of trash to try to find something to eat was insane. When I left that day, it hit me that no one is telling this story. No one is talking about this, even though we know it’s going on.


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I wanted to be able to tell that story, but I knew that no matter what my photographs showed off that day, that I wouldn’t be able to tell that story like I wanted to. I came back after that trip, after six months of being gone, and knew that that’s what I wanted to do. I enrolled at KVCC and started taking classes in graphic design, because I wanted to be able to do more; I wanted to be able to be in a situation where I could experience something and tell a story with more than just a photograph.

So, that’s where it started. I want to be a part of something. I’ve experienced what’s happening in the world, and I want to be a part of sharing that.


What do you love most about Kalamazoo?

Community. Community is number one; it’s our tagline, because we’re neighbors; we’re all family. The way people support each other in this community is unbelievable. Everyone’s connected to each other; it’s small and perfect, and huge at the same time. It’s affordable. Everything here is within reach of what you want. The resources in this town are unreal. You can do anything you want in the world with the resources that are here.


What have you been jammin’ to recently? What’s on the iPod?

If I’m listening to anything, I’m listening to This American Life. I listen to it on their website and I’m just constantly laughing out loud. In the store, we’re playing local music, so theres a lot of Red Sea Pedestrians and Corn Fed Girls going on. Last Art Hop, we had Kaitlin Rose in the store, and she’s getting ready to release an album, so that was pretty cool. We really enjoy our local music at Handmade Kalamazoo.


How do you take your coffee?…or do you?

I’m crazy about vanilla creamer, and I mean a lot of it. It has to be the worst stuff for you, too, so I have to go with the Coffee Mate kind. If someone gets me anything aside from that it’s like, how am I going to drink this stuff? I love Waterstreet coffee – that’s my homie.


Do you have a “go to” spot in Kalamazoo?

I love London Grill; they’re killing it these days! And, they’re gluten-free, which is awesome. They have gluten-free beer and gluten-free sticky toffee pudding; how could you go wrong there?


What is your dream for Handmade Kalamazoo?

I wish I could find a way to make Handmade Kalamazoo sustainable year long. What we’re trying to do is to utilize a vacant space as much as possible, and the times that we’ve had an opportunity to do it have been October-December. If we could figure out a way to do it all the time, that’d be awesome. I think having a smaller space would be more sustainable.


What can we tell the people of this community about Handmade Kalamazoo?

The biggest thing is that everything in here is made in Kalamazoo by Kalamazoo folks. It doesn’t get more local than this. The thing is, it’s not just “gifty” stuff; there are functional, wearable, usable pieces in here. It’s all really unique.

We are also working on a campaign called ‘Slow Down and Live in Kalamazoo’. Marc Smutek, Waterstreet Coffee owner, sent me a picture of this license plate from his neighbor’s car with that phrase on it, and said, ‘Hey, you should make this into a shirt’, and I was like, I’m going to turn this thing into a campaign!


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So he asks his neighbor what it would take to get the license plate; he told him about Handmade Kalamazoo and everything we are doing here, but the guy says he won’t part with it. A few weeks ago, the guy comes in here and says I heard you really liked this, and I’m getting ready to store my car for the winter, so here you go.

People come in and take pictures of it and ask if it’s for sale, because that’s what it’s all about for people – slowing down and taking it in. It’s just so cool that people get what we’re trying to do here. We try to promote Kalamazoo makers. People call it art, but this is not a gallery – we’re makers here. The people of Kalamazoo have mad talent, and we’re just trying to help market that.


Melissa, thank you for taking the time to meet with us and sharing your thoughts! Keep up with Melissa and Handmade Kalamazoo on facebook and twitter. Also, be sure to follow us on facebook and twitter for updates.