by Miranda Bigham
This “store for makers” is the antidote to half-baked ideas, unfinished to-do lists and “someday” hobbies. It challenges shoppers to think for themselves, figure things out, have fun and create.
It defies the odds. Remember the Retail Apocalypse, when more than 6,100 stores closed in one year? That was 2017, the year Eric Sovern and his wife Shannon decided to open Cardboard Robot. “In some ways, I think we started a retail store when retail was dying to prove that it can still be done,” Eric says.
It’s been open for five years, two of them clouded by a global pandemic. COVID was like Eric’s best friend and biggest enemy rolled into one. The increased time spent at home and the surge in the value of making and tinkering teed Cardboard Robot up for success. At the same time, it presented a challenge to the 1,800 square-foot brick-and-mortar in downtown Decorah, Iowa, a place that still relies on foot traffic and word of mouth for customers.
The retail rule of thumb, then, was to optimize the online storefront, but “the downside is that it goes against everything we are,” says Eric. Here, he explains why, and describes his store’s concept, its product mix, and what he’s looking at next.
In the age of online retail, how have you been successful with a more traditional approach?
There’s a great group of businesses in this town that are very supportive of each other, to the extent of, “Oh, you guys carry this? We won’t then.” It’s not the sort of cutthroat capitalism you see in a lot of places. And all of the businesses are very vocal about getting people to shop local.
The community is very supportive, too. We were closed for two-and-half months when COVID hit. But our Chamber of Commerce sold gift cards to shop at local businesses. Frankly, a lot of those gift cards that were purchased never got used. They were more of a donation.
Speaking of COVID, I imagine that as an art store you were still busy.
Yes, we sell things that help people stay busy when they’re stuck inside. In those first months of COVID, business was actually pretty good for us, but no one in the art supplies community wants to think of the pandemic as a boon for our businesses.
The good thing was that people started finding stuff again, like watercolors, oil paints, sketchbooks and journals. They thought, “I’ll take up painting, I’ll take up sketching, I’ll write my life story.”
Why the name “Cardboard Robot?”
It was one of a thousand names we threw around originally, but Cardboard Robot is really an ode to that point before Halloween when you need a costume for your kid and you’re too cheap to buy something. And so you go down into the basement and make him a costume out of cardboard. We’ve done that many years running for our now 14-year-old son.
The store’s name also speaks to its concept. Part of that comes from my background: I used to be a teacher and then I worked in the bicycle industry – as a messenger, as a bicycle mechanic, and then in sales for a company that makes bikes. After doing that for years and years, I ended up with a basement full of tools and weird parts. I’m a hopeless tinkerer.
Meanwhile, my wife is a teacher and librarian – she has set up a makerspace in her library. Many of the products that we’ve selected for the store come from what she’s discovered in the educational world.
Our products simply help people make something. That “something” is open-ended to encourage shoppers to think and be creative. We want them to engage with something that’s not on a screen or electronic device. I mean, even our birthday cards are blank on the inside.
Cardboard Robot has evolved from what we originally pictured, which was more like Make: Magazine, a publication that offers dozens of how-to craft projects ranging from how to make ice cream in a plastic bag to DIY electronics and other weird stuff.
Together, Shannon and I developed this retail space and product mix. It’s at the midpoint between a weird, overfull hobby store (my side) and the super-sparse, Scandinavian, everything-is-white store (that’s Shannon). The joke is that I pick all the nerdy stuff and she picks the stuff that has clean lines and great design. I don’t think either one of us would’ve come up with this concept individually. But there is a yin and yang with us and it works.
You said it’s a fun place to shop. How would you describe the atmosphere there?
I still have a lot of friends that run bike shops, and the shops that are my favorites are the ones that are “clubhouses” – places that are very welcoming; that invite people to stop in and chat. I wanted to create an atmosphere in which people could feel comfortable stopping in and asking, “What do you have that’s new?” or saying, “Here, let me show you this thing I’m working on,” without having to worry about making a purchase.
It’s that sense of discovery of new things that I hope keeps people wanting to come in and gets first-time shoppers happy that they’ve stopped.
What kinds of products are in your mix?
It’s like our website says, we carry art supplies, clever toys, nice paper and craft kits – anything and everything that supports people making things. For instance, right now we have scissors, rulers, X-ACTO knives, bone tools for paper arts, tools for working with clay, hot glue guns, woodburning kits, cut-resistant gloves and all kinds of brushes. We have GOLDEN Acrylics, M. Graham Watercolors and Winton Oil Colours, plus Tamiya acrylic enamel paints for model making. We carry Strathmore, Arches and Canson papers, and pads and journals from MD Paper in Japan, Leuchtturn from Germany and Field Notes from Chicago. Our stationery products are handcrafted by Moglea in Des Moines, Iowa.
Among my favorite products are little reusable blue screws – spelled SCRUs – for putting cardboard together. They’re from a company called Makedo, and they’re the most genius things that have ever existed for anybody who’s tried to build something out of cardboard, even something with moving parts.
We stock our shelves to meet the needs of families and walk-ins, particularly people who come in and say, “I’m bored, I want something to do.”
How many employees do you have?
Well, there’s me and Skip, the dog. But you could also count my son and two people who help out on Saturdays, Sundays and other days here and there.
How does having Decorah, Iowa, as a backdrop impact business?
Decorah is the one place in Iowa you can say “tourism” without chuckling a little. It’s the “Driftless Area,” meaning we don’t have drift left over from glaciers. We never had the ice.
It’s not what you think when you think of Iowa. Instead of vast fields of corn and soybeans, Decorah has bluffs, woods, trout streams and a lot of natural beauty. You can canoe, mountain bike, fish, and do other amazing things outside.
It’s a little town of 8,000 people combined with 2,000 students at Luther College. It’s an artistic community that comes out of being a little college town, but it’s also a tourist destination for the Midwest.
It’s one of the few places where people still walk around downtown and go to stores. A huge part of our business comes from foot traffic and people sort of happening upon us. I’d say more people look at our sign and say, “Well, let’s check that out,” than find us on Google.
How much of the store’s culture is not just providing people with what they need to create, but actually supporting them as they look to make something – especially if it’s brand new to them?
I started an art supply store without having much background in art supplies. I love them, and I mess around with a lot of things, but I’m not an expert. It has been an education for me. We don’t approach it like we’re the experts. It’s more like, “What are you working on and how can we help you find what you need?” We all learn something from that.
We don’t do classes here, but ArtHaus, a local nonprofit, teaches art to both kids and adults. It’s a great place to learn. We support the classes there with our supplies. We also supply the local high school and middle school with some items, and we get some of the class lists from the college.
What’s next for Cardboard Robot?
We’re at the point where our idea worked and we’re looking at the next step. Do we mount a serious online campaign and do an online store? I feel that it goes against everything we are in the sense that online shopping is rarely fun. I want people to have the fun shopping experience we offer live in our store.
Okay, so does that mean opening another location somewhere? There are a lot of great communities that are relatively close by that have potential, from La Crosse to Iowa City to Minneapolis.
In Decorah, there’s not a Blick, Michaels or Hobby Lobby. We don’t have the kind of big box stores here that other art-materials stores would consider competitors. So if we go to another town that does have one of those, will it be the same? Can we replicate what we have here with our downtown? I don’t know. Maybe we’ll find out.