Evanston residents Kristin Blakeman and Karyn Mewett want to get mothers like them out of a mess.
The two young women behind Gather, the new family studio/play space at 602 Davis St., know that children’s self-expression can be sticky.
“No one likes glitter on their carpet,” Ms. Mewett says. With a smile at her friend and business partner she adds, “There’s going to be glitter in our lives here at Gather.”
But Gather offers much more than an alternative to at-home clutter. Ms. Mewett and Ms. Blakeman have built a refuge they call an “urban retreat” and have stocked it with paints and princess garb, a playhouse and puppet theater, a table for play and stores for work – and of course, with glitter.
In this place, amidst a supportive community, they hope children from birth to age 8 will find creative outlets for their energy and imagination – and that parents will join them while exploring their own potential in classes and conversation.
It is not clear who is in for a better time.
Every first visit begins with a tour. Then, say the owners, “it’s up to [parents and kids] what they want to do.” Once inside the front door guests find themselves in the spacious, cheerful arts and crafts studio.
A huge chalkboard spans most of one wall. Bright-colored chairs surround tables of different heights, all covered with paper that begs to be colored. Containers in the middle of each table hold craft supplies, with more neatly arrayed on shelves.
“Clean is a big thing for Karyn and me,” Ms. Blakeman says of the spic-and-span space.
On the counter that divides the studio from the middle “room” are carafes of complimentary coffee and tea – treats for the grown-up moms, dads, nannies and grandparents who have appeared in greater numbers than Ms. Blakeman and Ms. Mewett expected since Gather opened on Aug. 11.
“We try to offer some amenities for the adults. We wanted to make the place as comfortable for parents as it is for kids,” says Ms. Blakeman.
The middle play space is everything a little dreamer could wish for. Ms. Mewett and Ms. Blakeman designed a streetscape with shops named for their youngest children – Dylan’s Hardware for the Mewetts’ 3-year-old son and Maddy’s Market Fresh for the Blakemans’ 16-month-old daughter.
Small shoppers can fill their grocery carts with canned goods and realistic produce, then wheel them to the checkout window. They will find a well-equipped tool bench in the hardware store and nearby, a puppet stage. Across the way, a house with a kitchen, dolls and dress-ups invites role-play and storytelling.
The third space at Gather is a quiet back room behind the playroom. Known as The Nest, it is furnished with comfortable couches and supplied with puzzles, books and games.
Gather has an ongoing schedule of group activities posted on one wall and online – sessions for nursing mothers, Mom-baby yoga, journaling and more. Ms. Mewett and Ms. Blakeman had no trouble finding local experts to lead the classes. “The talent in Evanston is amazing,” says Ms. Mewett. They have been pleased and surprised, she says, at the number of people who have expressed interest in collaborating with them – all of them radiating “positive energy” and a desire “for Gather to do well.”
Details of the fee schedule are at www.meetatgather.com, but in summary there are three ways to pay. A drop-in fee of $12 for the first and $3 for the second child admits a family for a day, including revisits after a nap or meal break. A 10-visit pass costs $100 for one and $120 for two children. And $75 for one child pays for unlimited visits for a month.
In the course of their five-year friendship, Ms. Blakeman and Ms. Mewett say they had often “talked about doing a business together” and that the idea of launching something involving arts and crafts “had been brewing for four years.”
Ms. Blakeman, a Wisconsin-born graphic artist and photographer, brought experience in the arts to the venture. Ms. Mewett, an Ontario native, says the notion of “gathering people together, having support, learning something new and creating something together” grew out of her work programming women’s events in Indianapolis.
Ms. Blakeman happened to be walking by on the May day when the “For Lease” sign went up on the window of what had been Adeline’s Room, another mother-and-child-centered business. One of the appeals of the place was that it “had been so nicely renovated” by their predecessor, Ms. Blakeman says. Their hunch that its central downtown location would bring foot traffic and guests has proved true, they say.
They took possession July 1 and opened just over a month later. “It was an intense 30 days,” says Ms. Blakeman. Years of thought had generated “a lot of ideas on paper, but [we] had to tailor them to the space,” she says.
Once they moved in, other ideas popped up. One of their favorites is the rotating art exhibit. Once a month a guest artist is feted at an opening reception, after which his or her pieces are displayed for about a month. Amy O. Woodbury’s work will be up till Oct. 31; Jim Dee’s will be on exhibit after a Nov. 2 opening.
Ms. Blakeman and Ms. Mewett admit their older children – each has two teen or tween daughters – are missing them. They have been working almost seven days a week but expect things to settle down. Living four blocks apart, they share a nanny who brings their younger children to Gather almost daily.
Besides, says Ms. Mewett, “It’s a joy coming in every day.” Like the mothers they are, the entrepreneurs “kind of think of [Gather] as our new baby,” she says. “We don’t know what it’s going to grow into. We’ll see what people want.”