Nicole Carey, owner of Winooski boutique Birdfolk Collective, is familiar with the infamous "Put a Bird on It" sketch from the satirical television show "Portlandia," in which giggling hipsters stencil birds on just about everything to "make it pretty." In fact, the self-proclaimed "bird nerd" embraces customers' associations with the clip. "People come in here whispering, Oh, it's like 'put a bird on it,' but I think it's funny," she says. Carey's shop even carries a line of eco-friendly candles from San Diego company Let's Put a Bird On It.
Avians aside, Birdfolk Collective at 17 East Allen Street is cozy, colorful and loaded with cuteness. Filled to the brim with wares from local artists as well as independent designers from around the country (and world), it offers shoppers everything from candy-colored rolls of washi tape ($3); to mala-esque necklaces made from semiprecious beads and deerskin ($65); to earthy, handmade cloth-and-leather totes from Burlington accessories company Foliage Handbags ($100 and up).
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"I like to think of it as Etsy, if Etsy were a retail shop," says Carey.
At the high end of the store's price spectrum is furniture, including the display tables. Most pieces come from ReSOURCE's Waste Not Products, a Burlington salvaged-building-materials enterprise under the direction of Abby Teel. A small end table is priced at $175, while a long table goes for $595.
When Seven Days visits, Carey, 29, is dressed in an item from one of her best-selling designers, local husband-and-wife team New Duds. Her gray hoodie features a bold graphic of the Winooski River, complete with smokestack silhouette, and is emblazoned with the text "Winooski: The Onion City."
Local pride is a theme here, and plenty of products represent the sleeker side of Vermont's craft economy. Bobo's Mountain Sugar comes in small clear-glass bottles with the tagline "A taste of tree." "You have to have maple syrup if you're a gift store in Vermont," says Carey with a laugh. She also carries another precious elixir: Feared Beard VT's all-natural facial-hair oil.
Carey moved to Vermont from Pennsylvania in 2009, right after helping her mother open her own gift shop, Earth and Wears, in Dallas, Pa. Once in Burlington, Carey, who makes clothing and fabric-button jewelry under the moniker Nicole's Threads, became a vendor at the farmers market. There she met many of the artists whose wares she now carries at Birdfolk, including jeweler Jennifer Kahn.
Last February, Carey and Kahn attended the NY Now buyers' show together, where Carey says she first conceived the idea of owning a shop. Shortly after, the space that is now home to Birdfolk became available. Last March, Carey launched a Kickstarter campaign with a goal of $8,000 to make the store a reality. She offered rewards including T-shirts and tote bags with the future shop's logo: a papel picado-like design by Burlington artist Sarah Ryan.
"It was this wild idea," Carey says of opening a store. She ended her campaign with $9,354 and augmented that sum with her own savings and help from her family. Birdfolk opened in May.
When the shop launched, Carey had recruited about 20 artists and designers — a combination of farmers market compatriots, other Vermont makers and people she refers to as "Etsy craft crushes." She now carries products from more than 100 small companies. Locals will spot items from BCA Summer Artist Market fixtures including Kahn, ceramicist Jeremy Ayers, and artists Hilary Glass and Leanne Shunney.
Some of Birdfolk's best-selling items are wooden slingshots equipped with felt-ball ammunition ($22) from Portland, Ore., company Little Lark; sparkly earrings from Pennsylvania-based Tiny Galaxies ($24 to $30); and products from Maine's Long Winter Soap, including lip balm with a scent called Unicorn Farts ($4).
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"Cards sell like crazy," Carey adds, and the shop's selection is certainly daunting. The humorous (and frequently pun-tastic) options include "Happy Birthday You Freak of Nature," "I Love You Even When You Pick Your Nose" and "Holy Sheep! You Had a Baby."
"If you want to do what you love for a living, [Vermont] seems like a place where people will support you," Carey observes.
Next, she's toying with the idea of establishing an artists' workspace called Birdfolk Studios. More immediately, though, Carey is gearing up for the holiday season.
On Saturday, November 28, the shop will give away tote bags in celebration of Small Business Saturday; and on Saturday, December 12, Birdfolk will host — get this — Wrapping for Raptors.
True to her bird nerdery, Carey volunteers weekly at Outreach for Earth Stewardship, a Shelburne-based group that rehabilitates injured birds of prey. At the event, Birdfolk will offer in-store gift wrapping for tips, which will be donated in full to OFES. Live "wild ambassadors," aka raptors, will be present.
That's really putting a bird on it.
The original print version of this article was headlined "Finely Feathered"
Rachel is an arts staff writer at Seven Days. She writes from the intersections of art, visual culture and anthropology, and has contributed to The New Inquiry, The LA Review of Books and Artforum, among other publications.