One of my favorite “strips” to walk up and down in Austin is South Congress, now known as SoCo. Start at the North end where the bridge connects to downtown Austin and watch the bats fly out from underneath at sunset. Head south and you will find a slew of restaurants, live music venues and vintage shopping. The shops have changed a bit since I use to live here but, one of my favorite shops to treasure hunt in is still thriving and has undergone a major cosmetic overhaul inside. The displays are so well put together that even Antrhopologie design teams have come in to “get inspired” by the shop and even try to recruit the employees.
Also, many celebrities have been spotted shopping his well-curated store of 25 vendors. Owner and artist, Steve Wiman, opens his art studio up and invites me in for a chat about how empowering his staff to have more creative control has freed him up to focus on art again. He also wants customers to know that each piece in the shop is uniquely sourced, selected and displayed with love.
INTERVIEW: UNCOMMON OBJECTS
1512 S. Congress, Austin, TX 78704.
Open Sun-Thu 11-7, Fri & Sat 11-8
Proprietor: Steve Wiman
RNR: What do you think about life in the vintage business?
UO: Almost everyone in the “junk business” is a gypsy spirit, I mean, we like being on the road, finding new places…it’s like a treasure hunt and I love nothing more than being out with a map or GPS and just typing in “Antiques” and seeing what pops up. So, just being out on the road and not knowing where you’re going next is really cool.
RNR: Since the last time I was here, three years ago, I really see a difference in how your shop is merchandised. Online, I was looking at your art and I can really see it represented in your design aesthetic.
UO: We are really spending more time on the merchandising aspect of it and I now have a crew of people who come in and help do projects.
RNR: Are they freelance merchandisers or do they already work in the store?
UO: They are part of the shop and the big perk of the job is getting to be a part of those intense visual experiences because it’s creatively rewarding and so is getting to watch the result of it.
RNR: Do you teach a specific standard of how you want things to look?
UO: I do, it’s constant and it never ends. Even someone who’s been with the shop for ten years, I still critique them (laughs). But, if you would have told me ten years ago that I would ever relinquish the amount of creative control that I have given over, I would have said, “No, I don’t think so”.
RNR: I also use to be a store merchandiser and I realized the only way to get everything done, was to delegate.
UO: Exactly, just in the last couple years, I’ve had time to be on the road more, and that’s huge for me. I’ve given the reins over to the team here and they love me being away and coming back…sometimes they just really blow me away. It’s really exciting. It’s something to be proud of.
RNR: Are you still making art?
UO: I am, and it’s one of the things that I have time to do now that I have turned things over to the team downstairs. It’s so great to have an afternoon to come up here and do stuff.
RNR: How long have you owned Uncommon Objects?
UO: We opened in ’91 so, we just had our 22 year anniversary.
RNR: How did you get started?
UO: I started as an artist. As a collector and a finder of stuff to build my work with. From that, a friend of mine talked me into doing a flea market one time and it was so exhilarating to meet people who saw value in the same things that I saw value in, even though they were kind of valueless things. It was a way to meet that community and I was hooked and started doing it every month with a friend. Next I got a space at a little antique mall in Lewisville, Texas. Next I got a job with Chilli’s working with their decor team for five years.
RNR: I NEVER thought about someone being paid to put all that stuff up on the walls at Chilli’s!
UO: Yeah! It was a great job. I got to travel all over the country. It was my first “after college” job. After I left that job, I started doing the flea market thing more heavily and soon after had the opportunity to move into a shop in Austin. The person who owned the shop announced that they were going to close so, I was thrown into business with another person that I didn’t really know and we worked well together and built the business but, I’ve been solo for the last six years.
RNR: What percent of the merchandise in the store is yours versus the other merchants?
UO: I’d say about 20% of the space is mine but, we have 25 different vendors. More than half the people here have been with us for at least ten years. When we started this business this street was really run-down. It was very sleepy and lazy. We’ve been major contributors to the vibrancy of this neighborhood, I think. This neighborhood represents Austin so clearly, it’s not chain restaurants…it’s Mom and Pop shops.
RNR: So, you say you have more time to go buying now…if you have 20% of the store downstairs, do you keep shopping and just store your goods?
UO: I don’t have any storage, the only storage I have is at my house on my front porch. I’ve chosen to operate in that mode because I feel that there is a freshness to everything that goes into the shop. Because it hasn’t been sitting in a warehouse collecting dust or me falling out of love with it.
(Steve’s phone continues to ring and I excuse him to answer it)
UO: It’s my staff, celebrity spotting downstairs (chuckles). Elijah Wood is downstairs, he’s a regular customer. Our celebrity list is really impressive and mind-blowing. Last week Whoopi Goldberg was in here and she just made everyone’s day, she rocks.
RNR: Does Sandra Bullock still live here?
UO: She has in the past and she populated a lot of her house with stuff from here.
RNR: Will you open a store anywhere else?
UO: We thought about it certainly, because what we have here is successful and we are well-respected in the industry, as for doing what we do. I’ve been approached numerous times about opening elsewhere, as a franchise or just somewhere else. It’s just not right for me because it’s so much personal investment and time that even with all the delegating I do, I don’t think it would translate to another location.
RNR: Is there anything else you want the public to know about your shop and it’s aesthetic?
UO: I want people to know that each piece here is sourced, hand-picked and uniquely displayed, each with a handwritten tag. Some people come in here and assume we are a high-polished retail shop because of our elaborate displays. We are not just creating displays, we are creating a destination that is an experience.
Check out Steve’s artwork at SteveWiman.com his pieces are just as beautiful as his displays.
You captured the experience beautifully. Well done!
Thanks! When you’re having fun doing what you love, I think it shows in the work! 😉