Tinkertopia: Tacoma’s DIY art supply store turns 2

For the past two years, Tinkertopia in downtown Tacoma has been the place where pine cones are turned into hedgehog shells, empty plastic cases become invisible ghost traps, and random jigsaw puzzle pieces are transformed into miniature throwing stars. The creative re-use center and alternative art supply shop—located in the four-block stretch of storefronts that line the University of Washington Tacoma campus along Pacific Avenue—is owned and operated by husband-and-wife artists Darcy and Richard Ryan “R.R.” Anderson.

Loosely modeled after Creation Station in Lynnwood, Wash., Tinkertopia offers DIY art supplies that can be bought in bulk based on three different bag sizes (small is $6.95; large is $9.95; and humongous is $19.95). Beyond the retail shelves sits the Tinkerspace—a set of tables for visitors to create their own art using materials from the store (the Tinkerspace can be used for as little as seven dollars per “Tinker Cadet” for 90 minutes, or $150 for up to 10 people for a two-hour birthday party). Outside the store, one of the Andersons can be found behind the wheel of a mini-van converted into the “Tinker Mobile” and used to pick up donated supplies or set up satellite Tinkerspaces.

“It’s our dream,” explains R.R. during a visit to the shop this week. “It’s the junk shop where we get our first pick at everything and get to make art and come up with ideas and make people laugh.”

The store wouldn’t exist without Spaceworks Tacoma, an initiative of the City of Tacoma and the Tacoma-Pierce County Chamber that aims to place creative entrepreneurs in otherwise vacant storefronts. The Andersons were artists with day jobs—Darcy was working as a pre-school teacher who painted and made dolls in the couple’s backyard studio; Anderson was working as a corporate graphic designer who had an outsized reputation in Tacoma as a prankster and political cartoonist (see “Tacoma’s Man of Mischief: Inside the curious world of R. R. Anderson,” Tacoma Daily Index, Nov. 10, 2010)—and raising their young son, Max, when they submitted an application to Spaceworks Tacoma in August 2012. They spent most of one year creating a business plan and scouting locations before they settled on the current storefront located at 1914 Pacific Ave., in a building owned by the University of Washington Tacoma. The couple signed a lease and held a grand-opening ceremony on July 20, 2013 (see “Downtown Tacoma’s Tinkertopia grand opening July 20,” Tacoma Daily Index, July 16, 2013).

Last year, the Andersons picked up a New Tacoma Award from the Tacoma-Pierce County Chamber for their work as an outstanding local retailer (see “Tinkertopia, Foss Waterway Seaport earn New Tacoma Awards,” Tacoma Daily Index, July 11, 2014). Next week, the couple will mark Tinkertopia’s second year in business.

“Spaceworks was really excited about Tinkertopia,” recalls Spaceworks Manager Heather Joy. “It was definitely going to be a destination business for Tacoma. There was a proven business model with Creation Station in Lynnwood. And Darcy and R.R. have this long history of creativity with the work that they were doing out in the community. I think for all of those reasons they were accepted into the Spaceworks program.”

“We thought they were offering a unique product and a unique customer experience,” adds University of Washington Tacoma Real Estate Manager Ben Mauk. “With their artistic talents, it was clear they would be able to take their concept and turn it into something.” The Andersons describe Mauk as a champion and advocate for keeping Tinkertopia on campus. “When you go into Tinkertopia and watch people for the first time, you see the change in their faces, their eyes light up, and they smile—What is this place? I get excited about that. That’s pretty easy to champion when you see things like that.”

The Tacoma Daily Index recently gathered around one of the Tinkerspace tables with Darcy and R.R. to look back on Tinkertopia’s first two years in business. Our interview has been edited and condensed for publication.

“Are you truly satisfied with what you are doing right now? Because I’m not.”

DARCY ANDERSON: I remember we were driving along Sixth Avenue and I looked over at [Ryan] and said, “Are you truly satisfied with what you are doing right now? Because I’m not.”

R.R. ANDERSON: We were working miserable, grinding, soul-crushing day jobs.

DARCY ANDERSON: He always wanted a junk shop where people could bring in their junk and turn it into art. I thought of that junk store idea, and I also thought of creative re-use centers that were inspiring to me, and how we didn’t have anything like this in the South Sound. So we thought let’s play around with this idea.

R.R. ANDERSON: [Darcy] had all the pre-school stuff that we could leverage, and I had all the graphic design corporate commercial branding stuff. We just stuck it together, rolled it around, and cookie-cuttered out some kind of Spaceworks Tacoma business plan.

“We were extremely conservative. We have always played it safe.”

DARCY ANDERSON: [It took] a lot of brainstorming and a lot of help through the City of Tacoma and Spaceworks. Meeting with a business advisor was a huge step. She gave us some key things to think about and a mechanism for doing that.

For six months, hanging up in our living room was this huge piece of craft paper and tons and tons of sticky notes. We would have headings and different-colored sticky notes. This was a task for [R.R.]. This was a task for me. And then we would start writing down all these ideas and sticking them underneath the headings. So people would come over to our house and see this huge thing and ask, “What is that?” “Oh, that’s our business plan.” And then we would move things around. We would have a trash can—”That’s done!”

As things evolved and changed, it kind of took on a more concrete formula. This is an actual business plan. This is a cash-flow projection for twelve months. This is looking like something that we can do.

R.R. ANDERSON: It was really hard [writing a business plan].

DARCY ANDERSON: It was really hard. When we started out, we scheduled a workshop with Creation Station to pick their brain a little bit. They were extremely generous. They shared their projections to give us an idea of what they had been doing.

R.R. ANDERSON: That gave us a point on the map.

DARCY ANDERSON: A goal to shoot for. We were extremely conservative. We have always played it safe.

R.R. ANDERSON: We’re two artists who didn’t have any business savvy. Spaceworks gave us all these tools and a flow chart of things we needed to do. Things you don’t think about as just the hippy-dippy artist.

Also, I watched a lot of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. I did a lot of research on the Ferengis and the rules of acquisition, which I think was helpful, too.

“There’s still a lot of potential that makes me feel good that things haven’t gotten stale.”

DARCY ANDERSON: We really rely on word of mouth. I like the slow progression of how people have found out about us.

We had a birthday party yesterday that we booked because the little girl whose birthday it was had been invited [earlier] to another birthday party [at Tinkertopia], but she couldn’t make it. But she was intrigued and never heard of us before. So they came down to the shop and she said, “I want my birthday here.” So they invite a group of ten people who have never been here before and say, “How come we have never heard of Tinkertopia before? How long have you been here?” And then they will go out and say, “Have you heard of this place downtown?” That keeps happening.

I kind of like that there’s so much potential as far as our local scene and neighboring towns and cities. Someone will come [to Tinkertopia] and have a good time and say, “Hey, you have to check this out.” There’s still a lot of that potential that makes me feel good that things haven’t gotten stale.

“The unicorn headband has been one of the more cool things.”

DARCY ANDERSON: The thing with kids is that they will make something out of anything. Stuff we have out in the shop that is just sitting there and is just weird, we put it back here [in the Tinkerspace] and kids will use it. So if something has been sitting out for awhile, we put it back here and immediately kids are like, “That’s cool!”

R.R. ANDERSON: The unicorn headband, which is a headband with a unicorn horn, was invented by a child and has been one of the more cool things that we’ve shown people how to make.

“I think we’re in a very safe spot right now.”

DARCY ANDERSON: I think we have met our expectations as far as some of those financial goals. I always set a goal for three years as that window of whether we’re really making it, doing okay, and making this work. I feel like two years is great and we’re right on track. But I like to play things so safe that until I get another year under my belt to compare some of these financials and some of these experiences—

R.R. ANDERSON: We don’t have a lot of overhead. I think we’re in a very safe spot right now.

DARCY ANDERSON: There are a lot of areas we want to develop that could add to the shop, like making these funny kits that people come in for, and developing workshops and summer camps. If all of a sudden it looks like something has happened and we’re not doing well at all, then it’s time to move on. He keeps telling me we’ve gotten to that point now where more and more people are finding out [about Tinkertopia].

More information about Tinkertopia is available online at tinkertopia.com.

Todd Matthews is editor of the Tacoma Daily Index, an award-winning journalist, and author of A Reporter At Large and Wah Mee. His journalism is collected online at wahmee.com.