After one of the original founders died in 2013 and the rest stepped away from the business in 2017, Sandy Litecky was the last remaining original member of the Bluestem Missouri Crafts team.
With two vacant partnership positions, Litecky found Gunilla Murphy and Paula McFarling, who thought the job might be a fun challenge after retirement. The three joined forces in the first management change at Bluestem since 1983.
The localized craft store was started 36 years ago as a place to display the work of the five original partners and other local artists in Missouri. Over time, the businesses expanded to include artists from the eight bordering states.
The store sells a variety of hand-crafted products, from home and garden products to kitchenware to toys for babies and children. Items for the home include bowls, vases, frames, lighting, tabletop art and more. For creatures of the kitchen, there are baking dishes, table linens, serving pieces, pitchers and glasses, among other items.
Murphy, 64, and McFarling, 69, both textile artists, estimate they have worked with Bluestem for at least 20 years.
“I must say, as a new partner, those older partners set up the business very well,” McFarling said. “They had a lot of systems, and over time they changed them, so the systems we have now, we owe to the founding mothers.”
Since she now lives in Carbondale, Illinois, Litecky handles bookkeeping, while McFarling and Murphy handle the day-to-day operations and the website. McFarling works with wholesale artists, and Murphy handles consignment artists. Going into the partnership, neither of them imagined they would be working so hard.
“When I was first considering being a partner, I was like, ‘Oh, I don’t know what I’m gonna do when I take over. I’m gonna have to bring a book or knit or something,’” Murphy said,” but forget that. There’s always plenty to do.”
When they aren’t working with their stable of artists, the partners vote to decide which new art to display in the shop. Two of the three partners have to agree for it to be displayed, and the art must fit with the aesthetic of the shop.
Bluestem, Murphy believes, is well-regarded among artists because of its understanding of the industry.
“What was always at the front of their mind and at the front of ours, too, was to be fair to the artists and to really help them promote their work and connect them to the customers,” Murphy said.
“We always try to display the artists’ work as well as we can,” Murphy said. “If it’s not selling in one side of the store, we move it to the other side of the store. We try to think about how to show it off the best to our customers.”
Both Murphy and McFarling said they took over these positions in large part because of their emotional connection to Bluestem.
“I worked here many Christmas seasons, and when my daughter was in college, she would work here at Christmas, too,” McFarling said. “It does have a soft place in my heart.”
They say their favorite part of working at the store is engaging with customers and artists.
“They’ll come in with some vague idea of something they want for a person or a spot in their house where they need to put a piece of artwork,” McFarling said. “It’s so much fun to help them think through, go through the process and ask them questions.”
They enjoy doing it so much that they’ve sacrificed their retirement time for the business.
“We’re basically doing this because we enjoy it,” Murphy said. “When it stops being enjoyable, that’s when we’ll stop.”