ANNALEE HUBBS – COPY & DIGITAL EDITOR
Plants are just like people: If you pay attention to them, they’ll tell you exactly what they need.
What do Chautauquans need? A pop-up shop, right in the middle of the grounds.
From 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday, July 25 in the Colonnade on Bestor Plaza, The Mobile Garden and Gifts of Grace joint pop-up shop will have their grand opening, equipped with champagne, snacks and local, organic and homegrown flower stems to build your own bouquet. Their shop will stay open every day from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. through Sept. 30.
“To be surrounded by growth at the Institution, and to also be surrounded by plants that grow — it’s perfect,” said Lisa Swanson, the owner of The Mobile Garden, one half of the pop-up shop.
A Jamestown native, Swanson has lived in the South for the last 20 years or so. She worked in the hospitality industry for a long time, specifically as a national sales manager working nearly 80 hours a week. She loved the work, but lost her job when COVID-19 hit.
She always had a garden and loved houseplants, but her passion grew during quarantine.
“Last summer, I was playing in dirt and loving my life,” she said. “I said to myself, ‘How can I do something and monetize something that I love, and something that I feel is so vitally important to the world?’ ”
So Swanson launched The Mobile Garden. To make it into the Institution within a year of her business opening was a dream come true, she said. This is her first-ever storefront.
“I just want to share my passion for plants and the Earth with other people,” she said.
Chautauqua Institution was always a part of Swanson’s business plan, but the pop-up shop wasn’t originally her idea.
The retail space was empty, and the original plan for Chautauqua was to have a different pop-up vendor every week. While pitching her own business, Swanson said Gifts of Grace would be a good fit for a vendor.
Eventually, the Institution reached out with a plan to combine the stores and do a season-long pop-up shop with the both of them. Chautauqua has never had a store like this before, Swanson said, so she’s proud that her first brick-and-mortar is in tandem with something new on the grounds.
“I’m so thankful (Swanson) loves what we stand for and decided to invite us on this journey,” said Stefanie Lowery, whose mother, Colleen Anderson, owns Gifts of Grace.
Gifts of Grace opened as a brick-and-mortar store in Lakewood in 2019. An inspirational gift shop, the word “Grace” was chosen by Anderson to mean living life gracefully and with purpose.
Anderson opened the store as a creative outlet. Beforehand, she was a nurse, then a hospice nurse once she retired. She started by opening storefront gift shops in her husband’s pharmacies, but eventually decided she wanted a store of her own.
Gifts of Grace sells handcrafted pieces from primarily woman- and minority-owned businesses throughout the U.S. They sell items from over 25 local, small businesses and artisans, including woodworkings, dried flower wreaths and ceramic mugs. They also sell mindful journals, inspirational coffee table books and, one of their best sellers, Kitras Balls.
Kitras Balls are pieces of glass art made by blowing glass, compressing it down and blowing it back up again. The process creates a tree-like formation in the center of the ball, and the pieces come attached with different meanings — trees of love, life, family, motherhood.
At the soft opening of the shop last Sunday, members from the community stopped by to browse the stock. Lexi Rutkowski, who has been visiting the Institution with her aunt every year, said she was surprised at the turn out.
“I can imagine a store like this appeals to young people a lot,” she said.
The front portion of the store houses a variety of plants, such as jades, aloes, monsteras and money trees. Swanson sources her plants as locally as possible, but some of the tropical plants and air plants come out of Florida. She also propagates some plants herself.
Surrounding the plants are Gifts of Grace pieces aligned on shelves and handmade tables for sale. Watering cans and other plant products are for sale, as well.
“To have somewhere new to poke about on the grounds will be nice for people,” Lowery said.
Swanson wants to use the back portion of the shop for youth programs, like educational series on learning different types of plants and building terrariums. This past Mother’s Day, she did a DIY succulent bar at ART Cloth + Craft in Jamestown where people could pick their succulent, soil and pot or mug. She plans to do that again with kids on the grounds, but also with kids off-site, within the community.
One of her goals for The Mobile Garden is to be accessible to everyone.
“Being accessible to everyone means all levels of income, and all ages,” she said. “Because a lot of times, people forget about kids, who are people, too. You just have to be able to relate to them in a different way. Including them and teaching them how to love and care for things and why plants are so important is the foundation of everything that I’m doing.”
Alyssa Porter, director of youth and family programs, met with Swanson to discuss bringing in families and youth for a collaboration with the shop. Porter has brought her daughter to some events that The Mobile Garden has been a part of, like the Jamestown Public Market.
“That’s as far as this conversation has gotten, but I think with her innovation and flexibility and community-minded approach to her work, we’re going to do something great with families, whatever that might be,” Porter said.
Porter said she would love, in the future, to have a maker space on the grounds that builds off Play CHQ to add an element of garden education — planting and playing in the soil. Play CHQ is a vehicle with which they could easily make this happen. Play CHQ, new this year, is a series of pop-up activities around the grounds for families — games, crafts, STEM activities.
“I would love to open something up for parents and kids, or grandparents, or whoever it might be, to do something together — to really lean into the multigenerational Chautauqua approach,” she said.
Swanson hopes the classes will create a deeper connection between the shop and the community.
“I think that will be a catalyst for not only driving business into the store, but for immersing myself into Chautauqua culture,” she said. “I’m not just here to sell plants, I’m here to be a part of the team.”
Another service The Mobile Garden offers is plant pairing, where they will go into a customer’s home, look at the light conditions and air quality and determine which plants would best thrive in that environment. They also offer a service where they water, rotate and prune your plants when the customer goes out of town.
They have plants for the type of person who dotes over them, the picky ones, and for those who just want their house filled with beautiful plants without much maintenance.
Swanson and Lowery said their goal for the season is to have fun and be Chautauquans, immersed in the culture of the grounds.
“I’m here to soak up as much as I can learn from the Institution as the people here can learn from us,” Swanson said. “Spreading my love of plants is a way of giving back.”