Coyote + Oak → Len Collective: A Gathering of Goods From Across the Globe

Len Collective: A Gathering of Goods From Across the Globe

Words by Kendra Aronson
Photos by Kendra Aronson
Illustration by Jaime Sterling Lewis


Caring, compassionate, creative, calm—for those who have the privilege of calling Shannon Len a friend, know she embodies these qualities. Shannon is the maker of Len Designs jewelry and shopkeeper of Len Collective—yet she is so much more than just another jewelry designer and retail shop owner. Shannon is a well-traveled gypsy-at-heart with an avid wanderlust, a politically engaged community member, a champion of supporting local businesses, an advocate for earth-friendly self-care, a nature enthusiast, and a mother of two sweet girls.

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By sharing her interests, thoughts, and passions openly in person and on social media, she has been able to cultivate a tribe of like-minded women—strong, confident, globally-aware, socially-conscious consumers seeking to purchase products that are thoughtful, inspire wonder, and encourage a tactile experience. Beyond the four walls of the shop, Len Collective represents a sacred, supportive sisterhood of artists, creative entrepreneurs, community members, and mamas. There is a real sense of pride, female empowerment, and deep connection that Shannon and her creative crew is tapping into, one purchase at a time.

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You grew up with a ceramist as a mother, clearly creativity runs in your blood. What is your first memory of jewelry making?
 

When I was 12, mom, my sister, and I went on a camping road trip in a VW bus to Canada and back. My mom drove the whole way there! My thing was that I got to collect beads along the way at these artisan bead shops in Seattle, Portland, and other cool towns. I just loved it; the whole way I just made jewelry.

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Did this interest of jewelry making continue into your college years?

I studied Fine Arts with an emphasis in Art History during college at San Francisco State and San Diego State. I did Studio Art so I jumped around. I really loved sculpture—and it's interesting, the last class I took was jewelry making and it just stuck, I loved it. San Diego State wasn't really the primo art school so I was the only one that hung out there in the after hours—hah!—I got the whole art studio to myself, it was great! Everyone else dropped out after the first month because it was a lot more work that people had anticipated, the amount of hours that go into making jewelry. Towards the end of school I took a semester off and took a sabbatical in Kauai, in the North Shore, in the middle of nowhere. I started making jewelry there and I taught myself. I loved it and I've never stopped.

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Besides the obvious: sun-drenched sandy beaches speckled with palm trees—what drew you to Kauai specifically?

I always loved Kauai, I had been to Hawaii several times. My mom would ship me there over the summers to visit friends and I loved it. It was always a really sacred space for me to decompress and regroup. I knew at the end of college that I needed to find what I wanted to do and I really wanted to be inspired—and Kauai was the place that I could do that. So I moved there, loved it, outgrew it in about a year because I was flying back and forth between islands so I could go to Chinatown on Oahu to buy stones, gems, and supplies, and I would have my Mom ship me metals. I realized I had already sold to every little store and farmers' market, there was no place left to sell, I wanted to expand, so I came back to the mainland.

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That’s incredible—you just jumped straight into jewelry making after college and never looked back! Good on you for honoring your creative calling.

I always knew I would be doing something creative. Even in college, I hand painted wine glasses and sold them at the wine shop, I was always a little entrepreneur. I was that lemonade stand kid.

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Oh yeah! I saw that post on your Instagram feed of your little 5-year-old daughter picking lemons for her stand. I often wonder what percentage of lemonade stand kids end up owning their own business—I was totally that kid and I became an entrepreneur, too.

It sticks—it totally does. I was Montessori-trained, and now my daughter is at Montessori school. They really do encourage the entrepreneurial spirit and put emphasis on building confidence. Being a self-starter is the bottom line. When I was a kid I wasn’t about the money, it was about wanting people to buy the wares I produced.

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Once you came back to the mainland, I’m sure you got itchy feet to travel again. Did you ever have the opportunity to live abroad?

For awhile I did the gypsy thing, I traveled and sold jewelry all over Australia, Costa Rica, Panama—I traveled for years, about 4 years before I settled down. While I was living in Sydney I sold my stuff at a big outdoor market, the Paddington market—which is a popular market. Australians really support the arts and they have a lot of really great creative people. I loved it and on the last day I was there, a girl asked me if I had this type of market in my own home town. Which at the time there wasn't and she encouraged me to go start one. So the whole plane ride home I schemed how I was going to start it.

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I love that you brought a slice of Sydney home with you in the form of a makers market! How did you pull that off?

I contacted the City of Shell Beach, and rode my bike to first meeting while wearing my big hat. They all thought it was so silly that I wore a hat to my first meeting, ha—they made a big point to remind me of that. I was only 23 at the time, haha! I just kept being very persistent and finally they let me try it. It became known as Art in the Park and it became very successful; I was the organizer for 12 years.

After so many years of organizing I just wanted to focus on being creative. I sold my jewelry there and at many other shows. After 14 years of doing shows one day I woke up and said, “I'm done doing shows.” And that was it! So then I got the studio space in the Creamery [of San Luis Obispo]—which was tiny, only 100 square feet. I tried turning it into a little store which was pretty cool, but it was so small, you could only have about 1-2 people in there, and I worked on the other side that was super messy. Yet people loved it! The hours were not set, I was only open when I was making jewelry.

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You quickly outgrew that little hole-in-the-wall studio. Did you always have your eyes set on the larger space next door, which happens to be neighbors with your mother’s ceramic studio?

I really wanted that space—that brick wall! I knew it was mine! Haha. I just kept bugging the owners, then it changed hands and it sold, then I started bugging the new owner, and then one day he said “OKAY, you can have it.” That day was like Christmas, it was the best! I went from 100 square feet to 700 square feet! It felt like a mansion! I had 250 square feet in the front and 350 square feet in the back, I loved it because I had a little more privacy in the back to make jewelry. That was a big pivotal moment for me because I knew I couldn’t do it all on my own—meaning I couldn't run the shop on my own and I couldn’t make the jewelry on my own and be a mother.

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I think there comes a moment of reckoning in all creative careers when you realize you can’t do it all and something’s gotta give. What did you do?

I hired my girl and that was probably the scariest thing I've done—I could sign a lease all day long, but hiring someone and trusting them, that was scary but this turned out to be the best decision. I hired Sarah, she is AWESOME, she's like my wife, she is so supportive and the one that encouraged me to keep expanding. She is really creative, she has the same background of Studio Art, and she started making jewelry with me. She was really a sisterhood of support. When I moved into the new Creamery space I made the conscious decision to re-name as Len Collective instead of Len Designs and bring in all these products I was passionate about.

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You built up a cult following fast and almost immediately outgrew this second space in the Creamery!

We were only in that second space for 11 months before we moved into our current space on Marsh Street which is 1200 square feet.

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Wow! You went from 100 to 700 to 1200 square feet—all within a year!

Yes, it felt good, like baby steps—although we are already running out of space! What's nice is I just keep back stock jewelry and inventory of shop goods in this new space; I don't make jewelry from this space, I make it from home.

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Speaking of baby steps, you also had your second daughter while transitioning shop spaces. I’m so impressed with your ability to juggle it all! You clearly have a knack for finding incredible artisan goods. Where do you find these artists and their unique products?

I had to find creative ways to find artists, Instagram is the best—especially when you are 8 months pregnant and in bed, ha! It takes a longer because you are scavenging the Internet, contacting artists, and asking for more photos and samples. I loved it because you are finding a lot of cool artists and establishing a relationship—even though many of them I've never met in person, I feel like we have, and I'm sure they do too because we've corresponded so many times. So besides ordering books from a rep and a few of the kids toys, I like that I can work directly with 100+ artists. Obviously it can be more difficult at times because it not as streamlined. I'm working with one-of-a-kind items, but I love it—I am that same artist so I know what it's like. I love scooping up one-of-a-kind pieces and passing them on to our customers. It's a more time consuming way of ordering but it's worth it in the end for me and people recognize that.

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As one of your devoted customers and a conscious consumer, I really value the time you take to seek out these quality, handmade, handcrafted, artisan goods. I especially love the treasures you bring back from your travels! Nature and traveling are huge sources of inspirations for you. What places in particular have really impacted you?

Bali is the most impactful, I really love the culture. I love how much they incorporate art, beauty, and music into every aspect of their living—down to placing flower mandalas over the top of the toilet. Art is everywhere, it's in the streets, even the dirtiest, dingiest beach will be covered in offerings. I had always really wanted to go to Bali—in High School I read an ethnography of Bali and I knew I wanted to go and that it would be my sacred place. I've gone 4 times and I'll go back again in Spring 2017. I usually just make jewelry and my husband surfs, we visit galleries. I sourced some stuff last time, directly with the artists, and this time I hope to do the same, I want to have some things made for the shop like some leather hand bags. Handmade goods are a big part of their culture. When I go there it inspires me to do my own work, but also to try and bring back that beauty, and to slow down and keep Bali part of our lives. I cherish traveling, it's really important for us to travel and give our daughters exposure to culture.

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What’s been the most rewarding aspect in operating a brick-and-mortar shop that was lacking when you were just doing solo shows retailing your own line?

Well for one, it's always really exciting to find these creatives. I end up building a friendship with them and I really love when their products start selling and doing really well. It's fun to see customers respond and it's really exciting to report that news back to the makers, and share how much people are loving it, and re-ordering with them. I have always been one of those people who really cares about the success of others, I like to see that. It's so great that when they grow, our store grows too, and vice versa. It's a very hand-in-hand relationship. I really value that. It's not all just about me, I get to be in the background, I'm not a limelight person, ha! It's nice to be representing other people, not just my own stuff.

I can be a pretty introverted person, and jewelry making is a very introverted craft. You sit there, listen to NPR, and drink tea—I could do that ALL DAY, every day, so one thing that I really love about having a shop is the networking, connection, and support of other businesses in downtown SLO. I've gotten to know a lot of the other store owners, they’ve been really supportive, they shop for gifts and promote us. We haven’t done any advertisement, we just use social media and it's mostly word-of-mouth that people find us, I feel very lucky, and I love connecting more and more. Instagram is great, I love it. It's how we were found in that tiny little space.  


 

Len Collective is located at 722 Marsh St, San Luis Obispo, CA 93401. Visit her online shop lencollective.com and follow along on Instagram @lencollective.

Originally published in Coyote + Oak
Season 2017
 · Volume IV