“You’re certainly not cool enough to go in there.”
I knew that, even without the helpful observation of my wife. I wasn’t at 16, and I’m certainly not at 61. If coolness is the test, I am always good for the overall curve. But here I am, walking past Mars Coffee Bar with its sleek industrial look; next to Raygun with its clever slogans, smart T-shirts and hip clientele; around the corner sign on East Grand that announces “other cool shops ahead”; and up the concrete sidewalk bordering the modern concrete building all wrapped in an Iowa-winter concrete sky. A slate-grey palette on which to be cooly cool.
Should I have worn a disguise?
“Domestica,” it says on the door. I gaze into the brightly lit, many-colored space. Inviting, funky, intriguing.
“A lot of the items we show in the store are made by women. These are their full-on businesses. So it’s pretty rad. Everything at Domestica is either made or designed by somebody. There are no, like, things from China. Somebody actually touched this item, put their own work into it. So we really wanted to show off what people were doing.”
Wow. I’ve never used the word “rad” in a sentence. Perhaps that’s because I don’t really know what it means. I’m in awe.
Chrissy Jensen looks at me matter-of-factly. Gold fingernails, half-dozen rings, multiple bracelets, hoops piercing her ears, a loose strand of short blonde hair drifting across her right eye. Cool, cool and cool.
I adjust my non-slim-fit pants and take note of her half smile and empathetic eyes. A pragmatist/dreamer is my guess. Today she is working hard helping customer after customer and juggling a conversation with me.
“I went to Iowa State for journalism. I graduated in 1990. I really, really wanted to be a copywriter. My specialty was advertising. I graduated, and advertising was going down the toilet. I started freelancing with a friend, here in Des Moines. Just little projects, prop-styling for film shoots. Got into Meredith. A friend whose mom needed some help in the home design department. Started doing photo stuff there. I did that for 11 years, freelance. I loved it.”
But then, of course, the bottom dropped out at Meredith as many of the permanent staff were laid off, leaving the freelancers without a job.
“I loved it at Meredith. I’ve always been into design. I kind of knew I wanted to do a pop-up show for this or that. We worked on opening Domestica for about a year. We knew the people in the craft-and-handmade trade. It’s a small community, and we all knew each other. It’s geek culture. You’re geeking out on something you think is cool.”
So Domestica was born.
“I got a space in the Northwestern Hotel. Four-hundred square feet. Great way to start. Started there for five years. We expanded into the office next to us, which was really great, then we had like 800 square feet. It was great down there. So fun. The skate shop and the bike shop guys. They’re like my brothers. So, so nice.”
Before long she was expanding Domestica to her new spot next to Raygun. She built an amazing store of hand-made products and gifts and cards and prints and everything else. A great success.
Wow. Wonderful job you’re doing. Domestica is one heck of a business. Kudos to East Village. Thank you so much.
“This is super scary up here. It is super expensive compared to down there. The size is like three times the size. It’s really scary. But if I sat down where I was and someone else did this shop, I knew I’d be totally pissed. So I had to do it now. It was like I didn’t have a choice.”
And your fear?
“What’s the worst that could happen? It could go under. That would suck really bad. I’d be in debt. But not so much debt I couldn’t figure it out. And I got to do what I wanted to do. That was kind of rad, too.”
This attitude has paid off. Jensen’s willingness to push the edges has resulted in several national recognitions of her business.
“Pinterest came out, and you had to have an invite back then to belong. Being the Meredith girl that I was, I’m going to find out who their PR person is and get an invite. Well, then I found out the guy the owned it, Ben Silbermann, was from Des Moines. So I just wrote him — ‘Hey, help a homegirl out man, give me an invite.’ His response? ‘Most def. Here you go.’ And then they did an interview with me giving me great exposure.”
Jensen is philosophical about those opportunities.
“This is just luck. Just people not being mean. You see a lot of old prints these days that all say — ‘Don’t be a dick.’ I think that is such an important thing to remember because things just open up for you. And you are also giving. You are also promoting other people shops. We try to push others. I Instagrammed five businesses of other people today already.”
Jensen needs to go back to work. But she turns to me one last time.
“Listen, I just hope that people do see that some of the big things that happened in our town is due to one person, not some big institution. People are sitting around waiting for this or that to happen, or people think I’m not really the right guy…. No, you probably are the right guy. You’ve probably already thought of this thing. You can see how it should be.”
Jensen takes a long breath.
“All the things I should have done, I could have done. I just didn’t know I could. Now I know.”
And off she goes. Hmmm… did she just define “rad”? CV
Joe Weeg spent 31 years bumping around this town as a prosecutor for the Polk County Attorney’s Office. Now retired, he writes about the frequently overlooked people, places and events in Des Moines on his blog: www.joesneighborhood.com.