Stepping into Elm City Handmade is like stepping into someone’s semi-curated, semi-organized attic. The more you explore, the more random objects you uncover. The store, which opened in November, is a repository of unique, bizarre and recycled goods, handmade by about 50 artists in Connecticut and New York. But compared to similar New Haven stores like Wave and Ten Thousand Villages, Handmade’s wares resemble the amateur crafts your DIY aunt might make.
When I entered the shop at 71 Orange St., I thought it only consisted of two rooms, but Handmade actually consists of two storefronts, a total of five rooms. The space is large enough to remain uncluttered, which makes an overwhelming array of objects — vintage clothing, hats, jewelry, soaps, notebooks, lamps, mirrors, dolls, chocolates and teapots — slightly more manageable.
You can feel good about buying from Handmade because you are not only supporting local artists, but also virtually everything is recycled. Bracelets are made from marker caps strung together. Lamps are made from bowl-shaped computer parts. Purses are made from cloth-covered books. Legless chairs are attached to the wall, creating an unexpected place to hang your coat or an unconventional work of art.
One small room by the front window has an extensive collection of plants held in vases and jars made of thick, distorting glass that resemble bell jars found in science laboratories. (If anyone is looking for a present for me, please note that I want a fuzzy plant from Handmade.) But these few survivors are the only living plants in the store: Elsewhere, twigs and tree branches have been transformed into household items. Twigs have been turned into picture frames, which reminded me of an organic version of the popsicle-stick frames I made in kindergarten, and a large branch hanging from the ceiling becomes a natural chandelier. I couldn’t tell if the branch was for sale, or if it merely served as a display case for the glass ornaments hanging off of it.
This is a common theme in Homemade: I was often unsure whether the items in the store were themselves for sale, or if they were merely meant to beautify the actual products. Does a broken boombox sitting on the floor count as handmade art? Dubious. Would it be creepy to buy the family picture hanging on the wall if it was of someone else’s family? Most definitely.
Perhaps most confusing was a toy horse that hung on the wall, encircled by a wreath of Hula-Hoops. Is the horse for sale or only the Hula-Hoops? Or do they come as one set? And if only the Hula-Hoops, do you get just one or the set of all 10?
As I was about a leave empty-handed — I had not been tempted by anything I had seen — I noticed a loom near the door and searched the contraption for a nonexistent price tag. It turns out the loom is not for sale, but is actually used for craft classes offered at Handmade. Even though I was unenthused by the complete uselessness of everything in the store, I may actually go back. I’ve always wanted to learn how to weave.