Langley glass artist ‘experiences’ success

Justin Burnett / The Record Callahan McVay entertains a crowd as he works in his Second Street studio and gallery in Langley. McVay has turned his shop into a success by selling lessons, or as he calls them, “experiences.” - Justin Burnett / The Record
Justin Burnett / The Record Callahan McVay entertains a crowd as he works in his Second Street studio and gallery in Langley. McVay has turned his shop into a success by selling lessons, or as he calls them, “experiences.”
— image credit: Justin Burnett / The Record

Waiting at the register in a little Langley art studio on Second Street, 11-year-old Ellie Bloom stands within a wilderness of color.

She is surrounded. In every direction rest sparkling works of handmade blown glass. Bowls, cups, exotic fish, paper weights, jewelry; the stuff is even on the walls. Walking into the shop is like walking into a rainbow.

Yet, somehow, Bloom’s smile has become the brightest spot in the room. She has just completed her very own glass bowl. It’s her first and her pleasure is so apparent, so infectious, bystanders can’t help but break out in smiles of their own.

It’s a common reaction at Callahan’s Firehouse Studio and Gallery. Set up in the city’s old fire station, shop owner Callahan McVay not only sells his own work but he makes it in the studio before an often gawking audience.

“It’s so powerful they forget to buy something,” McVay laughed.

Whether it’s the unobstructed view of the visual goodies inside, a result of the building’s double-wide garage doors, or the soft roar of the 2,150-degree furnace, people just can’t help but wander in and watch him work.

But that’s not the sole secret to his success nor is it the source of Bloom’s grin. McVay has put a fresh spin on a 3,000-year-old art form and managed to hammer out a successful business during one of the worst economic periods in 100 hundred years by allowing customers to blow their own glass.

For 10 to 30 minutes, both children and adults can make a variety of their own products — bowls, Texas tumblers, sea floats, etc. — under the personal tutelage of the Whidbey glass master himself.

McVay insists they aren’t classes, rather, he says he sells “experiences.” And they are selling like hotcakes. He estimates that his shop does between 20 and 30 experiences a week at $65 a pop, or in this case, a blow.

During the busy summer months, McVay said it represents about 50 percent of his total business. The rest is made up of inventory sales and contract work, such as holding private workshops for commercial businesses.

He recently did a workshop focused on team building for Alstom, a national equipment and services company in the power generation and rail transportation business.

While do-it-yourself glass blowing has attracted a smorgasbord of customers, McVay says children seem to make the best students. They take instruction better and tend to be less afraid of working the gummy 2,000-degree glass.

“Plus, you can see that spark; they are really getting something out of it,” he said.

McVay is really a Whidbey Island success story. The local boy has been blowing glass for more than 25 years and studied with masters all over the world. Although he spent his youth as a commercial fisherman in Alaska, a twist of fate threw him into the glass business full time.

Working in wholesale — producing pieces at home and selling it in various markets — he enjoyed a wide degree of success. At one time, his work was sold in more than 150 galleries across the country.

“I wore a suit, I had business cards and everything,” McVay said.

His business crashed at the start of the recession, and in a move of desperation, he started selling the blow-your-own glass experiences. He’d seen similar models elsewhere and dove in. It was a hit.

“People were excited about it,” he said. “They paid twice as much and did their own work.”

In July 2009, he opened the Firehouse. Selling experiences made up the bulk of his sales initially as he had yet to build an inventory. The gallery is now filled with everything from large multi-piece artistic bowls to seasonal pieces, such as the fiery-orange pumpkins he mass produces for Halloween.

It’s no surprise that his shop has seen healthy growth since it opened and is now a central attraction on Second Street. Even the Seattle-based firm the city hired to redesign the street has noticed.

The company recently released conceptual drawings of various designs for the street and one depicts a wide cobble stone-style crosswalk that practically leads right to McVay’s front door.

McVay said he’s been through a lot peaks and valleys over the years. And given his recent success, he admits he sometimes worries what tomorrow might bring for his “exclusive, international gallery” in Langley.

“My retirement is going to be a mini storage full of pumpkins,” he laughed.

But whatever surprises the future may bring, McVay is confident he will do what he loves: creating art and showing people the joys of an ancient and beautiful art form.



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