Editor's note: This article was published in Grand Traverse Scene magazine's Winter 2019 issue. Pick up a free copy at area hotels, visitor's centers, chambers of commerce or at the Record-Eagle building on Front Street. Click here to read GT Scene in its entirety online.

Karen Hilt knows a thing or two about shopping for the “unique.”

As the founder and curator of downtown Traverse City shop My Secret Stash, Hilt deals daily in one-of-a-kind handmade pieces.

“It’s in the store because I love it,” she said. “If I don’t like it, it doesn’t make it in.”

Hlit’s personal tastes follow the same pattern as her store’s stock: an eclectic balance of fine art and lighthearted gifts, all handmade by artists with whom she forges personal connections and many boasting a Michigan theme.

Current inventory runs the gamut from jewelry, button scarves and the store’s own line of silk body butter, to kitchen and home decor and accessories.

“I try to balance big, serious art with hilarious little everyday, silly things,” she said.

Of course, working with her favorite objects means screening them for new additions to her own collection.

“Certainly, when a selection comes in, I’ll cherry-pick my favorite piece, and I think everyone on the staff does that,” she said. “It’s kind of mean.”

Hilt developed her eye for design as a result of studying photography at Lansing Community College, where she met her husband of 26 years, David. The experience led her to create a lifestyle that is surrounded by art.

She said forming a “design aesthetic” is all about personal taste and what one is drawn to.

“Everybody has their own sense of what appeals to them,” she said. “Color-wise, I think I’m definitely drawn more to the blues and greens.”

Her personal aesthetic incorporates both rustic and modern elements, including refurbished older pieces but “not something that you necessarily find every day at your grandma’s house.”

She particularly enjoys large wall art, including that of Alex Teselsky, a copper artist whose work she carries at My Secret Stash. Her favorite piece of wall art, however, is a hand-painted Balinese silk heirloom passed down from her husband’s world-traveling uncle. The painting features 18 panels chronicling different scenes in the life of a community: deity worship, homage to a ruler, and visits from wild animals. She recently redesigned her living room so her guests can best view it.

“My living room can’t get set up in any other way, because I don’t want the viewing impacted on this piece,” she said. “Some people might say that’s silly.”

To find pieces she describes as having “a little bit of that modern twist,” Hilt returns to her old stamping grounds: art shows. She used to work them with her older son, an electrical engineering student.

“Even though he’s a math-oriented kind of guy, he has a great appreciation of art and handmade, and he can work his way around an art show,” she said.

Now, she uses art shows as an avenue for finding both unique items and unique artists.

“We travel a lot, and most of our travel revolves around what shows I want to see in that area,” she said. “If I see somebody’s work that really strikes me or that I think is a good fit, then on that same trip is where we’re inviting people to join the store.”

When attending large art shows, Hilt plans ahead of time to avoid what she calls “analysis paralysis” from trying to look at too much.

“Decide on something that you’re looking for, even if it’s just a vague idea,” she advises. Conversely, she said, it can also be valuable to “go with nothing in mind and buy what you love.”

Though art show and handmade pieces can come with a higher price tag, Hilt believes that artists’ expertise makes the extra expense worth it.

“People say, ‘Why is something handmade this expensive? I could buy the parts for this to make it myself for $10,’” Hilt said. “I just think, ‘No, you can’t.’ This artist put in hundreds of hours getting to this point, and they tried many techniques to see what would last.”

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