A couple of years ago, Laura Davis (near right) and Ainslie Heilich (far right) were going about their business in Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania, a town of about 7,000 people in the Poconos near the New Jersey border. Davis was commuting an hour each way to her job as a journalist, and Heilich was operating her tattoo studio, Vintage Karma, which she’d opened in 2007.
“We wanted to do a store with arts and local goods,” Heilich recalled, “and we couldn’t afford to do that back East because the cost of living and the rent and going up to a larger space were more than we were comfortable with.”
Davis added, “I feel like the idea of expanding the business started out as a dream-slash-joke. It was one of those things where we were chatting, and we said, ‘Oh, wouldn’t it be funny if we had a little store?'”
MAKING THE MOVE
Enter Tuscola, about thirty miles south of Champaign-Urbana, the seat of Douglas County, and the adopted home of much of Heilich’s family. Also, critically, Tuscola has very affordable downtown real estate, as well as TIF grants available for business owners to remodel their properties. Davis explained, “[Heilich’s] parents called and were telling us about the opportunities out here … and we were like, ‘Can we come?’” So, they purchased their building at 110 W. Sale St. in Tuscola, moved in fall 2011, and began remodeling the space. Heilich continued, “It was a good risk to take, because we were able to live the dream that we wanted to out here, and have it be more in line with what our vision is.”
The most distinctive feature of the store’s decor is the floor, which is covered with the pages of at least 24 books. Heilich said, “It took pretty much the whole month of March  to do the floor. It was pretty affordable; it was just time-consuming.” Davis explained the process: they used wallpaper paste to fasten the pages to the floor, and then they covered the pages with five coats of polyurethane.
On April 10, 2012, they opened Vintage Karma. In addition to tattooing in Heilich’s studio of the back of the store, Davis curates an eclectic selection of gifts and household items from local and regional artists and artisans.
She explains, “I knew this was going to be a lot of work, but I had no idea that I was going to feel like a new parent.”
Davis used her journalism training to quickly build a network of over forty artists (you can read descriptions of their wares here), offering everything from bowties to candles, letterpressed postcards to robots built from old spice cans. Heilich said, “A lot of the stuff we sell is repurposed from old materials. It’s not necessarily like an antique store or primitive store; it’s more taking the old and mixing it in with modern sensibilities.”
Meanwhile, Heilich’s tattoo business took off quickly. She’s currently booked through May, and, while the bulk of her business comes from within 30–45 minutes of Tuscola (she operates the only licensed shop in Douglas County), Heilich has upcoming clients scheduled from such far-flung locales as Missouri, New Jersey, and a serviceman on leave from South Korea.
Heilich (pictured at right with a copy of Bodies of Subversion, a recently-published tattoo book in which a couple of her works were featured) says she’s comfortable with any style of tattoo, but her signature style is “a more abstract, graphic-design style that has more paint splatters and watercolor elements in it.”
Since opening last year, much of Heilich’s work has been cover-ups and re-works. “It’s almost like giving somebody their arm back,” she noted, “because if they’ve got something they hate and they don’t want to show their arm to anybody…”
Davis and Heilich, who are partners, have quickly adjusted to small-town Midwestern living. “It’s a pretty conservative town, but we both spent a lot of our childhoods in Virginia, so we’re used to that,” Davis shared. “I think one of coolest moments for me was not long after we moved here, a conservative lady who lives in town asked if we were married. And I was like, no, we can’t get married federally. And she was like, ‘That’s so stupid.’ So that was pretty awesome, I think.”
Heilich agreed, saying, “If anyone has an issue with it, we haven’t got word of it, or they’ve stayed away. I feel like more people might have been made uncomfortable by the tattooing aspect of the store than the gay part.”
Davis said, “People kind of keep you on your toes — you’ll have little old ladies come in, and I have my arms tattooed, and they’ll be like, ‘Oh my gosh, that’s so beautiful!’ So that’s been pretty fun to see people’s reactions about things.”
Heilich continued, “I’m hoping that by us being here and being as visible as we are, we can help change some perceptions, either about queer people or tattooed people or people who don’t fit in with whatever the big-air-quotes ‘normal’ is.
“Part of what makes it fun is that you don’t expect us to be in a place like this, but that’s part of the charm of it. We could have done it in a larger area, but it wouldn’t have been the same. Part of us taking a chance in Tuscola is Tuscola taking a chance on us.”