Talking with Marthe Le Van, retail jewelry store owner

Episode #179

Today I talk with Marthe Le Van.

After eleven years as an editor for Lark Books, Marthe set off on a new adventure and started her own retail jewelry store called Mora, located in Asheville North Carolina. Marthe shares her journey from editor to shop owner and the challenges along the way.

Transcription of Interview with Martha Le Van

Alison: Well I've been trying to set up talking to this woman. I'm very excited. I finally an opportunity today to talk to Ms. Martha Le Van. We all know her from her around 60 books that she worked on at Lark Books. That we all love in the jewelry and creating a world. Now she's on to some new adventures. I'm excited to hear about. Martha thank you so much for coming on and chatting with me.

Martha: Oh Alison, thank you so much for inviting me. It’s a real pleasure.

Alison: Now how does that happen that you end up where you do as publishing? Tell us a little bit about your background and you know everyone loves working with you too.

Martha: Oh, thank you very much. Well my mother was an artist, and my father was a lawyer, so I had this mix of genes. [Laughter].

Alison: Nice.

Martha: I know right? I had this interesting genetic mash-up that makes me want to be around creative people all the time and it also makes me want to keep them very well organized.

Alison: I love that

Martha: So, in college I was really lucky to go to a school that emphasized writing. We didn’t really have any memorized test per se. We had to think for ourselves and write original content for our exams and that really got me started as a writer. So, I've been writing ever since. And so my background in arts administration and art history really led me to Lark because I have had a real keen interest in aesthetics of all kinds, craft and otherwise prior to that and had the writing skills and I just needed to learn how to be an editor there.

Alison: Are you the kind of person that needs to write every day? Are you those people that walk around with your journal, you're always writing, writing, writing?

Martha: No. I'm not much of a journaler but I do take the time to craft the messages that I write. Everybody writes emails, Facebooks. Any kind of written communication I really enjoy a well-crafted written communication.

Alison: You do? So, you read it over and you change it and then a smile comes on your face at the end if you really like it?

Martha: That’s true.

Alison: I love that. That's so not me, that’s all I can say. I'm just like "Oh, how many typos are in there? Just get rid of those.". And I really, really appreciate people like you.

Martha: Well thank you. I mean, It's a creative act in itself, writing. I used to say when I worked at Lark that. Pardon me that’s a loud truck.

Alison: I hear a loud truck, but I know you're busy at work in your shop now, but we are going to hear about that in a second. Go ahead when you were working at Lark?

Martha: I used to say I wasn’t a maker you know. I worked with makers, but I wasn’t a maker until several years in and then I realized, yes, I'm a maker. I make books.

Alison: Right.

Martha: And it's just a collaborative, creative process with other individuals.

Alison: Exactly. Now I was looking at your site which we also want to give the name of that out. The link will be on the Craftcast blog. But I found this, and I thought it was really interesting. It was actually an article that someone had written, and they asked you the question about some of the books you are most proud of. And one of the ones you mentioned was Lena Darty's book on enameling? And I love that you said it pushed your abilities to the limit. Because that book when I got it, that fell into my, this is how I review books. How many days in a row do I literally carry it around with me from room to room? Because I want to keep looking at it. And that one was with me for a long time. So, what do you mean by it pushed your abilities in that respect?

Martha: Well I think that Linda was very determined to create a book, the missing book in enameling. Meaning she wanted to take all the knowledge that she had gained throughout the years and really get it all too one publication and somebody that has that much expertise, it was challenging to kind of whittle it down into what would fit into 160 or 176 pages. So, it was really an intense process of trying to find a point where we would say enough about something. But not the total end all be all because that would be a whole other book into itself and try to do something that would satisfy Linda as an author and to do justice to enameling as a field and then be incredibly useful for the people that buy and worked from the book. So, it was challenging.

Alison: It was well done I have to say.

Martha: Thank you.

Alison: So, the editing process is interesting no matter what your medium is.

Martha: I think so and I think that we are all editors in some way or another. If you are making something from clay or from paper, you are editing with every choice you make to add something or take away something from the composition. So that's just a means of visual editing. And making a book is written editing as well as visual editing as well.

Alison: And you think that a deadline is your friend? That’s the only way you finally finish editing?

Martha: Yes. I don't think you ever really, your definition of what finished is kind of has to change.

Alison: Yes. What's yours?

Martha: At one point especially in books because you actually [inaudible] object. There is a day where it has to leave the building because there are literally printing presses on hold in China if you are having it printed that are waiting for it. So, you could work on something, I could work on a book forever, and ever, and ever, and ever and ever and make it better, and better, and better and better. But you come to a point where it has to be good enough, you know. And no one is ever going to say it's finished, you know. You just get to a point where you know that you have done what you can do with the resources and the time that you have.

Alison: Yes. I hear you. Now, and that was the truth for sure whenever you are working with printing presses and magazines. I mean the deadlines for all of that are crucial. It's like, it is now done whether you think it is or not. It is now complete. But now do you think that's changed drastically because of the internet? Because now you can keep changing. How do you feel about all of that? When it's not a published book, but it's online?

Martha: Online content?

Alison: Yes. Exactly. Online content. I guess what I'm asking is it’s so different now editing that whole process. Because you just described a process of what it was for many years and still is, but we are getting away from that because of all online content. So, you can constantly go back in and not worry about the press waiting in China.

Martha: That's true, you can. But also, I look to write and finish a piece. Like I loved blogging for Lark and do some for myself now. I don't necessarily go back and change whatever because I think it really reflects what I was thinking at a particular time. If you are writing truthfully and honestly, from a place that. I want it to kind of mark that place. I want that writing to reflect where I was at that time. And I don’t necessarily want to go back and change it. Now I can understand changing technical information if you have like a firing schedule that's been updated or a new material that you want to add in. Well certainly you can do that do, instant gratification and update the information that you've published, and I think that's great.

Alison: Very good point. So, it’s like we don’t want to go back and retouch or photoshop our high school graduation pictures now just because we can.

Martha: That is very well stated. Good analogy.

Alison: Thank you very much. So now how do you decide you're done with books? And now you've moved on and we are going to talk about what you are doing now which is all exciting. What hits you like ok, that was my last book? Is that how it happens? Or what happens?

Martha: For me I had been with the same company for almost 12 years and I knew that it was time to make a change or else I would stay there another 12 years. And I developed this incredible partnership Joanna Gollberg, and I was very fortunate to have edited four or five books that she wrote. And we are a very good team, we have very complementary skills, and she is a jeweler here in Asheville and we decided to embark on opening a retail store together.

Alison: Which is very exciting. Talk about giving birth to something.

Martha: It is really exciting. It allowed me to remain in Asheville which was a number one priority because I love where I live. And my life here is really grand. So you can kind of invent, we wanted to invent kind of something new for the jewelry world and having a retail space was very warm and inviting and not very austere and standoffish but really engaged with people that were comfortable and really got people's hands on the work.

Alison: And now what are you carrying all kinds of work? What are you carrying in your story?

Martha: Everything we carry right now is almost entirely made by Joanna Galberg. We have one other hand maker that we carry and a couple of pieces that are fashion jewelry.

Alison: And you have a, oh so that's sort of interesting. So, what kind of work does she make. Describe to us, or what was one of the books that you did together?

Martha: The art and craft of making jewelry. Also, the Ultimate Jewelers guide, making metal Jewelry, yes.

Alison: OK. And what is it that drew you to that, that you knew? Because that's a big commitment to go and say no, I love this person's work. I want to open a store and feature around that or a gallery and feature all of that.

Martha: I think that for one thing I have been loving and wearing her work for a really long time. She made my wedding ring.

Alison: Oh, you are a good fan.

Martha: I'm a huge fan.

Alison: Everyone needs someone like you. Everyone who makes things needs someone like you in their life.

Martha: Well thank you. I've been wearing her jewelry for quite some time. I love it. It's extremely well made and extremely original. I'm sorry I lost my train of thought.

Alison: That's ok. It sounds like you just clicked as two people here, each at the right time in your life to move on to the next thing.

Martha: Exactly. And we were kind of looking at the traditional artist.

Alison: I hear the gallery dog.

Martha: That's Chicken.

Alison: It doesn’t sound like a chicken.

Martha: That's my puppy named Chicken.

Alison: Aww. What kind of puppy?

Martha: She's a Pomeranian Shih Tzu mix.

Alison: Oh. Cute.

Martha: You can see her picture on our Facebook page.

Alison: I will definitely be looking.

Martha: She is very popular here.

Alison: Of course. Well, it sounds like besides that you have this mashup of similarities, you also have changed your lifestyle to a new way of working. I mean you are working now in your own place with your own dog there and you know, it’s a different change of things.

Martha: Oh definitely. I’ve gone back to a company of two instead of a large corporate entity which Lark was because it was owned by Barns and Nobles.

Alison: Oh. Ok.

Martha: Yes. So that was a giant corporation, and this is so exciting because it takes two people to set policy.

Alison: Don’t you love that?

Martha: I love it. And it’s wonderful working with a friend. It’s wonderful working at a very small business, being entrepreneurial, making decisions. It was a lot of fun putting the store together visually, giving a space for us to enjoy.

Alison: Walk us through what it’s like first of all to be in Asheville. You just said you love it there.

Martha: Asheville is a very unique town in the United States. It's in the mountains of western North Carolina which are the Blue Ridge Mountains which set a beautiful rolling mountain luscious green scene. Asheville has a population of about 60,000 people. It has Built Morehouse which is America's largest private residence as well as the Grove Park Inn which is a very notable arts and crafts establishment. And Penland School of Crafts is just an hour away. So, you have this very vibrant progressive maker-oriented economy here. Our downtown is very vibrant, very revitalized, mostly independent stores and people love to visit here because it is so Unique. It doesn’t look like the other towns in America because you don’t see the same kind of mass-market shots and whatnot.

Alison: Oh. Nice. You are getting away from the mall mentality in other words.

Martha: Exactly. Exactly. Lots of health food and great restaurants and I just, it’s a wonderful place.

Alison: Have you lived their long?

Martha: I've here 20 years next year.

Alison: And where we you from originally.

Martha: Originally, I'm from Louisiana but I went to school in New York.

Alison: Oh. So, you went to Manhattan?

Martha: I went to school at Sara Lawrence in the Bronx.

Alison: Oh, you did? OK.

Martha: But then I lived in Manhattan afterward and actually worked on television commercials but moved back to North Carolina to be a private curator.

Alison: But I bet all of that, television commercials included, all of that gives you strategies and information that I'm sure you are using today in opening up a store.

Martha: Oh, definitely so. I think that my experiences as a production coordinator on those television commercials help me really define all kinds of skills that I need now. I'm still using it.

Alison: Isn’t it fun? I love when that happens.

Martha: Oh yes. They just all build upon themselves.

Alison: They do. It is fun to look back at that. Now the name of your store is Mora I believe correct?

Martha: Yes.

Alison: Is that mean something in particular to you?

Martha: It does. It means peacock in Sanskrit.

Alison: And peacocks symbolize what?

Martha: Oh, just this beautiful display of color and regal beauty and actually beauty and both Joanna and I are world travelers. That's one of our big passions that we share and we both been to India. And when we were planning this store, she was in India and I was in the United States and we were sending ideas back and forth over internet while she was gone and that’s where we came up with the name.

Alison: I love that. When you think about it, peacocks are pretty, funny, crazy birds.

Martha: It’s our color pallet inside of our store too. Blue, green, purple, [inaudible].

Alison: Nice. And is there something that, I'm sorry her name is Joann, your partner correct?

Martha: Joanna.

Alison: Yes, Joanna. Is there a style, color that you both gravitate to?

Martha: Oh well I think we like the oranges and reds an awful lot and I think that comes from probably ethic textiles and fabrics. But you know we love them all. We work with a lot of paradoxes, [inaudible].

Alison: So, you do feature a lot of stones?

Martha: We do feature an awful lot of stones.

Alison: There's a lot of wonderful energy in stones. You never get bored looking at an alive stone

Martha: That's true and Joanna is a real master of color and her color studies in gemstones are really quite unique because she uses the rough gems as well as the highly polished [inaudible] gems together.

Alison: I love that. That's always juicy and lovely. Do you think? What would you say? And maybe this doesn’t matter to what you are doing there but do you see a, I guess the trend is the right word to use. But that style, that's most popular? Like in nail polish obviously now blue is totally acceptable and I was going to put grey on the other day which I couldn’t believe how I was living grey nail polish and how does that happen? And you know whatever. But as you see that also in jewelry and making right now a style that is very popular?

Martha: Yes but not so much in the Jewelry that we show and sell but I think if you look on a broader scale, global scale especially when I was doing all the 500 [inaudible] I could tell immediately what trends were happening because we get so many entries that had the same look to them. But I think that a lot of tabs, a lot of embroideries, a lot of floss on metal, a lot of really bright plastics. I think those are really popular now. A lot and we still the foe faceted fake carved diamond look, diamond silhouette. I mean those are things that, I've been around a couple of years but there still, they won’t go away.

Alison: Yes. Oh yes. And I'm not surprised. What's wrong with a diamond I say? It's always good. thing. Well now what I love though, and you are being creative, and I see all that. But I love that you have yet, or maybe you have. Do you ever say, "I'm going to make something today"? I'm not going to tell anyone; I'm just going to try something? Or are you like no I’m not touching up anything, I don’t want to make a thing?

Martha: Well I did participate for quite a while in the rainy-day challenge.

Alison: Oh OK. Right.

Martha: Which was a [inaudible] project. I refrained from making jewelry for a long time because it made me a better editor. Because if I didn’t know what I was doing when I started editing direction on how to make a project, I found that I would ask more questions of the author. Because a lot of times when people would right about [inaudible] or soddering, they leave out steps because they are second nature to them as professionals.

Alison: That's an excellent point.

Martha: Yes. So, I continuously did not do any making of metal jewelry. But I think now I'm not editing full time; I might try something.

Alison: Oh. OK. That sounds good.

Martha: [Inaudible] class. I think it would be fun.

Alison: Well it’s always a nice outlet here and there. Especially when you are doing what you are doing. Now is there a part that you love the most about a lot. See for me, the last thing I'd want is a live store. I mean that's not for me at all. So, it's interesting how we find the things that resonate that way. What is it that you love about having a live brick and mortar store?

Martha: I think that. One of the things that kept me at Lark for so long that I felt like the work I was doing was really introducing a very wide audience to hand made jewelry and reaching out to every bookstore in the country and showing them these great designs that artists are making and a breath of creativity. But I'm finding that one on one interaction with the public to educate them about how a piece is made, to watch them be in awe that they've never seen anything like this before. All of this work looks so different from them and they are so excited by it. Just because they haven’t been exposed to it, that's really, really exciting. Creatively, I think that I've really have found a great love for visual merchandising. One of my favorite parts of my job at Lark was putting the images for the 5 books in order so that it was like flipping through a visual, like an exhibition imprint so to speak.

Alison: So, you're a story.

Martha: Yes. And then it’s just translated so nicely into art cases at the store and our cabinets where we show the work, arranging the displays is very similar. But its three dimensions now which are really nice.

Alison: Yes. Oh yes. I understand that totally. I love styling and setting up the sets in my old life that way. Because you are creating a visual journey and a little set. It's like a little play for someone when they come in. And then you can change it whenever you want. Which makes it really fun. Well, I'm so glad I finally got to talk to you. Ms. Martha Le Van and your new shop is called MORA. M O R A in Ashville, North Carolina. From your description, I'd like to be down there this afternoon. It sounds like a fabulous place to come hang out certainly for a weekend and enjoy the whole experience.

Martha: It is, and I recommend that you get on the next flight down here.

Alison: I will. I think I will. Now tell everyone your website so they can find out more about you.

Martha: My personal website is and talks about my writing and the works that I'm doing for my own business now. And my store website is and that will tell you about the store that I'm running downtown in Ashville.

Alison: Perfect. Thank you so much for coming on.

Martha: Thanks for having me

Episode Notes: 


Allison Gray/Off My Mind

Steal Like an Artist/Austin Kleon