Columbus, Ohio USA
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The Delight of Discovery
Dawn McCombs opens her door to the unexpected
By Karen Edwards
March/April 2015 Issue
"I hope people say that Glean is progressive and ahead of its time," says shopowner Dawn McCombs. PHOTO | GUS BRUNSMAN III
Bet you can’t pass Glean, the sliver of a shop at 815 N. High Street in the venerable Greystone Court building, without a glance and a smile. Can’t be done. That’s because Glean is one of those places that befuddle, then amuse, then absolutely delight those who step inside its doors.
Is that piece of art really made from cicadas, the annoyingly chirpy summertime insect? That tiny LeVeque Tower, is that really carved from a wine cork? If there is one thing that shoppers can expect to find at Glean, it’s the unexpected. Every visit becomes a surprise, a journey of discovery.
Actually, you might say that’s how Glean was born.
Before opening Glean, Dawn McCombs, Glean’s creator and owner, had just left a teaching position at the St. Joseph Motessori school (after 9 years) to decide what the rest of her life should look like. To anyone who knows McCombs, the move to leave her job and start something new came as no surprise.
McCombs is a restless spirit, one who operates on a kind of thoughtful impulse. She’s an explorer, insatiably curious about the world and yet in tune with her own inner harmonies. McCombs isn’t someone who settles for the routine and mundane.
When she graduated from college in her hometown of Youngstown, McCombs set her sights on adventure. Her friends were begging her to go with them to Columbus, but despite all of the Capital City’s assets, it simply wasn’t large enough to offer the kind of new experiences McCombs craved. She wanted to be a writer, so where do writers looking for adventure go? To New York City, of course.
“I have been writing from the time I was five or six,” McCombs says. Encouraged by her grandmother, McCombs wrote poetry, short stories and screenplays. “As a writer, you try to find venues for your work,” she says. And there is something magical about seeing your words come to life on the silver screen.
“I enrolled in the New York Film Academy,” McCombs says – and while learning the art of scriptwriting and teleplays, she’d work in various bookstores around town, selling other writers’ printed words while trying to fashion her own, steeped in the world of drama. Eventually, she became a bookseller in the museum shop at MOMA, the Museum of Modern Art. No wonder she has, to this day, an affinity for art and artists. And writers, of course. “I’ve been involved with small writing groups around town, both as an organizer and an attendee,” she says. At this point, though, “I write primarily for myself.”
But as a writer, McCombs knew she needed a background of experiences to shade and color her writing. New York was a start – a good start – but McCombs found herself restless for more. “I read the book The Sheltering Sky by Paul Bowles.” The book tells of a couple’s wanderings through Spain, Morocco, Mali, Algeria, and across the Sahara Desert, all while traveling on buses and thumbing rides. “I did their trip,” she says simply. McCombs and a friend she had made in New York took off on their grand adventure, following the path of the fictional couple from Bowles’ book. By the time the Sahara Desert was on the horizon, however, the two had parted ways. But McCombs was determined to push on.
“There are these Algerian transport drivers who drive cars, usually old beaters, across the desert to buyers in West Africa,” she says. “They’ll let you ride with them for a fee.” Because the trip is across sand, only one or two travelers are allowed per car. “You don’t want a lot of weight in the car,” McCombs explains. Typically, you travel in a caravan with six or seven other drivers (and travelers) who are also making the trip.
There are no roads or distinguishing landmarks in the desert, so the drivers navigate by the stars and the sun. At night, you pitch a tent under the sky, between the desert’s dunes. It sounds romantic, but there are dangers. And it’s not necessarily coming from the desert’s flora and fauna.
“There were nine of us traveling in the caravan,” says McCombs. Her fellow travelers came from all parts of the world – Canada, Australia, England, Italy, the U.S. “The first night we were having fun, rolling down the dunes, burying ourselves in the sand, laughing and talking,” McCombs recalls. They were quickly told to be quiet. “Our guides gave us a scolding,” she says. “They told us there were tribesmen in the area who would rob you and leave you there.” The thought of being without a car, and unable to hitch a ride with the other caravan drivers was a sobering reminder of the risks they ran. Needless to say, further nights along the way were more subdued affairs.
After reading Paul Bowles’ book The Sheltering Sky, Dawn McCombs “did the trip,” travelling through Spain, Morocco, Algeria, Niger, Burkina Faso and Mali. Here she is crossing the Sahara in 1991.
The Spain-through-Africa trek proved satisfying to McCombs – for a while. Then, that thirst for new experiences surfaced again. This time, she and an Australian pen-pal, J-P (John-Paul) who, at the time, wrote plays for the Australian government, decided to exchange houses so each could economize on their planned trips to the other’s country. Only trouble was, the more they corresponded, the more they realized they wanted to be together. “After writing each other daily for a year, we decided we should meet instead of following through with the home exchange,” says McCombs.
What followed was a quick elopement (when it’s right, it’s right), and then a few years, living in one country then the other. “We moved to New York after we were married, then we decided to move to Sydney,” McCombs says. While in Sydney, however, a couple of events brought the couple back stateside: McCombs ran into a snag with her visa from the Australian government, which refused to grant her an extension despite her marriage to an Australian; and then there was that second event – McCombs became pregnant with their oldest child, Luci. “I was seven months pregnant when we moved back to the U.S.,” she says. Only this time, instead of returning to New York, the pair moved in with McCombs’s mother in Lordstown. Five months later, the pair moved to Columbus for job opportunities.
“That was the most unsettled time of my life,” McCombs reflects now. “We decided to stay in Columbus for a year or two until we could get our lives settled. Twenty years later, we’re still here.”
J-P earned his MBA and went to work for Nationwide Insurance. McCombs decided to take Montessori training because she could take five-month-old Luci to work with her. “I thought I’d give it a try,” she says. The fact that she taught at Montessori schools for 17 years is a testament, perhaps, to how much she enjoyed the work. “I still miss the kids,” she says.
But her spirit knew it was time to move on. “I didn’t know what I wanted to do next,” she says. She tried her hand at tutoring and several other jobs, all while journaling to see if she could discover what she wanted to do with this portion of her life.
“I’d always enjoyed making soaps,” she says, so for a while, that’s the path she took, making and selling her soaps (when she wasn’t giving them away as gifts to friends and family) at various markets around town. Her soaps, sold under the name “Botanicals by Dawn,” were a huge success, but what McCombs came to realize was that merchandising was as much fun as making the soaps.
She wanted a store, but, since this is McCombs, it wouldn’t be just any store. It would be something different, something no one in Columbus has seen before. “When I was at the school, I loved teaching the kids about the environment,” says McCombs. So the idea of creating a place that sold handmade goods, crafted by local artists from recycled materials, was born.
“The store is an accumulation of where I’ve been and who I am and what I love to do,” she says. In essence, then, Glean is a personification of McCombs’s life.
Her own social network was able to provide her with most of the goods she initially sold – much of which she still sells.
“I started off with 12 to 15 vendors,” says McCombs. Now, Glean represents the work of 60 local artisans. “The people in Columbus are very creative,” she says. And now, would-be vendors find her.
McCombs carefully considers each item that is brought to her – in person or in photos – to sell. She has no real criteria for what makes it into her shop, other than it be made from recycled goods, and somehow be a good fit for the store. And that’s the magic of Glean. You never know what you’ll find, and you’re unlikely to have ever seen anything like it before.
Glean customers come to the shop in their own unique ways. Zed Clark, who owns the Reflect Float Center inside the Greystone, for example, remembers walking past Glean shortly after it opened.
“I saw these amazing small gardens that had been planted in Altoid tins,” says Clark. “They looked like little Zen gardens.” Clark liked the idea that he could add rocks to the garden or small figures. “It gave you a way to feel connected to the environment and add your own artistry to the item,” he says. He bought one and had it at home for over a year before an extended absence finally did the little garden in.
Adrianne Seeman, on the other hand, found Glean the way many people in the Short North make new neighborhood discoveries – she was out one day walking her dog. “The next time I walked by the shop without a dog, I stopped in to browse,” she says. “I loved the vibe of the shop and Dawn’s welcoming nature.”
Seeman loves the Poor Sparrow jewelry McCombs sells. “It’s exactly my aesthetic,” she says – and she admits she has a stockpile of McCombs’s soaps, “Because I always buy the new scents despite the fact that her soaps last a long time.”
McCombs says she is always experimenting with her soaps. Although she also makes candles and lotions, “the soaps are my favorite item to make.” she says. Maybe that’s because you could swear she conjures her soaps out of a five-star chef’s kitchen. Some of her favorite, and her best sellers, include a bacon-corn grits bar; one that features Watershed bourbon and House Beer milk stout; there’s a pumpkin and chipotle caramel soap with ground walnut shells; and cranberry, fig and almond. Tina Jones, another Glean customer, likes the coffee-scented soap, made after McCombs partnered with One Line Coffee, another Short North business. (Soaps at the store will vary with the seasons and McCombs’s whims.) If you’re more of a traditionalist, by the way, you’re covered, for you can also find a shea butter soap here (Clark’s favorite), as well as lavender and rose, in addition to the “gourmet” varieties.
What else will you find at Glean? That’s hard to say, because merchandise will vary with each visit, but you may come across earrings made from old bicycle tubes; message-in-a-recycled-bottle necklace (which Jones had custom-made for her); the cicada art mentioned earlier; collage art made from recycled print materials; wine corks carved into everything from the LeVeque Tower to the Argo & Lehne Jeweler’s Clock; garden markers made from recycled spoons; art made from vintage maps; reversible bow ties made from refurbished material; journals covered with recycled denim; pins made from plywood; a rope bracelet adorned with found nautical objects; and a large assortment of sock monkeys. If you’re up for it, there’s also taxidermy jewelry and small skulls that would make perfect gifts for all your Goth friends.
“Glean is a unique and charming little shop,” says Jones. “It’s like you’re walking into a whole different world when you enter, a world full of treasures and gems. It’s very Alice-in-Wonderland-meets-Ariel’s-cave-of-treasures from Disney’s Little Mermaid.”
“One of my favorite things to hear,” says McCombs, “is when I’m selling an item to someone, and they say, ‘I never knew I needed this until I saw it.” It’s that sense of discovery and adventure that keeps customers returning. But it’s also McCombs herself who has become a draw.
“She’s one of the most caring, supportive, compassionate persons I’ve met in Columbus,” says Zed Clark.
Seeman describes McCombs as genuine. “I trusted Dawn from the get-go,” she says. “She’s warm and welcoming, she remembers you and bits of information about you when you stop in. She truly cares for people and she sees the beauty in the world.”
Adds Jones: “Dawn has such a sweet spirit and brightness about her. She’s like a warm little ray of sunshine. Meeting Dawn for the first time felt like meeting an old friend.”
McCombs has certainly settled into her role as shopkeeper. Her daughter Luci is now grown and studies cinematic art at CCAD. “She was supposed to start at the University of New South Wales Art College in March, but after visiting the area, she decided she liked Columbus better and wanted to stay here to study,” McCombs says. She is fine with that. So is Isabella, the McCombs’s second daughter, and Luci’s sister. Despite their eight-year-age difference, “The two are pretty bonded,” says McCombs, who describes both daughters as wildly creative. You may occasionally find Luci working at the store, and you may find some of Isabella’s art work for sale.
But one thing you will always find at Glean is McCombs’s warm spirit, new and unusual merchandise – and of course something you never knew you needed.
© 2015 Short North Gazette, Columbus, Ohio. All rights reserved.
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