This time of year, a customer may be just as likely to drop off a present or bag or peanut brittle as buy something from Rayer’s Bearden Stained Glass.
“I said the other day that my friends disguise themselves as customers,” Randy Bayer said. “It’s amazing how they become part of a family. That’s the real advantage of being a small business.”
Especially one that’s been around 35 years.
Rayer started in business with his wife, Pamela, in Hutchinson, restoring and repairing stained glass windows in churches across Kansas. They eventually sold that shop and bought Bearden Stained Glass in Wichita.
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Pamela Rayer died of Lou Gehrig’s disease in 2010, having helped raise community awareness of the disease before her death.
The store on Kellogg is really three enterprises in one: a large gift gallery filled with glass items and soft background music; a workshop where employees produce custom stained, leaded and carved glass pieces; and a classroom where crafts are taught.
“We’re elves and retailers,” Rayer said.
Bearden’s Christmas season really starts in December, when do-it-yourselfers start taking classes to learn how to produce glass angels, snowflakes, Tiffany lamps and other gifts.
Gallery traffic picks up during the holidays as well. Galileo thermometers, Russian vases and every kind of lamps are perennial favorites.
If it’s artsy and made of glass, Bearden probably has a version of it.
Not surprisingly, a soft glow seems to infuse the room and give it a peaceful atmosphere even with the frantic traffic along Kellogg just a stone’s throw away.
Year round, the store produces custom glass doors, windows and other decorative pieces for churches, businesses, homeowners and other customers.
“We’ve done over 450 churches in Kansas alone,” Rayer said.
In addition to stained glass, Bearden specializes in leaded and carved glass.
Rayer has seen the stained glass business go through cycles over the years. In the 1970s, when he started, producing stained glass “was almost a lost art,” he said.
It picked up in subsequent decades and Bearden “rode the crest of the wave,” he said. In 2007 the store was named national retailer of the year by the Art Glass Suppliers Association.
Demand has dropped in recent years, but a focus on customer service has kept Bearden open while similar businesses across the country have closed, Rayer said. From a high of 22 employees, Bearden now employs six to 10 people, along with several artists on a freelance basis.
Being smaller isn’t necessarily a bad thing, Rayer said.
“After 35 years of progress we’re back to mom and pop and enjoying it,” Rayer said. “I like to be able to do the art, and with 20 people, you’re just monitoring it.”