If you live long enough, you’ll see that what goes around comes around,” says Jamie Kreisman, co-founder and president of BEKA Wood Products on Selby Avenue in St. Paul.
On a recently gentrified street lined with residential homes and storefronts, the spot doesn’t look like much from the outside—just a plain brick facade with green and white boards and checkered curtains covering most of the windows. But inside BEKA’s “world headquarters,” a utilitarian office and woodshop lined with Julia Child-esque pegboards holding handsaws, planes, scrapers, and rasps buzz with activity.
The heavenly smell of fresh sawdust hangs in the air and the entire place looks as if a group of handymen got together and cobbled together a shop, stacking the space full of 1970s-era desks and bookshelves, and ensuring that everything there had an intended purpose. Piles of fresh, sustainably sourced wood—maple and walnut from the Midwest, cherry from Pennsylvania, and Baltic birch—and finished, labeled products are stacked to the ceiling on pallet racking. Carts line the open spaces, filled to the brim with small wooden blocks and parts. Like their place of origin, the goods that come out of the shop also haven’t changed much in 50-odd years.
Jamie and his brothers Richard and Peter started BEKA in 1973 at the urging of family members who at that time owned The Yarnery in St. Paul, a go-to place for people looking for funky yarns for knitting and weaving. The Yarnery’s owners learned from their clients that there wasn’t much available locally in the way of looms—let alone well-made, heirloom-quality ones.
At the time, “pioneer crafts” like basketry, weaving, and spinning were popular, Jamie explains, and the market was dominated by women who wanted something relaxing to do in their downtime. So the brothers, originally hobbyist woodworkers, launched BEKA and a product line of small, handmade wooden looms and knitting products. When the Kreisman brothers had kids of their own, they began making toys, too—first for their own children, then by request for friends and daycare centers. In the ’80s and ’90s, when creative playthings started gaining popularity, BEKA was ready with a signature children’s wooden easel—customizable with paper rolls and chalkboard or whiteboard panels—and puppet theaters that doubled as lemonade stands.
“In the past, we’ve always sold to people like us—people who were interested in higher-end, made-in-the-USA products that can literally be passed down from generation to generation,” Jamie says. For decades, he explains, sales were done by word-of-mouth and a network of specialty yarn shops, toy stores, and educational companies that would buy BEKA products wholesale and sell them through brick-and-mortar retail stores, catalogs, or school visits. Then the internet and social media happened, and large areas of the country that once knew nothing about BEKA all of a sudden did. The company’s direct sales skyrocketed. Today, BEKA’s sales are about half wholesale and half retail, done through Amazon, Etsy, and their own website as much as the educational catalogs that still flood mailboxes each summer.
BEKA’s clientele has shifted a bit over the decades, from middle-aged women ordering looms to parents wanting their kids to spend less time looking at screens and more time engaging their imagination and creating, and who don’t mind investing more money—sometimes almost twice as much as chintzy versions made overseas—in products that are ethically and sustainably made and will last a lifetime.
“It’s not just computers they’re against; there are so many toys with electronic components,” Jamie says. “There’s a tendency for people to buy things inadvertently that are one-sided, that tell their children how to play and what’s correct. Our products support open-ended, creative play. Nobody tells you what to do with a set of blocks or an easel. You experiment and come up with all kinds of ways to play with them.”
Today, BEKA has a team of seven—eight if you include the shop dog, Grizzly. Jonathon, Jamie’s son and BEKA’s general manager, and Jonathon’s wife Ashley—director of creative services—have started to take over business operations from Jamie, the only original Kreisman still working there. Even as things transition, some things won’t change—namely, how the toys and craft items are made. The same process that was used decades ago is still in place today: natural wood gets cut, drilled, shaped, and sanded before pieces are assembled by hand in batches. The only clues that it’s 2019 and not 1973 are the computers and label-makers strewn about BEKA’s antique office furniture.
As Jonathan and Ashley take over the business in the coming years, they’d like to move to a bigger spot that’s not quite as expensive to own and maintain as their current historic building on Selby. They also want to have a storefront where customers can easily park, wander inside, and touch things—an important element of selling such hands-on pieces, and a big change from the current location, which serves as a back office and production shop only, with occasional pick-ups scheduled by local clients.
With more space, the couple believes BEKA could become a destination; they’re even discussing adding classes and play dates to their list of offerings, and have explored the idea of customizing products by etching names onto them, potentially opening the door to more custom jobs like the ones they already do for local Izzy’s Ice Cream stores. Beer enthusiasts through and through, the Kreismans would also like to make flight holders or other niche products for local breweries. For now, though, they’re just glad to be carrying on the legacy of BEKA.
“It’s so satisfying to see an order go out the door,” Jonathan says. “We hear from people all the time who are passing on their toys to the next generation. They might call us to get a replacement board or a new tray, but they’re always so excited to hand our products down to their child or grandchild.”
Just as he and his cousins once served as the de facto product testers in their dads’ basement playrooms, Jonathan’s 18-month-old daughter Kaia has taken over the role, serving as the newest generation of BEKA enthusiast in the family.
“We’ve been really fortunate to have a business that supports our lifestyle,” Jamie adds, describing the family cabin they’ll all steal off to as soon as the interview is over. “We all have advanced degrees. We’ve all had opportunities to go other places. But working here, in our own business, gives us tremendous flexibility. We’ve had this wonderful run and we’ve built a brand with a great reputation. People don’t just want blocks, they want our blocks. It will change in the future, I’m sure. But the core values of the company will remain the same.”
Those values include prioritizing quality over quantity and sometimes saying no to potential products or partnerships. BEKA’s a business that the owners hope to pass down through generations, much like their products, and as long as customers continue to invest in quality wood craftsmanship that doubles as centerpieces in playrooms and studios, its presence will remain a constant thread in the fabric of the Twin Cities.