Ever think about renting a historical sugar mold? How about a wood stump and some naturally shed antlers? Or maybe a couple of birdcages and some canning lids?

It might sound like the makings of a Portlandia sketch or the contents of Martha Stewart's closet, but these are items straight from the inventory at Á La Crate, a custom rental warehouse located in Monona. The shop rents unique pieces — vintage, reclaimed props, furniture and other items — for weddings, parties, photo shoots and other events. 

And believe it or not, there's such a demand for things like sewing drawers, milk crates and chandeliers that owners Jeff and Sarah Mullins can't remember the last time they had two consecutive days off. They opened the business about 22 months ago.

"It started with our wedding," Sarah said while perched at the 12-foot-long work bench — flecked with its original bright green paint — that she and Jeff describe as the 'heart of the shop.' They were in search of amber-colored glass jugs for wedding decorations and couldn't find them anywhere. When they finally did find them, they were expensive to purchase.

Afterward, they discovered that other couples shared similar frustrations when searching for uncommon accents for their weddings. 

"We wondered, as newlyweds: If we tried to rent it, would people be interested?" Sarah said.

Recently, their customer base has expanded even more, as they've started serving local businesses. Brava Magazine has featured their items in photo shoots, Quince and Apple used wooden bases for a display and Trek Bicycle rented some items for a recent event.

After taking some business classes and developing a business plan, the couple decided their goal, for the first year, would be to support themselves through their freelance work, and allow the business to feed itself. Jeff continued working part-time at his university job at first, while Sarah managed the shop full-time. A little more than a year ago, he transitioned to working full-time with Sarah.

When they started, their offerings filled one room of the former paint warehouse the shop occupies. Now they've expanded to two rooms and an upper level. 

Jeff, whose passion is for sustainable design, has a whole section in the shop that houses tables he and a friend built from reclaimed wood harvested in southern Wisconsin. And finding new uses for uncommon pieces is in Sarah's blood — her grandpa Leo has sold at flea markets for "umpteen years" and is one of several family members who tends to ask the couple: "Can you use this?"

The Mullinses scour Craigslist and flea markets and rely on friends and family to find pieces they can use for the shop, but they said things have been finding them more often lately.

"Sarah’s got such a good eye," Jeff said. "We try to look with a functional eye."

Jeff is responsible for the side of the shop that houses the "bigs": items like a barn door backdrop, a French linen Victorian sofa, whiskey barrels and chalkboards printed with custom lettering designed for events.

Sarah's side has the "smalls": row upon row of mason jars, milk glass vases, embroidered linens, hardcover books and seashells.

They started mostly with smalls and have expanded, but the overriding philosophy is to provide a selection of basic, neutral pieces that are open to creative interpretation, they said.

Both have backgrounds in design, and love to work with customers as they brainstorm ideas for their events. Sarah worked for an ad agency in Minneapolis for six years, and Jeff worked in sustainable design and taught at UW-Stout and UW-Madison. 

It's important to them to be able to spend time working closely with their customers — to know them by name, and to make the experience a personal one. 

Bobbi Petersen, owner of The Salty Peanut Photography in Sun Prairie, said about 75 percent of the weddings she photographs rent something from Á La Crate. She also rents items from Á La Crate for some of her studio shoots and for wedding shows.

"The thing is, they just have everything," Petersen said. "It seems like you name it, they can get it."

Keeping it local is important to the couple. When there's a service or item they can't provide, they do their best to send customers to other local businesses, and they hire out some services like cleaning glassware or moving large deliveries. Featuring more work from local artists is part of their plan for the future. 

Their goal is to keep prices low, since that was the original intention of providing the service, they said. Prices are calculated based on a fraction of the retail price and factors including the estimated longevity of a piece and cleaning costs. The antlers, for example, generally rent for $10 each per day. A backdrop — be it a custom barn door or set of antique doors — generally rents for $125. A basic ladder will go for $10, but a fancier scaffolding ladder is $25.

There is no minimum order — even jars and lids can be rented separately. That a la carte philosophy, along with a large shipment of crates used to display and transport items when the business opened, were elements that helped the Mullinses settle on a name for the business.

When Á La Crate opened, it was the first business of its kind in Wisconsin. Since then, two similar businesses have opened near Milwaukee, they said.

The next step for the couple is all about finding the right balance — both within the business, and between business and personal life.

One challenge will be determining how to add to their inventory, but do so by filling holes and fulfilling requests, rather than growing just for the sake of growing, Jeff said. 

They've thought a lot about how their business intersects with and relies on trends, but they're not worried that the idea itself will go out of style. They know they'll need to adapt as what's fashionable shifts, but the pieces they carry tend to transcend time and trends, they said.

Petersen said she thinks the vintage look is more of a lasting style than a fleeting trend.

"The way we see it, there will always be a need for uncommon rentals," Sarah said. "These pieces are timeless. That’s why we carry the (basics). Our hope and goal is that there will always be a need for uncommon elements."

Jessie Opoien covers state government and politics for the Capital Times. She joined the Cap Times in 2013 and has also covered Madison life, race relations, culture and music. She has also covered education and politics for the Oshkosh Northwestern.

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(1) comment

RichardSRussell
RichardSRussell

Not only is it a cool shop with lots of neat things, Sarah and Jeff are just about the nicest people you could ever hope to meet.

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