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What was your professional trajectory before starting the cactus shop?

I went to college in Seattle for graphic design and came back home to Minneapolis to work as a designer at Studio on Fire. During this time I also started my own little oddball print experiment, Hot Snot, with a friend. Shortly afterwards, I took a design job in Philly and headed out east. The traditional agency gig quickly lost its luster, and I essentially got fed up and walked off. I tried to get a print shop off the ground in Philly or NYC, but cost of living and lack of available space led me back to Minneapolis.

I was fortunate to hit the ground running with Steady Co. in Minneapolis. It was roughly 50% design and 50% printing for the first four years, before transitioning to all flatstock printing. When I gave up the design work, I was at a point where I could either expand into a larger space and bring on a few folks or stay as-is and turn down projects. I was extremely fortunate to be in that place in my mid 20’s, but I wanted to stay focused on the ideal of the small shop. After another few years, I hit the same expansion predicament again. I was burning the wick at both ends to keep clients happy, and stress kept piling up. I saw my late 20’s pass way too quickly, and I decided to change my life as a whole and shut the shop down completely.

What would you say was your bread & butter as a screen printer?

It was nearly all music-related. Concert posters were the mainstay, with LP covers and music packaging of all sorts thrown in the mix. I wish I could count all the bands that I’d worked for. It was definitely several hundred. Probably something like 2,000-3,000 different posters in total. It sort of gets to a point of barely even looking at the artwork and just hyper-focusing on the technical side.

I prided myself on the dedicated attention and service I could provide as a one-person shop. I was the owner, client manager, printer and janitor. Having an eye on everything and allowing clients to deal with me in that capacity was really important to me.

I know that folks with vintage motorcycles in the area look up to you for the way you go about your business… Could you talk about your passion for classic bikes?

Hah, they shouldn’t! The bike thing is really where my heart is, in a lot of ways. I’ve never really allowed for it to be taken in a direction where I lose any ounce of enjoyment. I rode dirt bikes as a kid and that progressed to buying a super crappy bike around 17 while I was living in Seattle. For better or worse, I’m someone who tends to dive into things without much hesitation. Over the years, I picked up a lot of mechanical education on the fly as bikes broke down. By the time I got my spot in Minneapolis, I was able to bring in bigger tools and start building and restoring bikes from the ground up. The last few years have been geared towards Harleys from the 50s and 60s.

Motorcycle communities are inherently cliquey, and I really don’t fit in with anyone, necessarily. The last few years I’ve pretty much been on my own. The older club guys I get Harley parts and knowledge from are great and past the ‘tough guy’ mentality, but a lot of folks are super aggro or into it for really different reasons. My perfect angle is piecing together a 70-year-old bike over a few years and getting it all the way to the other side of the country via country roads and state highways. Rolling into a gas station in Nevada or Louisiana on a beat-up old bike with MN tags usually trips people out. The breakdowns are common and sometimes brutal, but it only adds to the adventure. Getting out of my comfort zone that far, both physically and mentally, constantly changes my perspective on life, society, and culture in a way that I don’t think anything else can. It helps me appreciate being alive.

When I walked into Steady Co last winter, you mentioned that you were opening a cactus shop. I didn’t really miss a beat because it just seemed like something that you’d do. That said, it’s definitely a change of direction. So, where did the inspiration come from?

I always had plants in my apartments, beginning back in college. I picked up a few cacti on a trip just after I moved back to Minneapolis, and from there it just started growing. Every trip into states that had nurseries or folks with these plants always ended with me coming home with a couple.

What went into your decision to go all-in and actually start a specialty cacti shop?

Around the end of October, 2017, I made the decision to shut down Steady Co., with the idea of starting some sort of retail shop. Initially the plan was a clothes shop with a loose motorcycle theme. That shifted into more of a highly curated antique and folk art shop. With both concepts, I wanted to incorporate a small cactus sales component. I don’t know why I hadn’t thought of it earlier—maybe because it’s kind of insane—but at some point, I just had a head-slap moment where I said screw it and started looking into the logistics of starting up a cactus and rare plant shop. And here we are.

I just had a head-slap moment where I said screw it and started looking into the logistics of starting up a cactus and rare plant shop.

I’m sure there were many, but what were three things that you knew you wanted to make sure that Madre had dialed?

First priority was interesting plants, of as many varieties as I could get my hands on–all sourced for both their sculptural and inherit humanistic qualities. I knew that I wanted to design and build-out a highly textural and aesthetically refined space, within the bounds of my budget and construction skills. And I of course loved the idea of handling all the branding and design work in a way that I could finally do whatever I wanted, without any bounds, or artistic direction.

How does your process work, from sourcing the plants, to selling?

It’s pretty crazy and ever-evolving. Before every trip, and a lot of times during the trip, I call up leads and folks whom I’ve been in touch with to arrange for a nursery visit in the Southwest or Mexico. Both the logistics and the physicality are an absolute shit show. I pick every piece out, and pack and unpack the truck to perfectly tessellate hundreds of plants within each others’ negative spaces. And of course this is all while it’s like 110+ degrees out. Then I drive it all back like a great-grandmother and unload, sort, clean-up, and repot each piece. Finally, I ID every genus and species, and price it all out just in time to swing open the doors for the weekends. I can absolutely guarantee each plant has my sweat on it, and one out of ten has blood.

Is it always just you road tripping for 24+ hours to get down to the good stuff? Seems like a beast. What do you like about the solitary experience of being on the road?

Yep, I really haven’t been able to get enough lead time for a trip to allow for Sam, my wife, or any friends to come along. I usually get about 5-7 days notice before I know when stock will be low enough to get back out and get another buying trip sorted out. With time I’m sure that lead-time will grow and folks can finally start coming with.

I actually dig the solitude and the road experience. It’s grueling, but it’s also super relaxing- especially once I’ve got the load sorted, and all the buying craziness is behind me. I usually try to take a day off somewhere that I love like Tucson or Santa Fe to catch my breath and regroup.

Thus far, Madre certainly seems like it’s been a monster success. Why do you think people have been so drawn to what you’re doing?

I honestly never would’ve guessed that folks would be as into it as they seem to be. I thought I had about a 50/50 chance that anyone would even show on opening weekend. I’m still super nervous about what the next six months or year looks like. I think folks are inherently drawn to what they don’t have access to. And in the Twin Cities, there’s no other way to purchase or transport these types of plants without doing so personally. So, as a small shop, I’m able to fill a void in the market.

I should add that even though my view of the design world has shifted considerably since my first job, I still fully believe design is everything. Not just graphic design, but consideration for the overall look and feel of anything in our existence creates a higher level of beauty and appreciation for something that would otherwise either be neutral or even invisible. I really can’t even begin to explain how much relief I feel that folks are receptive to something I’ve poured so much work into.

  • Words by Patrick Murphy
    Photographs by Jessica Ekstrand