Leah Shelhorn’s journey from artist to retailer was guided more by her passionate nature than her strategic side.
“There was no plan,” she says, smiling and shaking her head as she recalls 25 years as owner of Studio 41 gift shop. “And I’m not ashamed to say that. I just keep knocking on wood. I knock on wood every day.”
Over the past 40 years, Leah has transformed herself from an executive assistant at a CPA firm to a street artist specializing in clothing to a downtown Benicia merchant.  
She opened Studio 41 in 1990 in the Arsenal as a place to sell her clothing line. The business moved to First Street in 1993 and to its current location at First and G streets in 1997. The shop now carries kitchen items, jewelry, clothing, food items and more.
Leah also is active in promoting Benicia’s downtown. She worked to help create the Benicia Improvement District, which generates income from downtown businesses for upgrades to the area. She recently completed a two-year term as founding chair of the Downtown Benicia Alliance, the group that administers funds raised by the improvement district.  

The most visible result of these two entities is the lights on trees lining First Street. The city and downtown merchants shared the installation costs in November, 2012, and business owners cover the monthly maintenance expenses.
“Without Leah, there would not be a Business Improvement District,” says Mario Guiliani, economic development manager for the city of Benicia. Without the Business Improvement District, there would be no lights and no Downtown Benicia Alliance, he added. “It wasn’t a one-person show, a lot of people participated. But you need that driving force, and Leah was it.”
Leah, 66, grew up in Maryland and now lives in Vallejo with her husband, George.

How did you decide to move from the business world to being an artist? I’ve always been an artist. I’ve been in art school since I was 7. My parents signed me up because they didn’t know what else to do with me, so they put me in art.
I went to community college for one semester, and I took art. When I got to San Francisco in 1972, I took classes at the DeYoung and MoMA. They had classes at night, and I took all life drawing, working with models. Then I took private lessons from Sam Provenzano.

In 1975, I started taking classes at the Fort Mason Art Center. I took classes in air brush, sculpture, print making, quilting and life drawing—everything, really. I can sew, so I started making art to wear. I made kimonos, shirts, vests, skirts—everything was air-brushed or silk-screened. I went on to make pillows, aprons and tea towels.
From there I became a street artist and did craft shows, and I was supplying 25 stores on the West Coast. Art to wear was really booming then.

Do you make any clothing now? No. I’d like to, but there’s no spare time or space. I’d have to go back to the dining room table. Now I do photography.

How does your experience as a working artist affect your business dealings with artists now? I learned by wholesaling first and working with store owners, so I know the business from both sides. You have to respect the artists, and show that respect.
I’m fascinated by it all, the whole circle of someone creating something, then me buying it because I love it, and then selling it to someone else who loves it. When a customer buys something as a gift and comes back and says their friend loved it, I know I’ve done my job.

How do you select items for your store? I love going out to the (trade) shows and seeing what’s there. I’m like a kid in a candy store. When I see the beauty of some people’s work, I start crying. I buy from my heart. If I love it, I buy it. There’s not one thing in my store that I wouldn’t have in my own home.  

How did your retail lines change over the years? At first, it was just the clothes I made. I’d already been doing that for five years from the house. Most artists usually make their art and run their business in the garage or the bedroom or the living room. When I finally got my own space—1,000 square feet to myself—I was so happy. Many of my friends are artists, and I started carrying other people’s work in the second year out there in the Arsenal. I look back at the ads from then that say, “Now showing work from 10 artists.”

So it was clothing and then all handcrafted items in the beginning. Later on, I knew I wanted to add something else to the store and gourmet foods just felt like a natural progression.
I’ve now branched out to fair trade items, including jewelry, wooden boxes, vases, salad bowls. I want to show people what fair trade is, that people get to work in their own villages and use local materials and the work provides an income to them.

What skills does it take to stay in the retail business for 25 years? I think change is the most important thing. With the downturn, if you didn’t change, you weren’t going to be around. Good retailers could see it coming in 2006. But now we are all busy, at least, all my friends are.

I always say I don’t have plans, but I do have a plan. My plan is to always keep changing, not only for us but also for the customer. If you keep seeing the same things, you get bored.

How did you come to be the founding chair of the Downtown Benicia Alliance? I was on the Tourism Committee, and that morphed into me caring and really wanting the downtown to have more commercial activities. I want this city to move forward in a good way, to be quaint and charming. Which it is—our downtown is walkable, we have quaint buildings, we have the water.

So it started out with Tourism, which led to the Business Improvement District, which led to the Downtown Benicia Alliance.

Why choose lights as the group’s first project? You always want to take your lead from cities that are doing well—cities like Walnut Creek, Yountville, New York City. I took my lead from New York City. I remember at the first public meeting about lighting the trees, I showed a photo I took of a lighted tree in New York, in Manhattan.

It’s all about what the lights bring. They bring safety, they bring ambiance, they bring a strolling atmosphere. The lights add to what we already have. Our main goal is turning strollers into shoppers.
What motivates you to work on projects like lighting the First Street trees? I’m giving back to the community I work in. I enjoy giving back. I just have to give back. It’s what’s in me. 

How do you find balance in your life? My husband. We love to take photographs and we love wine, so we go up to the Wine Country. We’re proud sponsors of the Empress Theatre, the Wednesday Night Ramble. We don’t just sit home, we go out together.
We both like to garden. He put his vegetables in hay this year. I grow herbs—basil and stuff that I don’t use since I don’t cook. George cooks. I have 65 rose bushes.

We’re outside people. My business is inside so I want to be outside. The important thing is knowing when to stop working and do the other things that provide balance in your life.