Home Business St. Thomas business @Work: Janie Walker Hoffman

@Work: Janie Walker Hoffman


Aug. 11, 2005– Carting boxes of beads while being accompanied by her four-month-old German Shepherd, Cabe, native Virgin Islander Janie Walker Hoffman sits down to talk a little about her life, her jewelry, and how she arrived at selling her creations today at Paradise Point.
It's a circuitous tale.
First, Hoffman notes she is really "almost" a native Virgin Islander. She arrived on St. Thomas in 1948. She says, "On the freighter manifest, I was listed as 'infant, two months.'" She arrived with her parents, Reba and Judge Louis Hoffman, and her year-older brother, Paul, who now practices law on St. Thomas.
"My mother had been here once before and fell in love with the island," Hoffman says. "She wanted to move here, and we arrived on a freighter, 'cause I guess there were no cruise ships in those days."
Hoffman grew up on the island, going to school at Antilles, and later at the College of the Virgin Islands, now the University of the Virgin Islands.
"I always had an interest in art," Hoffman says, "but more on the crafts side of things." While her father established his law practice on the island, her mother started Caribbean Graphic Arts, likely the first printing company on the island. "She made commercial cards and prints," Hoffman says, "and helped the government open up its first print shop."
Hoffman's interest in art was piqued at an early age: "My mother let us color the prints she made," she says.
After leaving CVI, Hoffman moved to the states to attend the University of Boston, where she majored in sociology, which she never put directly to use.
After graduating from BU, Hoffman traveled, living in England for a year before returning home. When she got back, she set up shop selling her jewelry in the old Auction Barn, then across the street from Yacht Haven.
Growing up in all the color of the islands, Hoffman capitalized on her talents. She knew how many artists lived on the island and thrived on its colors, and she saw that there was no place on St. Thomas for an artist to get materials. Soon, an idea was born. Anyone who lived here in the '70s and '80s will remember the Craft Coop on Back Street.
The store was the only one of its kind on St. Thomas, and people flocked in for paints, art papers, jewelry fittings, beads, frames, whatever.
"One day a BU professor came in to the store, and somehow he remembered me from school," she says. "He asked me what I was doing with my sociology background. I just looked at him. 'Hello, I deal with people all day long.'" So much for Hoffman's sociology degree.
She ran the shop for 11 years, from '74 to '85, then moved to Vero Beach, Fla., where her daughter, Rachel, completed her schooling. When Rachel went to college, Hoffman moved to Key West, and set up shop selling her jewelry at the famous Mallory Square.
How did she learn this craft? "Oh, I didn't really. I just sort of taught myself the bead work, I've always loved beads," she says. However, Hoffman did spend a summer in Mexico in the artist colony, San Miguel de Allende, where she learned to be a silversmith.
As she talks, Cabe noses her every so often, demanding a little attention. Hoffman gives him a pat, and then gets back to her interview. "It's really like raising a child again," she says. "I'm still getting used to it."
Hoffman is petite and youthful. She has loads of freckles, blue-green eyes –"really, I thought they were just green," she says –and auburn hair. She is modest about her talents. Stringing all those beads has to be labor intensive. "It's something I like to do," she says.
Well, how long does it take to make, say, a necklace? She ponders this with a smile. "I actually don't have any idea, I just do it."
She says she strings them by what she calls her "scoop method." "I just scoop up a handful and string them on fish line, monofilament or wire. When I was in Key West, I'd work at Mallory Square at the Sunset show, then go home and string beads until one in the morning."
Today, she gives herself a more leisurely schedule. She moved back to St. Thomas last year, and didn't want to tie herself up with running a shop again. So she is a single entrepreneur. "I share a space with the artist Terri Jones at Paradise Point. I get to use the space when she's not there. We set up in the wedding gazebo. And I don't go up when there are no cruise ships in town."
The jewelry is modestly priced. "I really want to sell, to move the items. I don't want to price it where people are going to stop and ponder the price. This way, it's priced for mainly a young crowd."
She has an infinite variety of colors, beads, shells, glasses, coconut and bamboo put together in a seemingly infinite variety of combinations and colors – blues, greens, yellows, opaques.
"I really like the shells, everybody does," she says, handling a light-green bamboo bracelet, accentuated with tiny pink shells. She picks up another necklace. It is black hematite, a mineral, laced with little red ladybugs.
"This is recycled glass," she says, holding a turquoise necklace with a glass pendant. "I think this comes out of Thailand," she says. "There was a Coca-cola plant there that closed, and they began recycling the glass."
"I used to see so much hematite in the shop – I'm amazed it's still so popular," she says. Along with the necklaces, Hoffman turns out anklets, eyeglass chains and men's necklaces. "I guess you call them surfer necklaces, "she says. "They're so much easier to make cause the beads are larger."
Indeed, the necklace beads are minuscule, appearing to be the work tiny-fingered elves.
It seems like Cabe has had all he can take of mom's personal history and jewelry making. He nudges Hoffman – he pleads, holding his water bowl in his teeth. "I guess it's time to go," Hoffman laughs. She turns back to say, "and thank you."


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