Arts

The Reality Factory

Couple turns old building into creative incubator
Encore-Magazine-Arts-Reality-Factory-December-2016
Emily and Dan Kastner used a lot of sweat and imagination to turn an old factory into a creative incubator.

When 39-year-old Daniel Kastner bought a two-story factory on the north side of Kalamazoo in 2012 to house inventory for his online moped business, the aging brick structure needed some work.

His wife, Emily, who was pregnant at the time with their second child, told him, “Good luck!”

The building, which was constructed in the 1930s and is located at 213 E. Frank St., was once home to a pattern company, a skirt manufacturer, a corset producer and a rug company. Since Kastner took ownership, it has become the site of two moped companies, a professional ceramics studio and a nonprofit organization called Read and Write Kalamazoo (RAWK).

He calls the building The Reality Factory, a reference to the fact that his scouting efforts included a “fantasy factory” that he passed up.

His wife, who co-founded RAWK with her friend Anne Hensley in 2012, laughs when recounting her first reaction to the building. “It was great, though,” she says. “Renovations happened very quickly.”

Kastner lets out a big sigh. “It took a minute,” he says.

When they bought the building, it was full of old machinery. Upstairs, woodworking devices were bolted to the floor, and there were large holes in walls and ceilings from a dust-collecting system that once wove throughout the building.

Kastner was so busy repairing the building’s flooring, putting up sheet rock and tearing out the old electrical system, he says, that he couldn’t even think about working on his second kid’s nursery at home. (The couple now have three children — Jack, 7, Mabel, 3, and Louise, 16 months.)

The work paid off, though. The Kastners have filled the factory a few times over with artist friends who need space to work. They’ve also given flight to their own successful ventures.

Adjoining the main building is a warehouse where workbenches and shelves are lined with moped parts. An American flag hangs from the rafters, and the smell of gasoline hangs in the air. “It smells like work in here,” jokes Emily.

A pin near the lapel of Dan’s jacket reads: Swarm and Destroy. It’s the motto for Moped Army, a website he started with two friends in 1997, the same year he moved to Kalamazoo to attend Western Michigan University.

Moped Army has more than 600 members, and the site publicizes moped-related events in cities throughout the U.S. and Canada.

Moped Army’s slogan sounds more nefarious than it is. “It means safety in numbers,” explains Dan. “Riding in a big group, little bugs — little mopeds — are more powerful than a car.”

Dan grew up on a horse farm in Sturgis that had a motorcycle shop on the property. He graduated from WMU with a B.F.A. in ceramics but, after his first art show, quickly realized “being a ceramic artist is a long, hard path.”

In 2003, he launched 1977 Mopeds. When business got slow, he added a new source of income, opening The Rocket Star Café, a coffee shop near WMU’s campus where he met Emily, a frequent customer.

Although the Rocket Star Café is no longer in business, “coffee shops are near and dear to our heart,” says Emily, who once owned a farmers’ market stand called Whisk Bake Shop and writes for the recipe-driven magazine Gather Journal.

She points to tables with smooth, black slate slabs — old science lab tables bought at a WMU surplus sale — that sit in a space on The Reality Factory’s first floor. They are for what the Kastners hope will be a coffee shop open to the public. The tabletops go with the industrial vibe of the old building and with Emily’s personal history. She holds an education degree in science and English from WMU.

“Everyone in the world wants to be an English teacher,” she says. “I studied both because I thought it would make me super-marketable when I graduated.”

She was right. After teaching in Battle Creek for a year, she and Dan made a leap to San Francisco, where she landed a job as a science teacher a few weeks before the 2007-08 school year started.

She says she loved teaching earth science in San Francisco — earthquakes, the ocean, the mountains — but after a few years, and one baby, she and Dan moved back to Kalamazoo.

The move came about partly because, in a place like Kalamazoo, Dan says, you can still work as a barista and pursue artistic dreams without going broke in two seconds flat. This was not something he and his friends found to be true in larger cities around the U.S.

“The dream of the ’90s is alive in Kalamazoo,” he jokes. He’s referencing a Portlandia episode in which Fred Armisen sings Carrie Brownstein a song about the artistically inclined, under-ambitious 1990s. The decade’s Generation X malaise and grunge culture (captured in movies like Reality Bites) is a spirit that, as Armisen sings in the skit, “is alive in Portland.”

Dan has convinced friends from as close as Ann Arbor to as far away as the West Coast — people like Jeb Gast, owner of Kalamazoo’s electric scooter manufacturer Fido Motors — to relocate and “incubate” their businesses at The Reality Factory.

“I called him up and said, ‘You gotta move here, man. It’s super-cheap and you can get free college for your kid,’” Dan recalls.

Over time, Fido Motors outgrew its space at The Reality Factory and bought property at 1415 Fulford St.

Grayling Ceramics is another success story born of Dan’s ability to rope friends into whatever he cares about. This studio, launched in 2014 by fellow WMU alumnus Shay Church and his wife, Maura, crafts hefty, earth-toned ceramic beer mugs, growlers and steins.

Shay Church renovated the space in The Reality Factory’s basement, which Dan says “was horrible.” Church power-washed, sealed and painted it and put two kilns in one corner that pretty much heat up the whole building, making it cozy in the winter. (It’s a different story in the summer.) And now Grayling is outgrowing its spot, too.

“It’s bittersweet, you know?” Emily says. “We really feed on the energy in the space. It’s cool to bring students into our small workshops because they’re like, ‘Wait. What’s going on? There’s a moped?’”

Her nonprofit, RAWK, which serves the Kalamazoo youth population and is located on the second floor of The Reality Factory, is another organization in the building that is expecting to one day outgrow its current locale.
Modeled on the nonprofit organization 826 National, a collection of after-school tutoring and writing centers co-founded by the author Dave Eggers, RAWK hopes to one day combine retail space and tutoring services, creating income through commerce while offering free services to kids who need them.

While Hensley and Emily Kastner see RAWK’s writing workshops, summer camps, in-school programs and special events as supplements to the educational efforts of Kalamazoo Public Schools, the creative energy represented in a space like The Reality Factory aligns with the nonprofit’s focus on teaching kids to get in touch with “the story they want to tell.” Whereas traditional writing methods emphasize grammar, punctuation and other editing skills, RAWK recognizes that these steps can inhibit rather than encourage young people still developing their confidence as writers.

In the end, though, RAWK’s mission comes down to the word “community,” something both Dan and Emily care about.

Since Dan purchased the building, which he discovered by cruising around on a bike while listening to music, the two have been amazed — and disappointed — to see so many buildings like it in the neighborhood torn down.
“I think we’re suckers for the sentimentality of the history here,” Emily says.

“Hopefully we’ve bought it some time,” Dan adds.

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Dan Kastner calls the aging former factory he bought on Kalamazoo north side The Reality Factory, a reference to the fact that his scouting efforts included a “fantasy factory” that he passed up.