MAKEbhm building on previous success in Alabama’s Magic City

MAKEbhm building on previous success in Alabama’s Magic City
The new MAKEbhm space under construction in Birmingham's Avondale neighborhood. The larger facility makes room for more makers to take advantage of MAKEbhm's tools, classes and workspace. (Colin Nekritz/Alabama NewsCenter)

“Community” is a word that resonates both inside and outside the walls of MAKEbhm’s new space at 4000 Third Ave. South near the center of Birmingham’s Avondale neighborhood.

Proprietors Bruce and Scottie Lanier hatched an idea several years ago: Create a place for sharing know-how, ideas, tools and experience. A near-instant hit with the local DIY scene, it wasn’t long before the Laniers’ “social and educational experiment” outgrew the original space in the Continental Gin Industrial Park.

Woodworker Blake Ellis says he can build almost anything he wants in MAKEbhm's new space in Avondale. (Colin Nekritz/Alabama NewsCenter)
Woodworker Blake Ellis says he can build almost anything he wants in MAKEbhm’s new space in Avondale. (Colin Nekritz/Alabama NewsCenter)

Though Bruce Lanier hesitates to use the moniker “maker” for those who come to MAKEbhm, the space shares elements of what is known internationally as maker culture or the maker movement. Maker culture was born out of groups and organizations that believe in learning-by-doing in a social atmosphere. Makers apply physical effort to transform objects into something usable or artistic, sometimes both. Events held around the world bring together makers, such as the Southern Makers annual gathering in Montgomery April 30 that featured members of MAKEbhm, including woodworker Blake Ellis.

“MAKE has a special place in my heart because it was the first place where I really felt supported and was around people that were excited about the projects that I wanted to complete,” Ellis says. “The first time I met Bruce Lanier and told him what I wanted to do (build drums), first thing he said was, ‘Cool. How do we make that happen?’ At the time, no one had ever said that before. It’s also really nice that we have almost every tool one would need to complete almost any project. Especially now, with the new shop, I really feel like there is nothing that I can’t build.”

Bruce Lanier describes MAKEbhm like this: “What we offer is a shared, collective, rather immersive experience. You could have a grandmother who took welding in college, had to put it down for years to raise children, coming in to reconnect with a skill. Next to her could be a young adult still trying to find themselves and try new things. We have novices all the way up to people who are skilled in certain areas, adding new elements to what they already know.

“We build on our offerings, from introductory to deeper knowledge based on what the community is looking for. We’re working on building a curriculum, helping people build on their skills, and not necessarily specific to one trade,” Lanier says.

“Not everyone can afford or is going to enroll in UAB, find an adult education class at a college, all just to get their feet wet in learning about ceramics. Some people just want to test the waters, try things out. That’s where we fit into the educational, cultural fabric of the region.”

MAKEbhm’s instructors and members visit area schools or have schools visit them, giving children a chance to work with their hands and see things get made.

Southern draw

In terms of MAKEbhm ‘s regional appeal for those looking to learn, take a class or check out the space, its unique offerings have a reach beyond just the Alabama border. People travel from south of Montgomery, north of Huntsville and Gadsden, and Mississippi and Georgia.

“We had a group that came all the way from Atlanta on a Saturday,” says Lindsey Christina, director of community outreach and public relations for MAKE.

Christina, MAKEbhm’s only paid full-time employee, says one of MAKEbhm’s biggest assets is the instructors. “These are people that in most cases wouldn’t find another outlet for teaching things they’re incredibly good at. It’s a part-time job for them, it gives them an opportunity to teach. Our instructors are flexible, often coming in outside class times or to do one-on-one instruction, something you most likely aren’t going to find taking any classes or instruction elsewhere.”

While MAKEbhm lacks hard data on economic impact, a number of people who have used its space through shared equipment and learning skills have opened their own companies and started selling their wares in stores, markets such as Pepper Place and Woodlawn Street Market in Birmingham, and in popup shops. Members have learned valuable business lessons from their time at MAKEbhm, ideas applied when opening up their own shops such as a screen-printing business, creating various wood products or performing home remodeling.

“I was able to start my own business and have it be something bigger than I thought it was going to be,” Ellis says. “Over the next few years I think MAKE is going to make a huge impact in Avondale and greater Birmingham now that we have the space and resources to do so.”

A welding class under way at MAKEbhm in Avondale. (Colin Nekritz/Alabama NewsCenter)
A welding class under way at MAKEbhm in Avondale. (Colin Nekritz/Alabama NewsCenter)

MAKEbhm’s new space will be home to Winslet & Rhys Mercantile, BiCi Bicycle Cooperative, Radio Free Alabama, local band Through the Sparks, Macknally Land Design (landscape architects responsible for major parks throughout the state, including Birmingham’s Railroad Park), and Bruce Lanier’s office and day job as principal and architect of Standard Creative, with studio and traditional storefronts available.

In addition, MAKEbhm will house the future business of Cliff Spencer, a sought-after furniture designer living in Los Angeles and a Birmingham native intending to return to the area with his family.

From tree to table

“When (Bruce Lanier) and I got together and hashed out our vision, it was clear we were in sync, and the ball has been rolling ever since,” Spencer says. “We’ve created Alasaw, working with tree services, homeowners, designer and architects to turn tree to table, handling every step of the process from selecting and milling the logs, drying and surfacing the lumber so it’s ready to use. At the same time, we’re designing and producing furniture and products for both local and national markets, and planning to retail the wood as well.

“Bruce and Scottie Lanier’s creative entrepreneurial spirit is contagious and they have a way of seeing possibilities all around,” Spencer continues from his California home. “In my experience in working with them, and with the creative community of Birmingham, I hear ‘yes’ more often than ‘no.’ There is a palpable spirit of ingenuity and cooperation in Birmingham and much of Alabama right now, and perhaps much of the Southeast, such that we couldn’t turn down the offer to bring our work back home to the South.”

As at the previous Continental Gin location, MAKEbhm offers plenty of workspace and updated equipment for those lacking a basement, not interested in cluttering a house with projects, or not wanting to buy a garageful of tools they may never use.

The much larger shop floor is available to existing and new makers, hosting and providing classes and instruction in woodworking, welding, ceramics, screen printing and other offerings. Bruce Lanier says he hopes the amount of floor space will allow temporary weekend markets where members can show and sell items.

“The new space is a big deal. The wood shop in the new building alone is almost as big as the entirety of our last place,” Ellis says. “Bruce has done a great job at designing the new MAKEbhm where we all have our own corners but still can interact.”

Related Stories