Friends turn former Ironton bank into eclectic, creative space
(Story by Colleen Walker, Photography by Tim Gearhart)
Amanda Cleary and Abby Kuehne didn’t grow up with the dream to co-own an eclectic space for the mish-mash of locally-sourced goods. No, Amanda wanted to be a lawyer and Abby wanted to be … everything else. But in May of 2019, the two opened the doors to their shop, The Vault, in their hometown of Ironton.
Even when they finished college and eventually started their own business, they still weren’t thinking about working together. It wasn’t until they began dreaming what their hometown could become, not only for themselves, but for others, did they begin to dream on the same wavelength.
“Our goals are to enrich our lives, enrich our community and enrich our friendship, which it has, and everybody who visits this city will hold a piece of Ironton and take it with them,” said Cleary.
“We need to come together as a community and not feed our self-ego. That’s what’s going to fix the problem. We need to do what’s best for our city, for our residents, for the people who want to visit our city. We need to make those decisions based on them.”
The two women have been friends since the fifth grade when Cleary moved back to Ironton with her father and step-mother after living in Myrtle Beach. They got together when Cleary was invited to a skating party and was only allowed to go because her stepmother knew Abby’s mother.
The two have remained friends and realized they had similar feelings about living in Ironton and what the town not only had to offer but what could be accomplished.
Cleary worked for years in the Common Pleas Court while Kuehne had several jobs such as finance director for The Red Cross, claims adjuster for automobiles and motorcycles and a photography business.
“We each had our own small business. (Abby) needed space for her clothing business. She was literally working out of her dad’s garage,” said Cleary. “When I left the courthouse, it was to pursue my essential oil business.”
They decided to do something together which would allow them to incubate their own businesses and help offset their costs. When they saw The Vault Market building on Center Street with its amazing architectural style and bank vault from when the building was actually a bank, the light switch flipped on.
“We can incubate everybody’s business. We just got so excited,” said Cleary.
The Vault sells arts, gifts and American-made antiques that have been found and flipped by the quirky management duo. There’s a price tag on everything from mid-century modern dressers, to vintage signage, to salt and pepper shakers shaped like the Buckeye State. The team’s vision to repurpose and restore their merchandise comes from a heart of sustainability, a pledge to share the well-built beauty with today’s buyers. But, when the two really thought about it, they were met with a glaring question: why stop there?
“There are so many creative, talented people in this area who just don’t have a space to share what they make,” said Kuehne. “To fill our storefront windows with local art is what we believe this area needs. We want to encourage and support local artists in a way that they deserve.”
And they aren’t just “talking the talk.” From stained glass window hangings to handmade jewelry, it seems that there isn’t anything an Appalachian native can’t create — it just took some rose-colored glasses to see it.
There are luxury bath products from northern Ohio and natural-based cosmetic products supplied by a woman in Scioto County who was the cosmetic engineer for a large company but became disenchanted when products were shipped prematurely.
“She has a beautiful product,” said Kuehne. “Eric Tackett has local hand-made bowls and he writes on the bottom of the bowl where the wood was found.”
Not only is there a mish-mash of locally sourced items, there’s even some special vegan cheesecake dessert that resulted out of need for Kuehne’s daughter who was hospitalized at the age of five for a month and the doctors wanted to place her on methotrexate, a medication that helps people on chemotherapy to lower their white blood count.
But there was an option to change her diet and eliminate sugar, which the family did.
“Anything we put in here that was a food item was clean. No sugars. We found those cheesecakes at a market in Cleveland. They were delicious, very clean ingredients. We brought them back to our area as a dessert you can take home with you,” said Kuehne. “Our area is almost like a food desert in that sense. There aren’t a lot of healthy options.”
But their plans go beyond their own walls.
The women want to transform this tiny corner of Ironton into what they called Market Square. They foresee a little ice cream shop, a wine bar, a clean-eating café, craft beer, bistro tables out on the sidewalk and lights all across the area.
“What we want is to build the local economy one purchase at a time. We want to create a sustainable economy,” said Kuehne. “We really want this to be a space that people gather and a space that brings our community together.”
Cleary would like to be able to make Ironton comparable to Asheville, North Carolina, which she said was “a fabulous place to be. You want to hang out there. We can create that here. No one is going to do it for us.”
If that was the entire vision of The Vault, then it would be a spark of hope in the river city. But it’s much more than that. The two share a bravery and a hope for the future of Ironton.
“We see this as a way to strengthen what we love most about our town,” says Cleary. “The history and sense of community.”
The women said their building is a reflection of the town’s history.
Kuehne smiled when she recalled the first time the two women saw the interior of the building.
“Look at it!” said Kuehne in an excited voice. “It just speaks for itself. It’s got that beautiful arched ceilings. The vault is a statement in itself. We thought it was just exquisite. And the fact that it was ready to go is not something you get in Ironton,” said Kuehne.
“There are so many historical buildings in Ironton, but they all have those drop ceilings now and have been transformed with all those fluorescent lights.”
Cleary said they fell in love with the building and knew it was exactly what they wanted, but she admitted that “we weren’t sure exactly what we were going to do. It had to be a collaborative space. It couldn’t just be our own space.”
The long-term goal is for The Vault to also function as an open space for people to learn more about healthy living and to have open community events including talk of a “Roaring ‘20s New Year’s Eve Party” and a host of art lessons.
The Vault is located at 211 Center St. in Ironton, Ohio, and is open from 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday and Noon-5 p.m. Sunday, closed Monday.