At Vermont Chalky Paint, Radio DJ Offers Non-Toxic Products and DIY Classes | Household items and decoration | Seven days
When Sarah Spencer asks her wine-sipping customers at Vermont Chalky Paint to “show off your jugs,” she’s not being sassy or inappropriate. She just wants to see how their latest home improvement projects are going.
Spencer, who regularly hosts Show Your Jugs Paint ‘n’ Sip events at her Essex Junction storefront and studio, chose her tagline to honor the wry humor of her mother, Joan, who died of breast cancer in 1985. “Jugs” refers to the kind of plastic containers normally used for maple syrup, in which Spencer bottles and sells his interior paints.
Once the jugs are empty, customers can repurpose them into lamps, gnomes and holiday decorations – with the help of Spencer’s free classes, kits and videos. She again honors her mother by donating a percentage of her sales to cancer charities, including Camp Ta-Kum-Ta in South Hero and the Cancer Patient Support Foundation in Williston.
Vermont Chalky Paint might have seemed unlikely to be a success when it launched as a web-only business in 2017. Spencer, a single mother and radio DJ from Burlington, had no prior experience in the manufacture, manufacture of paint or sale of physical products. But the self-proclaimed serial entrepreneur and award-winning internet marketer knew exactly what she wanted to offer consumers: eco-friendly, non-toxic products to restore furniture, cabinets and other home decor. And she found a manufacturer in Vermont to help her.
Now, with a physical store complementing its online business, Spencer has carved out a niche for DIYers nationwide. All of its paints are made in Vermont, using mostly locally sourced materials such as calcium carbonate (chalk) mined in Middlebury and whey protein, an organic by-product of cheese making.
Spencer’s clients are people who want to remodel their kitchens or bathrooms or spruce up old furniture for a fraction of the cost of hiring a professional. “People come here to try things they might never have been brave enough to do on their own,” she said. “It’s a super easy paint to work with. It’s great for a beginner, great for an expert.”
Upon entering the storefront on Spencer’s Railroad Avenue across from the Amtrak station, you may not at first realize it is a paint store. Even though Spencer paints in the back room, the store doesn’t smell of chemical fumes. “You don’t smell anything when you walk in here except my coffee,” Spencer said.
Unlike mass-produced paints sold at big-box stores, Vermont Chalky Paints are low in volatile organic compounds, the toxic chemicals that make some people sick and can be carcinogenic.
This makes its products ideal for people with infants and toddlers, as well as people with respiratory or chemical sensitivities. Vermont Chalky Paint sells paints in 16 colors, as well as a clear finish which is a non-toxic alternative to polyurethane. It also offers natural brushes and kits to give cabinets and furniture an aged and antique look.
Spencer particularly enjoys working with clients who come with what she calls their “problem child” – an heirloom antique dresser, vanity or desk that doesn’t match anything in their home. They don’t want to get rid of it, but it needs an overhaul. She offers free instructional videos on YouTube, including one that teaches people how to use decoupage to remake furniture.
Several decoupage pieces are in her store, including an old Davenport desk she bought at a yard sale for $10. She went online, bought a Alice in Wonderland-themed image, printed it, cut it out, and used its clear coat and decoupage technique to decorate the desktop. She is now selling it for $595.
“It’s super easy and has a great effect,” Spencer said.
Teresa Randall used Vermont Chalky Paint’s All-in-One ProPack Kit ($99.95) when she remodeled her North Concord kitchen a few years ago. Because she planned to sell the house, Randall didn’t want to spend thousands of dollars on a professional renovation.
Spencer walked her through the process and provided her with videos, Randall said. Working nights and weekends, Randall refurbished the cabinets in about two weeks. She believes her modest investment of time and money made all the difference in selling the house.
“I really think it made it more appealing,” she said. “It was great working with Sarah, and everyone was really impressed with the final product. It was really nice to see the transformation.”
Charlotte electrician Steve Spadaccini had a similar experience when he wanted to “makeover” the natural oak kitchen cabinets he had installed in the 1980s. With a leg injury, Spadaccini worked with Spencer, who came to his house to help repaint the cabinets.
“It was like my own personal class,” he said. “We are really happy with the end product… It changed the whole concept of cooking.”
Spencer’s storefront, which she opened during the pandemic, is a throwback to her roots. The 57-year-old Essex Junction native grew up not far from where her business now sits. As a child, she often went there to buy candy when it was called the Tip Top News.
“I was probably their number one consumer,” she said. When Spencer came home, her mother would make her empty her pockets to see how many candies she had bought that day.
At 13, Spencer contracted Stevens-Johnson syndrome, a rare skin condition that covered her from head to toe in painful blisters and left her unable to see or speak for a month. Her doctor gave her a 30% chance of survival and, if she lived, a 50% chance of going blind.
“The nurse said it right in front of me. I was devastated,” Spencer recalled. “But my mom said, ‘Sarah doesn’t listen to anybody. She doesn’t listen to me, so she’s definitely not going to listen to you. She’s going to outlive us all.'”
Spencer has made a full recovery. But in her twenties, after losing her mother to cancer, she felt directionless. One day, while cleaning her stable, she heard about a radio contest, called and won.
Louie Manno, the longtime Burlington radio host who answered the phone, told Spencer she had a great voice. “So I said, ‘Do you have a job for me?'” Spencer recalled with a laugh. “And he goes, ‘Yeah, actually, I do. “”
Despite her father warning her that Manno was probably joking, Spencer got off at the train station to claim her award and her new job, still wearing her dirty barn boots. The station master hired her on the spot. It was in 1985.
Spencer has worked for Hall Communications ever since. When she’s not at Vermont Chalky Paint on weekdays, she DJs for WOKO and WKOL, aka KOOL 105.1.
During this time, she launched other businesses, such as easyweddingplanners.com, for couples planning their own weddings; and gotclicks.biz, an independent Internet marketing company. Both still work.
Although Vermont Chalky Paint was her first foray into selling products, Spencer was not new to home improvement when she started her business. In 2005, she purchased a 2,500 square foot barn in Richmond, built in 1801. She agreed to forgive her ex-husband’s alimony debt if he avoided the barn so she could convert it into her home.
Spencer admitted she didn’t know what she was doing at the time and didn’t care. “I just had an idea of what I wanted,” she said. She went digging into the trash to outfit the kitchen and finished the rest of the house on a shoestring budget. Five months later, she moved in.
About ten years ago, a woman from Middlebury hired Spencer to do internet marketing for her online painting business. Although the concept of selling paint online sounds like “the craziest thing I’ve ever heard,” Spencer said, it helped the woman quadruple her sales.
After the woman retired and closed her business, Spencer thought, “How hard can painting be? Famous last words of a fool,” she recalled.
In 2017, Spencer participated in FreshTracks Capital‘s Road Pitch, an annual multi-day motorcycle trip for investors, which stops in cities across Vermont to hear entrepreneurs pitch their business ideas. There she met Andrew Meyer, owner of Vermont Natural Coatings, a Hardwick company that makes environmentally friendly paints, stains and finishes. When Spencer explained the products she wanted to sell, Meyer agreed to partner with her.
In an interview, Meyer said that while his company provided the technical expertise and facilities to bring his product to market, it was Spencer’s original concept and passion that made it successful. He believes she is just beginning to tap into the full potential of her business.
“Compared to what’s on the market, it’s a gold mine,” he said. “It’s a beautiful product.”
Spencer never intended to open a physical store. But in 2020, she was walking her dog on Railroad Avenue when she noticed the old Tip Top storefront was vacant. On a lark, she rented it for a few months to use for shipping and storage.
Soon, Spencer found it convenient to have a studio space where she could help clients work on projects. She started offering paint and sip classes and then summer camps. Essex Junction Recreation & Parks now hosts her events, all held at the same location where she abused candy as a child.
“It’s pretty neat coming full circle,” she said. “The store I had so much trouble with is now my livelihood.”