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Heidi Shaffer, Published October 09 2011

Detroit Lakes native runs sign and gift shop with his mother-in-law

Business profile

HAWLEY, Minn. - For most men, working with your mother-in-law wouldn’t be the ideal situation.

But Shawn Qualley and Kathy Riedberger are more than making it work at Unique Designs, a Hawley gift store the pair has run together since last year.

Qualley, a Detroit Lakes native, had worked for many years hand-painting signs for Six Flags theme parks on the East Coast. When he and Riedberger’s daughter moved back to the Hawley area a year ago, they decided to combine forces.

The Forum caught up with Qualley, who is busy with several custom orders and preparing for the Christmas season.

Q: How would you describe the store?

A: Unique.

We try to offer stuff that they’re not going to see anywhere else.

How did you get into hand-painting signs?

I went to the (Detroit Lakes technical college) when they still had the program.

It was a two-year course back then (late 1980s), and the majority of the focus was on hand-lettering. It was kind of right before computers took over, so we had to do everything the old-school way.

How did you get started working in a gift store with your mother-in-law?

Kathy’s had the shop with her brother before, and it was more antiques and that sort of thing.

I worked for Six Flags theme parks for a bunch of years, and I would send her some signs I had made – kind of the antique-y signs – and she would use them.

We wanted to come back to the area … so we kind of combined our two talents.

The goal was always to take the theme-park stuff and shrink it down and make personalized stuff that people can use for their bars, garages, houses.

How many signs would you say you’ve painted?

Thousands. Hundreds, here, for sure.

What’s the key to being good at hand-lettering signs?

You have to have a little bit of artistic ability, but the majority of it is just practice. There’s no one doing it anymore, and it’s kind of all I’ve done.

How does it feel to be one of the hand-lettering holdouts?

You kind of feel like a dinosaur.

We did a show not too long ago, and there was a number of people that came up and said, “I can’t believe there’s someone’s still hand-lettering.”

So you kind of feel like there’s still a market for it. Because computers are great, but a hand-lettered sign, it just has a different feel to it.

What are the strangest things you’ve had to paint?

I’ve painted everything from corrugated metal roofs in theme parks to parade floats. I just painted a light bulb this morning.

If you can hold it down, I can paint something on it.

Have you always been pretty artistic?

Yeah, always drawing.

My dad did some painting. He never had any training in it, but he always had people coming to him to make signs.

He’s pretty artistic, so I guess I kind of picked it up from him.

What’s it like to work with your mother-in-law?

It’s great. Luckily everyone gets along so well. It’s just easier to work with people you know. We’re just excited to see where it’s going to go.

Readers can reach Forum business editor Heidi Shaffer at (701) 241-5511

To submit an idea for “It’s My Job,” email businessnews@forumcomm.com.