‘The people here became family’: Wisconsin Craft Market employees open up about what the past three decades have meant to them

Some employees have been there since day one

Ask any employee at the Wisconsin Craft Market what this job means to them, and they all say it’s much more than just a paycheck.

“The people here became family,” said Anna Hunter, an employee of almost 16 years. Hunter said she would have hit her 16-year mark this summer. Hunter got a job at the Wisconsin Craft Market straight out of high school after she walked up and down the once thriving mall with resumes in hand. She has been at the Wisconsin Craft Market ever since.

Store manager Marie Larson has been employed there for the past 30 years. She said she saw an ad in the local newspaper three decades ago that peaked her interest.

“They’re opening a Wisconsin Craft Market! That’s going to be it!” Larson said.

But no one has been around as long as Deborah-Lee Newman. She’s been there since day one.

“I helped set up before the store opened,” Newman said. “There was nothing in here but a couple of big tables.”

When Newman heard that the Wisconsin Craft Market would soon close, Newman said it felt like death.

“It reminds me of watching a relative that’s dying of a terminal illness,” Newman said. “You know it’s coming but you don’t want it to.”

For Newman, the store is much more than just crafts, customers and co-workers. She said it’s the place that held her together during one of the most heartbreaking times of her life.

“My husband was the UW worker that was killed six years ago,” Newman said. “He was crushed under the hydraulic lift behind the art lofts building.”

At the time of her husband’s death, she had already been working there for 25 years. The people she worked with already were her family, including her boss and store owner Paul Zarnikow.

“He went with me to every lawyer, every meeting I had to go to,” Newman said. “He paid for my daughter to come out. She’s an archaeologist and so he paid for her flight to come to the funeral.”

Newman said she knew she could find comfort at the store soon after she lost comfort at home.

“I think this helped me get through it better than anything else,” she said.

Newman said everyone there is part of her family and that it will be difficult to find anywhere else quite like the Wisconsin Craft Market.

“He’s been with me through the whole thing,” she said. “I don’t think you’re going to find too many employers that would do that.”

Some employees said they will look for other jobs in retail like at Hobby Lobby or another craft store. Other said they would retire.

The last day the Wisconsin Craft Market will be open is April 30.

The Westgate Mall will be demolished at the end of summer.