Thursday, February 07, 2008

In praise of the independent art store

On Tuesday night I watched a documentary called America Unchained by a bloke who I rather like called Dave Gorman. He always has a quirky and interesting perspective on the world - and makes me think - which I like! ;)

What, you may ask, has this got to do with art stores?

Well, the story of his documentary is about how he set out to cross America from west coast to east coast without giving any money to 'the man' (ie corporate big brand chained whatever America). He wanted to pay his dollars over to the 'Mom & Pop' stores which for him were iconic symbols of what he thought America was all about. This had all been triggered by taking his stage show across the USA doing 7-8 shows a week for 4 months and finding that everywhere looked exactly the same! He lived corporate big brand America - and did not like it at all.

This time the aim was to travel across America and NOT pay for filling up with gas at a chained gas pump, eating at a chained food outlet or staying at a chained motel. And he changed the rules after he started and decided he wanted to go to places called 'Independence' as well - which caused a few deviations and a lot of extra miles. However by the end of the trip he'd actually managed to get all the way across (and up and down and up and down) with one breach of the rules and less than $100 paid to 'the man'.

Now - here's the art bit - could any of us travel anywhere in the USA or the UK and find a good independent art store within easy distance?

Online stores are really great - but I do like to touch the goods, try them out and generally 'trip out' on art supplies! ;)

This is emphatically not a diatribe against the big art chains. You'll read on my other blog about how impressed I was with eg Dick Blick in San Diego. However while it's nice to walk in a place and know you are always going to get supplies and good service, I also like walking in somewhere which is independent and different and reflects the interests and quirks and knowledge and experience of its owners. Like the San Clemente Art Supply Store pictured at the top of this post - which was the closest thing I've ever had in terms of dying and going to art shop heaven.

Plus for those of us who travel to paint an online store is emphatically not the solution for the thing you forgot or ran out of!

My two information sites for art supplies were set up to provide me (and you!) with details about where to find fine art materials supplies in and around the UK and the USA. They share details of online suppliers and the locations of retail stores that you can visit as a retail or trade customer.

I've had a poll running on the two sites about where people buy their art supplies - and you can see the results to date below - as at today's date. I was curious to know whether it would be the same or different.

Art Supplies in the UK
In the UK, a lot of artists have switched to online supplies because - and I'm guessing here - they are no longer finding that they can get quality and good value for money from a local retailer.
  • 23% of fine artists who've responded to date ONLY buy from their local store but a third of those that do (8% of total responses) are disappointed by the limited range of supplies or stock-outs.
  • 15% buy all their supplies online and always shop around for the best supplier.
  • 61% place the most emphasis on getting what they want a price they want - but are not averse to buying locally so long as they get choice, quality and a good price.
  • nobody has yet expressed an aversion to internet shopping!
Art Supplies in the USA
In the USA, the picture looks slightly different. My guess is that this is probably due to the major chains also having retail outlets and the huge distances involved for some people in finding any sort of art store!
  • 25% buy locally all the time - however a quarter of these (6% of the total responses) are either disappointed by the choice or don't like internet shopping. There's no distinction between art chain retail and independent retail - so maybe I'll have another poll about that......
  • 31% buy from both online art stores or local suppliers - whomsoever supplies what they want at a price they're willing to pay.
  • a whopping 44% buy all their supplies online - with about a quarter of this group (12% of all responses) being loyal to just one online supplier. This suggests to me online suppliers need to keep on their toes - good choice and service probably means lots of repeat business.
I've saved one of the most important attributes of local stores until last.

It's really the feature which came out very strongly in the Dave Gorman film. An independent outlet becomes part of the local community - people don't just work there, they also have a personal investment in making it work. The result is they will very often do something out of the ordinary to get custom and keep custom. They'll find out how to get that obscure art material you've heard about or make sure you get your materials in time for that workshop - or whatever. They also very often become an intrinsic and important part of the local art scene.

Whatever the merits - and there are a number - of the chain supplier, I'd like to take this opportunity to praise the independent art supplier who provides choice, quality, a good price and an excellent service. Long may they continue as in my view they stop everything being the same.

Now if you have any stores like that who look after you please sing their praises in the comments below.

If you've not yet voted in the polls can I encourage you to do so. Vote by clicking one of the links to the sites for the UK and the USA and then scrolling a little way down until you come to the poll.



  1. I shop at local indie art shops that aren't in a chain but also online at Ken Bromley - it's a family firm. They don't have the huge range of some of the larger firms but they are very competitive with prices and their customer service has been excellent. They ring you with any queries and are really helpful if you ask them anything.

  2. As someone who used to swim in the pond of specialty retail, I have some detailed input on this. I worked @ 15 years with a climbing retailer, and altogether I put in over 25 years in retail sales and logistics.

    Interestingly, I worked for a retailer who was in transformation from being a small, somewhat "local" style specialty retailer, to becoming a relatively large (for it's market) big-box retailer.

    I struggled with the attitude that was put forth by the independent shop. Not all, but some were "elite", but for no apparent reason! When I finished my career, I had the respect (and a nice discount) at every independent climbing reatiler in the Seattle market.

    Let me get more pointed. There can be some myth making that goes with the terms small and independent. I enjoy very much a couple of small local art retailers, but one of them is the nation's largest seller of a name brand easel line, and the other is a mega-cataloger of pastels! The moral of the story is, they need to think big to stay afloat in the market.

    BTW, both of the art retailers I mentioned above have only two or three local shops. I did shop at a one only art retailer in Portland during a weekend workshop there. The staff were young, snotty, and self important. It was a funny scene when I helped another attendee get help from an employee who was in too big of a hurry. Let's just say we got our help, and at the end of the weekend, I pooled some money and bought the staff a Starbucks card.

    On the other hand, there is one big, mega art supplier who get none of my business after I bought a large set of oversized Unisons, and the set came rattling around in the shipping box!

    As an art supply buyer, I say get what you need or want from the retailer that can provide it for you, and leave the attitude at home. BTW, I do enjoy the excellent treatment I get at the local small retailer who (for what reason I don't know) treat me like a celebrity.

  3. I use my local independent store for convenience but they are pricey and often don't stock what I want. They will oder stuff but it takes forever! Ialso use mail order, in the UK and Dick Blick in the US. It takes a while to get here but even with the shipping costs some things are less than half UK prices. It seems mad that I can buy Derwent colour pencils that have crossed the Atlantic twice cheaper than I can get them here.

  4. I shop locally where I can, but I can't access specialty supplies (or sometimes what should be ordinary supplies) easily.

    The Canadian market is more limited in terms of product selection, though it is growing. I use Canadian mailorder where possible and there aren't any big chain art retailers in Canada, they are all independents.

    But I also shop south of the border to find the supplies that I want, either shopping in person if I travel or through mail order (internet).

    Finally, another independent to add to your American list - Sterling Art in Irvine, California. I found this little gem while I was there last year. This is a 24,000 sq ft independent store established since 1960. Go visit if your in the area. They will also ship to you and are in the process of creating a commerce/catalogue service.

  5. I used to shop locally at a very small shop but after repeatedly asking him to change radio stations and not being heard, I just decided to shop in downtown Chicago. (He blasted a right wing conservative radio host who rudely berated left of -centers)I think the point is well taken though. The mom and pop places really do anchor a community so I'd shop that way if the owner of ours wasen't such a bigot.

  6. Well if you come to Keene, NH you can get art supplies at Creative Encounters (frame shop). They don't have much in the shop but they will order anything you want.

  7. There are only two real art shops in Geneva (as opposed to bigger shops with a little art section). One is generally thought of as snooty - the shop is tiny and there is little room to browse, the staff come out of the back room straight away ( a little bell rings on the door!) and expect you to know what you want. But they get friendlier as they get to know you so I enjoy shopping there. (There is one assistant with 'the attitude' but I've no idea what that is all about either!) The other shop is much larger but the staff, even though they are friendly, are always hiding in a back room and you can wait an age to be served. Overall, supplies are limited to mostly French and Swiss brands like Canson and Caran D'ache so I tend to stock up in London whenever possible. (Swiss customs keep packages back and tax has to be paid at the post office on collection.) I prefer to support local shops rather than buy online.


COMMENTS HAVE BEEN CLOSED AGAIN because of too much spam.
My blog posts are always posted to my Making A Mark Facebook Page and you can comment there if you wish.

Note: only a member of this blog may post a comment.