Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Wilmington, Delaware gets an art store!

Jerry's Artarama store in Wilmington, Delaware
I’m happy to report that Jerry’s Artarama, an art supplier familiar to many from their online presence and a chain of retail stores across the U.S., has opened a store in Wilmington, Delaware.

And why, you ask, should this be of interest to the wider national and international audience of Lines and Colors? Well, it’s relevant in that it prompts me to bring up the general state of online art suppliers and the availability of brick and mortar art supply stores in smaller cities.

Wilmington, Delaware is a relatively small city (population: 70,000) in the shadow of a large one — Philadelphia; it’s also near where I grew up, and still not far from where I live.

In years past, Wilmington had an art supply store called Audio Visual Arts, which everyone simply called “A.V.A.” It was one of those stores that seemed like a fixture when I was younger; as far as I knew it was always there, and I expected it to always be there. For a time, Wilmington supported two art stores — on the same block — after disgruntled A.V.A. employees started a rival store just a few doors down.

All of that changed when commercial art went digital at the end of the last century, as it did for so many art stores that depended on commercial artists as their primary customers and carried supplies for painters and students as a sideline. Brick and mortar art stores took another hit from the increasing prevalence of online art suppliers in the first decade of the new century.

Wilmington went from two art stores to less then one, when what remained of A.V.A. was moved to a small space adjoining the company’s related blueprint service, and the rival store went out of business. The small demi-store, left to cater to students and Sunday painters, eventually went under as well, leaving those who wanted to shop locally for art supplies to drive to a small shop in a nearby college town (Finley’s – a nice little shop, but with limited stock), or travel to Philadelphia, negotiate city traffic and fight for parking, or just be at the mercy of the suburban big-box arts and crafts stores. Any serious painter who has shopped at the latter (at least judging by the stores in this area) knows what a disappointing experience that can be.

Even though Wilmington has had a relatively small but growing art school, the Delaware College of Art and Design (where I teach a class in Web Animation with HTML5 and Adobe Flash) on it’s main shopping street since 1996, it has been without a real art supply store for a long long time. That changed last week, when Jerry’s Artarama opened its newest retail store on a building owned by the school, due in good measure to efforts on the part of DCAD’s president, Stuart Baron, and with cooperation from the city.

To me, and I’ll warrant a number of other artists in the region, a real brick and mortar art supply store opening in Wilmington was like flowers blooming in an long empty lot — a hopeful sign that things are changing for the better.

I certainly understand the appeal of online art suppliers. It’s difficult for brick and mortar stores to match the selection available from a large online supplier (similar to the difficulty faced by brick and mortar bookstores). For example, I recently ordered a jar of Red Ochre acrylic primer and a bag of marble dust to mix into it for texture — not items in high demand in local art stores. Also, my personal preference in oil paints is a brand of handmade paint from a small company that is only available online (see my post on Vasari Classic Artists’ Oil Colors).

However, when possible, I like to buy my other art supplies locally. There is something to be said about being able to see and feel the items you’re buying — the stiffness of a brush, texture of a canvas, thickness of a drawing paper or color of a marker — and the ability to pick up what you need today, when you need something for what you’re working on, not in a few days when FedEx trundles by with a shipment. (Plus, much like bookstores, I just love the way art stores smell.) So I like both online and local shopping for art supplies — for different reasons.

Philadelphia, about 30 miles from Wilmington, is a large city — with, I am told, more art schools per capita than any other American city. It has long supported multiple art supply stores in the downtown area (called Center City by locals), though individual stores have come and gone over the years. (When I was an art student, there was a cramped, cluttered, quirky and wonderful store called Zinni’s that was reminiscent of the bizarre little “we have it in the back” shops for magical paraphernalia in the Harry Potter movies — but I digress.)

The situation in Philadelphia has changed over time as well, both when the commercial art shift to digital media closed some of the stores that depended on commercial art customers, and more recently when Dick Blick, the largest online art supply company and chain of associated retail stores, opened a large store pretty much halfway between the city’s two largest art schools, the University of the Arts (formerly the Philadelphia College of Art) and the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (where I spent my time as an art student years ago).

When the Blick store opened, a new large scale art store seemed a plus, and the store was welcomed by both students and the larger arts community (if not by its competitors, like Utrecht, the previous dominant presence). The other stores in Center City seemed to fare well enough in the following few years, leading to the thought that the city could support one more art store without losing the others.

That changed, however, when the Blick company bought Utrecht earlier this year (reportedly for their proprietary line of paints and canvas) and promptly closed the two Philadelphia Utrecht stores, undoubtedly with the idea of forcing everyone who had shopped at Utrecht to go to the single Blick store, raising that store’s profit per square foot. While this has likely been accomplished to the satisfaction of the company’s bean counters, I and many other local artists thought of it as regressive and a sorry event. At one time there were five art supply stores in the central part of the Philadelphia; there are now two — the big Blick store and a smaller (but quite good) Artist & Craftsman Supply store, part of a less extensive national chain.

So I’m happy that the unfortunate loss of the Utrecht stores (one of which was much more convenient for me reach than the Blick store) now seems offset by the new Jerry’s store in nearby Wilmington. Though I can bemoan the fact that all of these stores are part of national chains, and most (but not all) of the independent art supply stores in the wider metropolitan area are gone, I still feel encouraged when physical art supply stores open up, rather than closing down.

I was also encouraged that the new Jerry’s Artarama store in Wilmington is reasonably large and well stocked, comparable to the Utrecht stores we lost in Philadelphia — a serious art store and welcome antidote to the painfully meager offerings of the big-box craft stores. Artists and students in Wilmington have long had to travel to Philadelphia to buy art supplies, but the new Jerry’s store may well pull in the other direction, drawing students and others from out of state to the Wilmington store with the lure of easier parking and Delaware’s famous lack of sales tax.

A larger question posed here, however, and one I don’t have an answer for yet, is whether any of this is indicative of national trends, or is simply a local reshuffling of pieces on the board.

I’ll have to wait and see, but at least in the meanwhile, I’m happy I have another place to go when I need a painting panel, a #2 filbert, tube of gouache, a brush marker or a bottle of stand oil — or when I just want to walk into a store that smells like art supplies.

(Images above borrowed from the Jerry’s Artarama of Wilmington Facebook page)

8 thoughts on “Wilmington, Delaware gets an art store!

  1. yah

    The parent company of Utrecht had a “ten year plan” where they bought it, opened as many stores as possible to make the company look good, and then sold it for a profit. It’s not indicative of the local art scene. It’s the same commercialism and corporate greediness we’ve always seen. Jerry’s, Blick, they’re all the same. Blick didn’t just buy Utrecht, they also buy up any local places in town to squeeze out that competition too. I’ll never shop at Jerry’s again simply because they’re owned by the same company as ASW (Art Supply Warehouse), and ASW tried to do some shady nonsense with me when last I ordered from them.

    Local art stores simply can not compete with the marketplace. Either they operate in a small town with not much audience (usually near a school if possible), or they don’t and they can’t compete anywhere near the pricing of the “Wal Marts” of art supplies. How can one local store get competitive pricing when they order 20 of something and a Blick down the road orders 20 palettes-worth to their warehouse? Not possible.

    I order online. More options that don’t make me angry to give money to.

  2. cparker

    yah, thanks for the comment.

    I don’t resent the demise of the Utrecht stores because I thought Utrecht was a benevolent company, but because their disappearance diminished available choices, in this case an important one to me of physical location and convenience.

    I’ll be the first to be cynical about the intentions of corporations. However, I’m not always as cynical about other things, such as the fate of small art stores and small bookstores. There is a small bookstore in Philadelphia called the Joesph Fox Bookshop. It has been around for over 60 years and survived almost literally in the shadow of large Borders and Barnes and Noble stores, both of which were at one time within a block from it and each other. The Barnes and Noble is still there.

    Borders didn’t survive the competition, Joseph Fox did — in a store the size of a Barnes and Noble coffee area. How? My guess is by knowing their customers and their business better than the corporate bureaucracies allow the local managers for the big chain stores. I’ve shopped there for years because I know that they will always have certain selections that I will find exceptional — not just what’s most popular or heavily advertised at a given time.

    Small bookstores are making a comeback by carving out niches the big stores don’t consider worth their square footage. Likewise some independent art stores can know their business well enough to survive, because price, while an important factor, is not the only factor. Yes, It’s difficult, and the stores that survive are exceptions, usually run by exceptional people, but I don’t think it’s impossible.

    It seems to me that in shopping online, unless you just deal directly with independent manufacturers — buing your paint directly from Vasari or Blue Ridge, your brushes from Trekell or Rosemary & Company, and your canvas from Masterpiece Canvas, etc. — you eventually wind up supporting the same large art supply companies you mention. (And as noble as it may be to try, are you going to find independent suppliers for drafting tape, markers, pencils, charcoal, drawing paper and every other type of art material? And if you could, can you afford to pay for separate shipments from each one?)

    If you don’t have the luxury of a local independent store and have to shop from the big online suppliers at some point, you can make a choice to support their physical stores, and at least influence their corporate policy to have those stores open in your area for your convenience when you want the advantages I mention above for physical shopping.

    If you have the ability to shop at a locally owned independent art supply store, by all means support it.

    I believe it’s worth a bit of extra expense to support independent stores of all kinds (hardware, shoes, whatever) and I refuse to shop at Walmart, price be damned. I don’t pretend to be noble about it, I make choices based to some degree on ethics, but it’s mostly selfish. I try to support independent stores because I like them and want them around for my own benefit and convenience. There is a small independent art store at which I can shop, and I do when I can, but it is very poorly stocked and survives primarily as a frame shop. The best independent store I know of in the Philadelphia area with good selection is in the northern suburbs, and much more difficult for me to travel to than the Delaware Jerry’s store (to the point of being impractical). The new store in Delaware at least offers me an alternative to shopping at the remaining Blick store in Philadelphia.

  3. Barbara

    Since Pearl Paint closed in Woodbridge NJ that whole side of the state is just aching for a real art supply store. We are jealous:-)

    Enjoy!

  4. cparker

    Yes! I shopped at the Pearl store in NJ some years ago, and their store that opened later on South Street in Philadelphia. The latter in particular had a great selection of drawing papers, better than the other stores in town at the time. They still have have their big flagship store on Canal Street in New York and are still selling online: http://www.pearlpaint.com/ I don’t know the story behind the closing of the local stores. I suppose we can assume competition from the bigger online suppliers, but the truth is often more complex than it seems from outside.

    The difficult thing for you is getting to a store without paying for a bridge over the Delaware River — might as well pay FedEx (sigh). There is a Jerry’s Artarama in Princeton, if that helps: http://www.jerrysartarama.com/Retail-Stores/Store-Index.htm

  5. David J Teter

    I agree, for all the reasons already covered we still need these brick and mortar stores.
    I am fortunate to have two relatively local independent art supply stores here that I shop in. Though lately one of them has been consistently low on supplies, dangerously empty shelves.
    I just hope it is a refection of good sales as opposed to poor sales and a slow down in reordering eventually leading to a shut down.
    Interesting too , they both have dismal or non-existant websites!?

    It’s tough to find any small independent bookstores locally. One of the best, Acres of Books, sold used and hard to find out of print books (especially art books) but closed a couple years back. It was one Ray Bradbury visited regularly.

    There is only one now (that is close enough to visit regularly) and I should add that one extra benefit of smaller locally owned shops is they carry books for locals the big stores don’t.
    Try finding (stumbling upon, which is half the fun of a brick and mortar store) a book on the local history of any area… good luck.
    I mean the small story, not the big story.
    I don’t mean Los Angeles, I mean any of the smaller surrounding cities that make up the greater LA area.

    You know small press runs, books the size of extra thick pamphlets but are written by locals and of interest to the same.
    I suppose these are all online stories now.

    In your comment you mentioned the small bookstore carving out niches… and
    “Borders didn’t survive the competition, Joseph Fox did — in a store the size of a Barnes and Noble coffee area. How? My guess is by knowing their customers and their business better than the corporate bureaucracies…”
    true, true, true… as this article on Arcana Books and their survival attests to http://blogs.laweekly.com/arts/2012/05/arcana_books_helms_bakery_move.php

    I am happy we have two art book specialty stores Hennessey and Ingalls in Santa Monica and Arcana Books on the Arts in Culver City. Both have good websites too.

    Although it is a 25 mile drive to Santa Monica and Culver City for either, I just make a day of it.
    I do love spending hours browsing art books, (again stumbling upon), that I may never discover sitting in front of the computer screen not to mention, and I remember you referencing the same complaint Charley, how too often the online peeks inside books is too heavy on beginning and ends, glossaries and title pages (thanks for nothing guys!).
    Oh well.
    Let’s hope the pendulum will swing back the other way when we all get tired of online and big stores.

  6. cparker

    Ironically, even the big Barnes & Noble stores may have trouble surviving the onslaught from Amazon. There’s always a bigger bully. If they go under, local book shopping may open up again for independents. Art supplies are different in that the big online sellers are the local brick and mortar chain stores as well, so independent shops have to be agile and or find a niche that the big stores aren’t filling.

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