The Maine Attraction
by Anya Harris
When the only AM store in Damariscotta, Maine, closed in 2001, Carol Jaeger was stunned. So stunned, in fact, that she took matters into her own hands, found a storefront to rent and opened Salt Bay Art Supply. It took her about two weeks.
Active in the paper arts for decades, Carol knew how important a local store was to the creative people in the community. “In our area, we couldn’t not have an art supply store,” she said.
As fate would have it, Carol was at loose ends at the time.
She had had many jobs, including running her own graphic design business, selling books at a bookstore, and working at Kodak’s Center for Creative Imaging in nearby Camden. But when her mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, Carol retired to help care for her. When she died, Carol saw the vacant art store as an opportunity. “A whole series of events seemed to be leading me to this,” she said.
Her first location was 900 square feet on the second floor of a little mall just outside of downtown. She packed it with merchandise, selecting items based on how familiar she was with the product names. “I was also fortunate to be put in touch with a sales rep who knew the business very well and advised me on the fundamental brands,” she said. “My customers did the rest.”
Today, Salt Bay Art Supply occupies 1,100 square feet on the mall’s ground floor. You will find Carol or Lynne Norris, her parttime employee, there six days a week. Always there is Salty Cat, the resident Maine Coon. “He takes his work very seriously,” explained Carol. “He follows the customers around and he expects them to pay attention to him. He thinks they have come to see him. In many cases, that’s true – buying art supplies can become secondary to getting your kitty fix.”
She describes her core customers as “amateurs in the oldfashioned sense.” More than just hobbyists, most of them take their art very seriously. “Some of them may sell their work, but they don’t make their living from their art,” she explained.
She also caters to tourists, hobbyists and a fairly substantial group of professional artists who do make their living from selling their work.
Basic supplies comprise the bulk of her sales – watercolors, oils and acrylics; canvases; drawing pads; and basic tools. “I probably sell two or three tubes of acrylic for every tube of oil that goes out the door,” Carol said. “Really, acrylics and watercolors are neck and neck, with watercolors leading in the summertime and acrylics leading a little bit in the winter. Plein air painters drive demand for watercolor supplies and, since their release, GOLDEN OPEN acrylics in the fair weather season.”
Damariscotta is a small community of about 2,000 residents on the Great Salt Bay in the mid-coast region of Maine. The natural beauty draws thousands of tourists annually, causing the population to increase roughly threefold in the peak season.
“If you have a retail business on the coast of Maine – any retail business – you have two seasons, summer and Christmas,” explained Carol. “A large number of people are part-time residents who are here for six to nine months, then head someplace warmer in the winter. But in the summer the number of artists probably quadruples, and in our area, the fall foliage helps to extend the season a little bit. September is a wonderful time to visit Maine.”
Tourists generate demand, and during the summer of 2009, children’s art supplies became the store’s top seller. “We had something like 70 days of rain that season,” Carol told us. “On Tuesday mornings, I’d have grandparents coming through the door with this glazed look on their faces. Their grandchildren had been dropped off over the weekend, it was still raining, and they needed something for those kids to do.
“That, however, was unusual,” she added. “Our children’s department, even though it typically sells well, isn’t normally the leading department in the store.”
During the holidays, artists may want kits. “I will put canvas, brush soap, a couple of good brushes and some basic colors in a nice little canvas bag and set up a display,” Carol said. “Another display might have kits that feature some exceptional colors like Gamblin’s Radiance, instead of the basics. Between the kits I order pre-packaged, and the ones I put together myself, I try to find a nice balance, usually based on sales and the workshops we’ve done within the store in the past year.”
Sometimes shoppers don’t want kits at all. “One year all anybody wants is a kit, and I can’t keep them in the store. The next year I’ll be up to my chin in kits and everybody wants to buy individual tubes of oil paint and brushes from a list their spouse or cousin has given them. In the last nine years, there hasn’t been a pattern.”
In terms of displays and merchandising, Carol tries to group products together logically, “but every once in a while I throw a curve ball,” she told us. “I’ll set up a display that features something from another department to remind shoppers about its crossover possibilities. I’ll put a small selection of Gamsol with the colored pencils, for instance, to remind artists they can get a watercolor effect or a nice background when they use pencils with a solvent like that. I also display samples to show how they might create those effects.”
SUPPORTING A THRIVING ARTS SCENE
Within Damariscotta and the surrounding region are a large number of galleries and several active arts organizations offering a variety of workshops and art instruction, particularly in the summer. The Hotel Pemaquid in New Harbor (near the famous Pemaquid Light) is a well-known venue for art classes, as is the Farnsworth Art Museum in Rockland. Carol remains active in River Arts, a non-profit arts organization with gallery and art instruction space in downtown Damariscotta. She regularly sponsors workshops, teaches classes and works with artists there.
Several other stores have closed in the last few years, making Salt Bay Art Supply the only AM supply along the coast from Damariscotta down to Portland. As a result, the number of instructors and artists giving workshops Carol serves has spiked. Keeping up with the class supply lists can be tough.
“Customers have come in with a list of materials they’ve been told by the instructor are available ‘at any art supply store.’ Sometimes there are things on the list that aren’t even available in the United States!” she said. “Maybe they picked up those brushes in Singapore when they were there for a visit, I don’t know. It can be a challenge keeping an eye on all the classes being offered and making sure that I have the materials the instructors want.”
She reaches out to new and existing customers by advertising weekly in three local papers, each of which covers a slightly different area. She also advertises on a local commercial classical music station. “I chose the classical station because I surveyed my customers and learned that most of them use classical as background music while they work,” she said.
WHAT’S IN STORE?
Carol hosts many special events right at the store. One is a regularly scheduled workshop series called First Tuesday. The idea was born when a customer approached her with an erasing shield and asked what it was for.
“I started thinking about other questions I’d been asked recently, what something is or what something does. I decided it was an opportunity, so I do a half-hour long free mini-workshop during the evening of the first Tuesday of every month,” she explained. “First Tuesdays lead to sales because after the workshop, attendees understand how to use the items I discuss. I also show them crossover uses for traditional art materials and introduce new techniques.”
Carol keeps a small gallery space in the store where she can display a limited number of artworks. Sometimes an artist approaches her; other times, she will put out a call for exhibitors on her mailing list. The purpose is to foster goodwill; she takes no commission on the art that’s sold. “I’ll send a press release to the local paper and do some publicity through my mailing list to let people know that we have new artworks up. It can be very complicated for a new artist to get her work into a gallery, and sometimes it’s a big step for artists to show their work in public. Here, it’s just a few pieces in a small venue with a friendly atmosphere, so it’s not quite as intimidating.
“Also, I’m a collector,” Carol continued. “Most of what’s on the walls right now I own. I like the work that my customers do, and I feel very fortunate that I can participate that way. If I support the arts, the local artists are happier to support me. It all has a tremendous impact because it’s much easier for someone to shop in a store if they think of it as a part of their community. I mean that in the wider sense, as well as with respect to the community of artists.”
FOSTERING STRONG TIES
In addition to her art activities, Carol serves as a trustee for the Bristol Area Library, and as president of a statewide organization called Maine Media Women. She’s a member of NAMTA, and attends the show about every third year. “Attending the NAMTA conference gives me an opportunity to get in touch with all the sales reps, suppliers and manufacturers that I otherwise might not know about,” she said. “There aren’t a lot of sales reps who are willing to make the trek up the coast of Maine, and for good reason. Art supply stores aren’t as thick on the ground here as they are in more urban areas.”
Carol and her one staff member, also an artist, are committed to meeting their customers’ needs, especially in keeping up with trends and product knowledge. When a customer came in recently saying his instructor told him he should never use zinc white in his oil paintings, Carol did some digging. She discovered that zinc white, used on its own, can become brittle and crack, but because of its transparency, it is still regarded as a useful mixing color.
“That’s part of the fun of this kind of business,” she said. “It’s very dynamic, and there’s always something new coming up, questions you haven’t heard before that send you off in some new direction of discovery.”
As she points out, shopping for art supplies is so much more than stopping in a store to buy butter. It’s a personal process. That’s why it’s important for AM retailers to remain interested in what they’re selling, and learning all the time. “I know a couple of artists who use their hands to paint as much as they use their brushes,” she explained. “They need to know that I understand their need to be that close to the material. I think our customers do know that we’re interested in their specific requirements as artists, and we like finding things out. I think it’s a big help.”