By Jenn Bergin
The Sketchy Artist in Northfield, Minnesota, is not a “normal” art supply store. “We’re sketchy … in a good way,” says store owner April Ripka.
The “creatively original” art supply and gift boutique sells everything from vivid tubes of alizarin crimson to the perfect writing pen, plus whimsical and traditional imported Japanese gifts. While the store’s been described as unique and eclectic, it more aptly reflects a “fusion concept,” April says.
“Our goal is to encourage originality, imagination and curiosity,” she explains. “There’s inspiration all around us; our mission is to find what inspires, set it on a shelf and hope that a spark ignites.”
A new take on an old store
Art was April’s first love. She grew up in the suburbs of Northfield, a bedroom community an hour outside of the Twin Cities metropolitan area. She majored in art at one of two colleges in the historic dairy farming town. “As an art major, you learn to develop your own ideas and the thick skin to stick to them,” she says. “In retrospect, it gave me the courage to open my own store.”
Before owning an art store, April worked in one for a few years – the Art Store, a longtime fixture in the downtown community. “That became the foundation of everything I know about art supplies and running my own business,” she says, “even if I didn’t realize it at the time.”
Four years later, the owner asked April if she was interested in buying the business. “It came out of nowhere, at the perfect time,” she explains. Frustrated with her career in graphic design, but considering ad-agency work as an art director, April was at a crossroads. “I can’t explain the feeling – I just knew this was right for me,” she says. “I didn’t know how to do it, but I knew I wanted to.”
Ultimately, April decided not to buy the 28-year-old business, and instead opened her own place in 2008, inspired by the Art Store. “It took two or three years to find my niche and define how I wanted the store to be and feel,” she explains. “I had to find my voice and trust my instincts.”
The business is 60 percent art supplies and 40 percent gifts that include toys, Japanese puzzle erasers, pottery, greeting cards and stationery. Local residents often bike and walk to the small businesses and offices around town, so there’s plenty of foot traffic past the 1,300-square-foot store. “When they venture in, they find that the store is so much more than what’s conveyed in our window,” notes April.
Artists are good at “creating a space,” she says, and she wanted hers to have an industrial, “storage-like” feel – but with warmth. “The small space makes it cozy and approachable. A blue-painted tin ceiling, wood floors and exposed brick walls add character and charm.”
Many of the display fixtures are from Ikea, and others are brand-bought. Some – like easel paper racks and pencil cubbies – were custom-made by April’s father out of plain pine. Little surprises are hidden on the shelves, like cute anime figures or funny, sarcastic notes. “I’ve been told that my store’s personality is a lot like my own,” April says. “I stuck a note on the pen at the register that says: ‘This pen is sketchy in good way. If you take it, you’re sketchy in a bad way.’ No one’s ever tried to take that pen!”
She adds, “It’s like a painter who puts his style and perspective into his works. To describe my store’s personality is to describe me.”
Less is more
As an artist herself, April is picky about the products she sells. “I stand by everything I stock,” she says. “There are brands I trust, products I’ve used, and sometimes it’s just instinct.”
Bee Paper and MiTientes colored papers are among her personal favorites. Products from Global Art Materials and Sculpey clays and paint are big sellers. Bringing in more Stabilo pens and pencils recently was essential, she says. In addition to professional and practiced artists, the store also caters to a unique subset of customers – “pen people” – who range from picky office professionals to “pen snobs.”
When choosing products to bring into the store, April listens to her customers. “They mention new brands or favorite products, and it leads to great discoveries,” she says, and she readily places orders for them. However, she doesn’t like to offer customers too many choices.
“It’s been proven in retail – when there’s too much to choose from, customers become overwhelmed and walk away,” she explains. “I want people to have options, but not so many that they’re flustered and leave the store.” So she keeps it simple, and stocks a middle- and high-grade option for every type of product. “I want things to be affordable, without sacrificing quality,” she explains. “Customers don’t have to spend a fortune just to try something out. I tell them, ‘you can always upgrade, but you can’t downgrade.’
“I’m not in it for the high sale,” she adds. “Customers come back, buy more, or upgrade when they know they can trust us. That’s how a curious shopper becomes a regular.”
April uses the Lightspeed POS system for Mac to manage stock and does a manual inventory once a year. “I mostly manage inventory by sight,” she says. “I know every nook and cranny of the store. If someone asks if we have something, I just go look for it on the shelf. I have my staple stock, but I also vary certain items or lines until I find something that’s a winner. I like to keep my customers on their toes!”
(Not) the latest fad
“With such a small space, I can’t just bring in everything,” April says. “The latest and greatest doesn’t matter to me.”
If you’re looking for what’s next to come after the coloring book craze, look elsewhere. For example, when Zentangle was all the rage The Sketchy Artist didn’t carry the popular Zentangle sets or kits. “Instead, I showed customers the pens and paper I had,” April explains. “If you want $25 worth of drawing stuff, we can walk around the store and I’ll put something together for you.
“When you buy a kit, the quality goes down,” she adds. “There’s always too much or too little of something, or things you don’t need. Plus you’re stuck with the kits when the fad is over.”
The Sketchy Artist also doesn’t sell craft items; however, the store does sell to kids. In her kids’ section April carries Dover reading and coloring books; the Strathmore Kids Series; pads and markers, and “cutesy Japanese stuff and solid wooden toys.” There’s also space for children to doodle, with small stools and a chalkboard. “If it boosts creativity and imagination,” April says, “it belongs here.”
Most of the time, you get what you pay for in art supplies, April says. “I prefer more unique or hard-to-find lines. Because of the coloring book craze, even Walmart is carrying Prismacolor pencils. I want people to come in and find something they feel like they couldn’t find anywhere else.”
A small town with big art
The “diverse, unique community” of Northfield has embraced April’s new take on the old Art Store. Locals were accustomed to buying their supplies in town, and hers is now the only art store south of the Twin Cities. The community is glad to have it there and recently voted The Sketchy Artist its “Best Hidden Gem.”
Still, April insists she just got lucky. “I didn’t have to do much to be discovered,” she says. “But I like being ‘found’ and giving new customers a great experience, so they continue to come in, and also spread the word.”
In turn, April supports the community Center for the Arts located next door to The Sketchy Artist, which offers a gallery and classes. She displays work by local artists in the store. She also helped start Northfield’s seasonal Market Fair, which supports local farmers and artisans.
April makes it her mission to help non-artists and novices embrace their creativity. “I tell customers, art is all about experimenting and making mistakes,” April says. “Have fun with it, and don’t be too hard on yourself.”
People want to tap into their artistic side, she says, many just don’t think they have one. The Sketchy Artist helps them to discover it. “It could be a non-artistic pursuit like gardening or cooking, but if they walk in my store and feel inspired, I’ve done my job.”