by Maria Bucci
Cindy Hoeper loves art and her hometown, Sheboygan, Wisconsin. Her two passions – and a savvy business sense – fuel Lakeshore Art Supplies, the business she opened there.
Cindy grew up in the community of about 50,000 people located on Lake Michigan, about halfway between Green Bay and Milwaukee. She went to college in Oregon and then built a successful elder-care management business there. She always dreamed of returning home, though, and about four years ago she came up with an idea to get there. “I wanted to do something completely different, to reinvent myself,” she explains.
Cindy, the art appreciator, connected with an artist friend and together they polled and surveyed about 80 artists in Sheboygan to find out where they bought their supplies. Yes, there was a Hobby Lobby there, but most artists either drove an hour to a store in Milwaukee, or ordered supplies online and then waited for them to arrive.
The art scene in and around Sheboygan has blossomed in recent years, so Cindy’s timing was impeccable. Today, folks are taking art classes and attending lectures at the John Michael Kohler Arts Center, local businesses display the work of local artists, Sheboyganites love paint parties and art exhibitions in restaurants, and the city commissions artists to create murals on buildings.
“People are making space in their lives to be creative,” Cindy says. “It makes them feel better, more connected, and better able to deal with the other things going on in the world.”
Obviously, an art supply store was needed. For advice and help in getting one up and running, Cindy turned to the owners of Central Art Supply in Medford, Oregon, Dan and Ann Ebert. They agreed to be her mentors. “It’s important to share ideas with people who know the business,” Cindy explains. She picked their brains, shadowed their employees, and joined them at Art Materials World.
“The NAMTA tradeshow was invaluable,” she says. “I met with distributors from my region and talked with them about the brushes, paint and canvas that would be the bread and butter of my business.”
In Sheboygan, artist, art educator, and businessman Frank Juarez had already agreed to let her set up shop in the back of his downtown gallery. Lakeshore Art Supplies was born in August 2015. A few months later, when Juarez closed the gallery to move it to Milwaukee, Cindy expanded into his space. The business grew.
“People in the community tell me they want to support a local business and build a relationship with me. They don’t want to travel; they want to buy their supplies in Sheboygan. They continue to support me, which is gratifying,” she says.
In January 2017, the local Hobby Lobby closed. Later that year, Lakeshore expanded again when it moved to a bigger building – one that Cindy purchased – just a block away from her original location.
Inviting people in
“Foot traffic here is so much better. It’s made a big difference,” she reports. At 1,800 square feet the building is not huge, but there is a separate space in which to hold art classes and workshops. She also rents out two units above the store.
The relationships she has cultivated with neighboring businesses – restaurants and even a funeral home – have led to new customers. By reaching out to the art instructor at the University of Wisconsin Sheboygan extension, just 3 miles away, his students come to her store for their supplies.
The buzz about Lakeshore continues to grow, due in part to its many in-store events. An invitation to one said this: “We’ll have a lighted still life subject set up for you to draw. Bring your own supplies or purchase what you need from the store. No formal lesson will be provided, simply drop in and draw! A great way to practice your skills in the company of others.”
Last year, in partnership with coffee shop Paradigm Coffee and Music, Lakeshore began hosting free, monthly, art-and-coffee events. They are very well attended. “Paradigm has a fantastic clientele that supports my business, but anyone interested in art can attend,” Cindy explains. “The artists talk about their work and people discuss art. It’s a very relaxed atmosphere.”
The store also hosts a variety of classes that range from “Adult Fingerpainting” to “Suminagashi”; and “Painting with a Palette Knife” to “Acrylic Pouring.” Participants receive a discount on their supplies. “The classes are good for Lakeshore, good for people who want to learn new skills, and good for the artists/instructors who get much-needed exposure and even some commission work,” she explains.
The store also offers gallery space, and there’s usually a waiting list. During Youth Art Month in March, it featured the work of preschoolers from the John Michael Kohler Arts Center. “I don’t turn people away,” says Cindy. “I think everyone should have an equal chance to show people their art. A woman who came in recently, a self-taught painter for the past four years, had never displayed her work in a public setting. She ended up selling a few of her pieces from our gallery and was just thrilled about it.”
When in doubt, ask the experts
Cindy runs her business with support from a few part-time employees and independent contractors like Erika Block. She does the store’s website, monthly newsletter, and social media. “It’s important work that takes a lot of time, and she’s good at it,” says Cindy.
Ideas for products to bring in come from distributors and the customers themselves. “If a customer asks me about a technique or a product I know nothing about, I get out my laptop and we look up the information together,” she reports. Her Oregon mentor Anne Ebert told her never to fake it. “Most people are very receptive and appreciate the effort. Early on, I didn’t know how to pronounce ‘gesso’ and didn’t know what it was used for. It’s been quite a learning curve!”
Her next move? Framing. Cindy purchased a framing business last summer and she is transforming her building’s basement into a frame shop. “I have a customer base that is eager for this service,” she explains. “I don’t know much about it so I found another mentor and I’m also taking framing classes!”
She’s also considering starting a mobile art-supply service for artists who live in Wisconsin’s small, rural communities. Instead of shipping the product, she would arrange for deliveries to a community art center or some other central location. “People have said that they wish they could do in their community what I am doing here,” Cindy explains. “I’ve pitched this idea to them and there is interest. We’re discussing building a relationship – they could view my inventory online and then I would charge them a small delivery fee. If it doesn’t work out, at least we tried.”
That’s been her philosophy all along. “Before I jumped into this business, I had to understand the competition and what people needed,” Cindy told us. “Starting small was important – I didn’t invest a lot of money at the outset. It was either going to take off and grow, or fail.”
Selling art supplies may have been an entirely new experience for her, but she went into it with a strong business background. Cindy still manages her elder-care company in Oregon, but is phasing it out to focus on the store.
“I’m offering a service here that people want and need. I enjoy seeing the shoppers in the store; I love their artwork and talking with them about art.”
They inspire her to try new things. “An older gentleman came into the store recently and told me he starting painting at age 80. It was a good reminder that it is never too late to start something new. I jumped into this business later in life and I know people thought I was nuts. But if you are no longer happy doing what you are doing, you owe it to yourself to try something new.”