Blaine’s Art Finds Its Flow

06/04/24
by Victoria Ritter

On the southern coast of Alaska, Blaine’s Art offers a warm, welcoming atmosphere along with a wide selection of products and friendly services. The Anchorage art supply store has undergone several changes in its 70-year history, but it continues to provide a valuable resource to the art community.

 

An artist’s wonderland

Blaine’s Art is on the larger end of the spectrum in terms of store size. The upper level is 2,000 square feet and contains offices, a break room and classrooms. Meanwhile, the 7,000-square-foot main level encompasses the sales floor, custom frame area and a coffee shop.

“The coffee shop changes the atmosphere,” said Amanda Bennett, owner of Blaine’s Art. “When you walk in, you smell the coffee, you hear the grinder and it feels like a place you can stay for a minute. It’s an invitation to stay.”

The sales floor displays a wide assortment of fine art materials including paints, brushes, printmaking supplies, colored pencils, pastels, charcoal, clay, drafting tools and spray paint. At the front, near the register is a section of gifts, books and cards.

“Pens, markers and notebooks are a big chunk of our business,” Bennett said.

Popular brands for acrylics are Golden and M. Graham while Daniel Smith is a common choice for watercolor. Other noteworthy brands include Winsor & Newton and Michael Harding.

Blaine’s Art has between 50,000 to 60,000 active SKUs, according to Bennett. Conducting inventory is a major undertaking for the store’s 10 employees. “We close down for two days and we have everybody run around, scan items and upload them into the POS system,” Bennett said.

Keeping abreast of trends presents a challenge for Bennett due to the store’s remote location. However, she has seen the trend of resin and paint pouring diminishing; she is on the watch for what the next new trend will be.

“Whatever’s trending gets here late,” Bennett stated. “The gap has been decreasing with YouTube and influencers being widely available.”

Bennett garners ideas for products from her customers, by attending Creativation by Namta and participating in iAMart, a coalition of independent, locally-owned art materials stores. “Every meeting that we have, we have a ‘show and tell’ portion,” she explained. “I love that it gives me a heads up of what’s going on in the art world.”

 

Come for the art, stay for the atmosphere

Bennett is committed to creating a space where customers not only find what they need to create art, but also have support from the community. The store has held art shows in the past couple years, but Bennett began hosting group shows last year. These events are an open call to all artists – regardless of age or experience level – and focus on one particular medium. The entrants’ masterpieces are displayed in the store’s front gift area.

“There are tons of people out there who make art but don’t make enough pieces for a solo show,” Bennett explained. “We started having themed shows based off of art supplies. We just finished an acrylic show.”

Blaine’s Art hosts an annual mixed media event in June. Customers can purchase a bag of substrates for $10 and wander among vendors stationed outside to experiment with the latest art products.

While Blaine’s Art has an annual sale in October, Bennett is interested in offering special deals on the second Saturday of the month, similar to other local shops. Additionally, she hopes to start providing smaller shows that are media-specific.

Blaine’s Art customer base is as diverse as its product and event offerings. Renowned and local artists contract out the classrooms for sessions. Students from the University of Alaska Anchorage stop in to buy supplies. Before the pandemic, a group of plein air painters met at Blaine’s Art before heading out on excursions. Since the pandemic, Bennett has noticed an uptick in novice artists visiting the store as they dabble in different artforms.

“We have construction workers come in for a certain wax pencil they need for work. We have a mix of art enthusiasts and art professionals. Then there our framing customers who are their own group,” Bennett stated. “We really see everybody.”

 

A serendipitous set of events

The store has gone through many changes and passed down to several owners since its founding. Charlie and Helen Blaine established Blaine’s Art in 1953 as a house paint store. The Blaines owned the business for only a couple of years before Charlie passed away and Helen sold the business to Dean Weeks.

When Rene Haag started managing the store in 1986, she noticed a need for art supplies in the area. While Anchorage is home to an active artist community, there were very few retailers that could cater to their needs. In 1998 Haag bought Blaine’s Art from Weeks and shifted its focus completely to fine art supplies.

“Once Lowe’s and Home Depot rolled into the area, we started to move away from being a commercial paint store,” said Bennett. “We started carrying a small amount of art supplies.”

Bennett came across Blaine’s Art in 2015 while visiting her long-distance boyfriend – who is now her husband. Bennett was pursuing a bachelor of fine arts in oil painting at the University of South Dakota. Before they headed out on a camping trip, he took Bennett to Blaine’s Art to show her around. She immediately fell in love with the store’s atmosphere and wide selection of products and started working at Blaine’s Art part-time on the weekends.

“It just felt warm, like a community,” Bennett recalled. “It felt good.”

Soon after, Haag became sick and slowly stopped coming into the store. When she died in 2017, her husband, David, took over, preferring to manage from afar. With no one ordering supplies or offering direct management, Bennett stepped in and eventually became a manager.

“Rene had gotten sick and had stopped buying supplies for the store,” Bennett stated. “I knew she wouldn’t come back in – she had pancreatic cancer – and I just started ordering stuff.”

Bennett’s dedication caught David’s attention. He was looking to sell the store, but the other managers had no interest in buying it. David asked Bennett her thoughts and she took up his offer to buy Blaine’s Art. She officially became the owner in December 2023.

“It’s just a fit for who I am, from the ground up,” Bennett said.

 

Creating a future

Bennett appreciates how she came to be at Blaine’s Art by happenstance and how it became her home. As its owner, she enjoys bouncing around to different aspects of the store, from greeting customers at the front desk to data entry in the back. “I like having six different balls in the air and juggling them,” she added. “I like the variety.”

To better understand the business and her employees as well as to best provide for the store’s future, Blaine hired a business coach to give pointers. After interviewing Bennett and her team, the coach outlined the store’s mission, vision and values and assigned roles and responsibilities to everyone.

“I have realized over time that even though we’re a small business, clear communication about the organization and role definitions in the business is very important,” Bennett said. “Everybody’s been so much happier. Everything feels more secure and put together and aligned.”

Bennett is most excited to see how the internal operations align with the business coach’s guidance and how the company will evolve in the future.

“It feels perfectly designed,” Bennett said. “I trusted that everything would work out.”

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