by Jenn Bergin
Tattoo artist Chris Dykes is skilled not only in pen and ink, but also resin casting and sculpting. His wife, Chelsea Merigan, also has a deep appreciation for art – and a keen business sense. Born and raised around the city of La Mesa, just 9 miles from downtown San Diego – and immersed in its local art community – they knew there was a need for a “true” art supply store in their area.
Although La Mesa is just on the outskirts of one of the country’s biggest cities, it’s a residential, working-class community. With no independent art stores in the area, artists had to shop at big-box arts and craft stores, or art supply retail chains located downtown. And they had to battle big-city traffic to get to them.
So in 2014, Chelsea opened The Art Stash in La Mesa. They considered the 700-square-foot store “a labor of love for the local art community.” It seems the community loves them right back. Within a year, the store outgrew the original space and relocated to a new one, double the size, right around the corner.
There’s no shortage of customers, they say. Creatives flock to San Diego for events like Comic-Con International and to attend San Diego State’s School of Art + Design. “This area is so rich with diversity, you can find any kind of artist here,” says store manager Callie Dunn. “Art is happening all the time.”
All in the family
The Art Stash vibe is inviting and all-inclusive, Callie says. “Whether you’re a seasoned painter or a street artist, we want you to feel welcome and appreciated.”
She relocated to California from Canada with her husband – who works with Chris as a tattoo artist – and met Chelsea. They bonded over their mutual passion for art; quickly becoming friends and then coworkers. “That was the beginning of our little art family,” Callie says. She has more than 10 years of retail management experience, having worked for Action Sports in Canada selling skateboards, snowboards and apparel. She joined The Art Stash to assist with merchandising, implementing policy and procedure, and managing daily operations.
Their “family” also includes two part-time employees. Veronica is talented in graphic design, and studies at San Diego State University. William has a fine arts degree, and is skilled in illustration and printmaking. He also hosts in-store screen printing demos.
“We each have our areas of expertise, allowing us to share our first-hand experience,” Callie says. “Customers appreciate that passion and knowledge – it’s not something they can easily find at Michaels or Hobby Lobby.
“We’re not just here to sell you something,” she adds. “We want to see what you made – tag us on Instagram, stop by the store just to chat or ask a question … Even if we can’t offer a suggestion, you’re guaranteed a good conversation!”
The happy place
“It’s impossible to be unhappy in an art store,” Callie says, “and the moment you pull up to The Art Stash, you know it’s an art store!”
The goal was to create a unique store aesthetic that was appealing to artists. Every element of the store was designed to be both functional and visually interesting. “Before you even walk in the door, color and imagery grab your attention. You see our window wraps, incredible hand-painted signs, and the mural we commissioned a local artist to create for us.”
There’s also a lot to look at inside. Customers love how bright the store is, and frequently comment on the custom-made wooden checkout counter – it’s stained beautifully and hand-painted with The Art Stash logo. Pops of color are provided by urban artwork that hangs on the walls; an in-store art gallery showcasing the work of local artists. Wall space is rented for a 90-day period, and artists receive 100-percent of the profit from any piece sold.
In the store, there’s a defined workshop space for classes and product demonstrations. The 500-square-foot enclosed room is located in the back and seats 12 students, or holds 20 people for demos. “Our one-day workshops offer the community exposure to traditional mediums, as well as those they may be less familiar with,” Callie says. “We want artists to have the opportunity to experience everything from block printing to calligraphy, colored pencil on handmade toned tiles, and alcohol inks on Yupo.”
Manufacturers often send artists to host in-store demos of their products, and often The Art Stash staff will demo products on their own. The space is also available for artists to rent to hold workshops and classes. Instructors set their own price for their classes. Figure drawing classes, for example, are only $10. “It’s not about making a profit,” Callie says. “It’s about exposing the art community to new things.
A vibrant product mix
“The San Diego art community is rich in diversity,” she explains. “It’s important that we keep that in mind when choosing products. We embrace the traditional, but with more vibrancy.” For example, street and tattoo art are huge in San Diego, so the store has cages of spray paint and paint markers, and carries tracing paper, Microns, Pitt pens and Dr. Ph. Martin’s inks for tattoo design.
Product is displayed on built-in wooden shelving and organized into “mini-departments.” Watercolor, for example, is a popular medium in San Diego – home of the San Diego Watercolor Society and its annual International Exhibition – so that’s the first section customers see when entering the store.
Starting out, Chris and Chelsea worked with a seasoned sales rep from a national wholesale company who helped them build relationships with distributors and become dealers for products that are now exclusively sold at The Art Stash. They’ve found industry veterans to be generous in sharing their knowledge and passion. “Not only do they encourage us to carry on traditions, but they’re excited for us to breathe fresh air into the art community.”
Walking the talk
“Our community has embraced us since day one,” Callie says. “They genuinely have our best interests at heart.” As a thank you, The Art Stash hosts an annual Art Walk anniversary celebration. The one-day event is held in the store’s parking lot. Local artists are invited to “set up shop” and create live art, show, and sell their work. A local DJ, clothing company and food trucks create a festival-like feel.
Whether it’s judging for the local art fair, collaborating with local art associations or donating supplies to adult learning centers, the Art Stash supports the community in any way that it can, Callie says. “There really isn’t an art-based event that we say ‘no’ to.”
This includes supporting Sketchparty art nights – when the local art community is invited to gather at a neighborhood tavern for a fun night of drawing. Originally started in LA, two local artists brought Sketchparty to San Diego. The Art Stash donates the paper that covers the tables so that the creatives who attend (professional artists, animators, filmmakers, professors and more) can create works of art. “We’re not talking a brown Kraft-paper roll,” Callie says. “This is Strathmore 400 Series!” The artwork is then showcased and sold at an annual Sketchparty Art Show, with all profits donated to A Reason to Survive (ARTS), a nationally-recognized youth development agency offering creative experiences to support youth who face adversity.
“Our goal is to continue on this path – to stay true to who we are and continue to help unite and nurture this amazing art community,” Callie says. “We plan to evolve just as art itself does, and be a beacon of motivation to create.”