Coast to Coast

A lover of color, Vanessa America painted a display wall a shade of blue that makes products-for-sale pop. She created fixtures out of furniture she found discarded on the street.
06/25/2021

This is a story about two art-materials stores in two very different communities on opposite sides of the country. Because creating art is an activity enjoyed by everyone, their businesses have more in common than you might think. We’ll start in New York.

by Tina Manzer

In April, a new art-supply store opened in the Ridgewood neighborhood of Queens. Appropriately named Tiny Arts Supply, “it’s 250 square feet on a good day,” says owner Vanessa America, “but I have 9-foot ceilings so I can maximize the vertical space.”

The Ohio transplant and collage artist has lived in Ridgewood for 12 years. She worked as a bartender at several locations before the pandemic closed them down. During the months she was out of work, Vanessa volunteered full time at local food pantries and for Hungry Monk Rescue Truck, a New York City-based homeless outreach and community response vehicle. She dreamed about the many directions her career could take when the crisis was over.

“I really wanted to open a bar, a worker-cooperative bar where everyone had a stake in its success, but New York State doesn’t have that. I said if I couldn’t do that I’d open an art store, so I did.”

Ridgewood is an ethnically diverse community built around 1910. Its two-family brick houses and six-family walkups originally housed folks who worked at the breweries in Bushwick, mostly Germans. Over the years they’ve been joined by immigrants from the Balkans, Sicily, Poland and Ireland; and then Romania, Slovenia and Yugoslavia. More recently, Chinese, Dominicans, Koreans, Ecuadoreans and Egyptions have joined the mix.

With 3,000 of its buildings designated state and federal landmarks, Ridgewood has the look that movie location scouts love. Its streets have appeared in Martin Scorsese’s “The Irishman” and the HBO series “Boardwalk Empire.”

“A scout stopped here yesterday looking for a place to film a UPS commercial,” reports Vanessa. “They ended up going with a local record store, which is what they wanted in the first place.”

Ridgewood’s last art supply store closed six years ago. “I love my neighborhood, but it needed an art store,” Vanessa says, and shared a story about a friend who hiked to Michaels in Rego Park, two or three neighborhoods away, to buy watercolors and a crochet hook. “That’s just crazy!”

She knew that starting a retail business now is a risk, but she also knew she could make it succeed. “I’m surrounded by amazing business owners and I turn to them often for advice.” One of them really liked the idea of an art store, and offered Vanessa space “for a crazy amazing price, and gave me two months rent-free to complete the build out.”

Person to person

Later, good advice and moral support came from the other side of the country: retailer Janet O’Sullivan from Tokki Art Supply, a not-quite-two-year-old store in Hood River, Oregon. “I reached out to Vanessa when I spotted Tiny Arts Supply on Instagram,” Janet explains. “I lived in New York for a long time and I saw what happened to the independent art stores from 2004 to 2015. It was so sad to see so many of the mainstays, like New York Central, simply go out of business.”

As a set designer and prop maker for stop-motion animation, Janet did a lot of shopping for supplies. “I got to go to all of those great stores and experience what they offered. I was really disheartened to watch them close. The New York art community was losing such amazing resources.

“That’s why I was so happy to see someone taking the initiative there,” she continued. “I told Vanessa I’d be glad to talk about my experience with those stores; maybe help her discover what products would be just right for hers. I offered to answer any questions she might have, and help her reach out to different distributors for products.”

Janet describes Hood River as “an idyllic little town” along the Columbia River Gorge, about an hour from Portland. It offers mountain biking, hiking and skiing, and is considered the windsurfing capital of the world.

“It’s an agricultural community, known for breweries, distilleries, wineries and farm-to-table food,” says Janet. “The historic downtown, about eight blocks long, is walkable and super-cute. A lot of people from Portland and Seattle come here now because it’s smaller and safer. We also have a robust local population of about 8,000.”

More alike than different

You might think that Janet’s and Vanessa’s stores don’t have much in common, but they do, Janet believes. “Because we both operate on such a small scale, it’s important to distill our mix to have just the products our customers are most interested in. We also have to be community minded. It helps us connect with customers on a personal level so they become friends.”

The front half of Janet’s 1,200 square foot space is devoted to retail. She stocks a variety of paint and markers, including the complete paint lines of Oregon-based M. Graham. Young adults come in for Posca markers (“It’s a really popular Instagram product,” she notes), and for kids there are Zebra’s ClickArt marker pens, something she spotted at NAMTA’s Art Materials World. “The thing I hear most from parents is, ‘My kids don’t put the caps back on their markers and they just dry out.’ Now I can offer them a solution to that problem.”

Micron and Gelly Roll pens are perennial favorites, “and Strathmore’s recycled sketchbooks just fly off the shelves.”

More and more people are coming in now for watercolors, she notes. “It’s more approachable, has a smaller footprint, and is easier for art-on-the-go. They want a watercolor pallet they can throw in their backpack when they go hiking.”

Janet also stocks a curated selection of Japanese stationery products including fine writing paper and envelopes. “It’s something unique that sets me apart from other art stores,” she explains.

The back half of the store is reserved for storage and a classroom. She’s just started scheduling small in-person workshops again; coming up are sessions on how to build a terrarium and how to create kokedama, a Japanese form of garden art. “I’m not selling gardening supplies, but these classes are fun and different. I know the instructor; she’s the only one in this area teaching them. More than anything, I want to throw things against the wall now and see what sticks to figure out what people would like to learn.”

Making art accessible

Back in New York, Vanessa just received a box from MacPherson’s that contains embroidery floss, and Windsor & Newton paints and brushes. “I want to make sure that everyone has access to art supplies no matter their age, interest or talent level,” she says. “I am stocking a wide range of items, from Williamsburg Paints to student-grade Art Alternatives. A customer asked for enamels for painting models, so I’m bringing them in, too.”

Ridgewood is an up-and-coming neighborhood, and there is strong community support to preserve and maintain its early 20th century feel. “I wanted to open a business that would enhance the neighborhood, and not take away from existing businesses,” Vanessa says. “There’s a great fabric store here, and an art-and-crafts store. I don’t want to carry the products they do, but I will carry tools that support their products, like left-handed shears.

“When I arrived, there were no cool bars or coffee shops, and now the neighborhood has this real artisanal feel. As business owners, we work together to keep our prices low, and try hard not to gentrify it.”

Vanessa hopes to host free workshops and other community events at Tiny Arts Supply once she settles in.

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