by Victoria Ritter
One could say that art runs strong in Donna Garramone’s heritage. Her parents, Arlene and Mike Garramone, founded the first independent art supplies store in Albany, NY. Donna has worked at the store, called Arlene’s Artist Supplies & Custom Framing, since she was a teenager and has always loved art. Today, she is the proud owner of the shop and can’t imagine doing anything else.
“The day after I was born, my mother put me in a carrier on the front counter and the rest is history,” Donna said. “You can say I was literally born into the business.”
Today, the fine arts and framing shop provides a range of products from fine art to fun items.
Adapting to the art market
Arlene began teaching ceramic classes in her mother-in-law’s basement and at the local YMCA. The classes became so popular that Arlene and Mike, bought a two-family home on Madison Avenue in Albany in 1960, turned the bottom floor into a 500-square-foot classroom and store and their living quarters, while they rented out the second floor. While Mike made the clay and poured molds, Arlene taught students how to clean, paint and fire them. They were only 19 years old.
In 1974, the Garramones moved operations to their current location – a former steakhouse – on Fuller Road in Albany. For about five years, the couple rented the basement out to a real estate agent, who turned it into a bar called Rembrandt’s Pub. “It was a way for my parents to have some income, as they took a huge leap of faith buying this building,” Donna said. “They weren’t sure how all of this would work out. Luckily for them and their hard work, it did work out.”
The business continued to expand. A couple years later, the Garramones added 3,500 square feet to the building, along with a garage. Today, the store covers more than 10,000 square feet.
The ceramics business eventually faded away and art supplies filled the void. Art students from The College of Saint Rose came to trust Arlene’s Artist Supplies as a means to fulfill their needs. Items such as illustration boards and mechanical pens were in higher demand than paints and brushes. For a long time, graphic arts were the store’s bread and butter, Donna said. However, with the introduction of computer programs, that, too, started to fade.
“I was in high school at the time and working here on my days off,” Donna recalled. “I suggested providing fine arts supplies because there wasn’t anybody within 100 miles from us that sold anything. We didn’t have Michael’s or Hobby Lobby.”
Donna officially took over ownership of Arlene’s 20 years ago when her parents retired.
Something for everyone
Today, the main bulk of Arlene’s sales come from fine art supplies – paints, brushes and pencils – followed by custom framing. The merchandise is spread across three long, wide rooms and two basements. As patrons enter, they are greeted by the artistic gift department which contains greeting cards, journals, puzzles, mugs, pins and bumper stickers. The gifts help offset buying lulls and bridge the gap between graphic arts and fine arts.
“Our gift and card section has really taken off,” Donna said. “We have people come in to specifically stock up on our cards. When they do, they buy 50 at a time.”
The main portion of the store contains drawing and printing supplies including calligraphy materials, pads, mat cutters, airbrushes and markers. The middle segment houses paints and brushes while canvases, easel papers and boards are located in the back room. The two basements are used for classes and a space for custom framing.
Donna and her nine employees – seven full-time and two part-time, some of whom have been at Arlene’s for decades – keep track of more than 100,000 SKUs via two POS registers. They conduct several inventories by hand each month to stay on top of their accounts.
The store established an account on Etsy in 2017 as an additional online presence. While Etsy generates only about 1 percent of sales according to Donna, popular items sold through the site are Cavallini papers. Other popular items sold by Arlene’s are spray paint, Copic markers and paint markers.
“I keep on top of what’s new by seeing salespeople,” Donna said. “Both MacPherson’s and SLS Arts are good on keeping on top of new items. I haven’t attended shows in years, but I would like to start going back to them.”
There are plenty of opportunities for people to express their creativity at Arlene’s, no matter their skill level. A regular event is Makers Markets. The curated craft fairs began as a holiday market and evolved into larger events in the spring and fall.
While the holiday Makers Market has a more intimate feel with six to eight vendors inside Arlene’s, the spring and fall renditions welcome up to 20 artists, creatives and small businesses that specialize in handmade items who host booths outside the store. The artists come from as far as 1-1/2 hours away, but most hail from the Albany and Schenectady areas.
The store has seen an estimated 300 people attend the spring Makers Market, according to Andrew Ochal, who coordinates classes, social media and marketing for Arlene’s. The Makers Markets features live music, demos with class instructors, food vendors and an opportunity to explore the shop.
“It’s a celebration of the creativity of our community while giving an opportunity for our creatives to sell their work,” Ochal stated. “We’re received feedback that our customers want to shop local and support locally made creative art. We have that unique ability to offer that to them.”
Arlene’s former office – located behind the front counter – now houses the R Gallery, which hosts rotating exhibitions and a yearly Flat Files Program. Through the program, 20 selected artists’ 2-D work is available for sale. The inaugural program wrapped up in August, with the next cycle slated to begin in October. “It’s a good resource for local artists because if they sell a piece, they can replace it with something new,” Ochal said. “It’s a way to promote local artists, get people to buy local and original artwork, and support the community.”
Individuals who want to hone their creative skills or simply try a new art style can take one of Arlene’s classes. The sessions, offered in the spring, summer and fall, cover a range of topics from jewelry making and drawing to oil painting. Courses are available in-person and online.
“One of the main reasons we started the educational program was that people were afraid to even put pen to paper or try a different paint,” Ochal stated. “When they’re in the safety of a classroom where they’re around like-minded students and a caring, supportive instructor, they feel safe enough to experiment, play and have fun. They realize that creative and making is an enjoyable experience and they grow and shine.”
Customers can have their artwork displayed and sold as part of Arlene’s 3×3 Fundraiser. Participants can donate any 3- by-3-inch artwork in any medium and Arlene’s will sell them for $10 each. The proceeds will go to a different charity each year. Past recipients include art galleries, Free Fridge of Albany which helps people with food insecurities and the Mohawk Humane Society – Arlene’s is a pet-friendly store. “We have a big opening to celebrate and the exhibit stays up for a month,” Donna said. “We typically get around 500 pieces and sell about 75 percent of them.”
Challenges and community
When Arlene’s first opened, there were only a handful of galleries nearby and local colleges had robust art departments, but the art scene was very limited. Donna has since seen the demise of graphic arts ad agencies, the introduction of big box companies and the growth of online sales. Not to mention expenses have gone up. Still, she is thankful for what she has.
“Art in general has slowed down a bit,” she observed. “Even though some of our colleges have gotten bigger in the art department, we did lose one college that completely shut down their art department and that was a big hit. It’s harder to make a profit these days.” In order to remain competitive, Arlene’s discounts paint, brushes, canvas and easels 20 to 50 percent off every day and offers student and professional discounts.
“I consider ourselves lucky that we’re still in business after 60-plus years, be able to staff 10 people, have a full store of supplies and pay our bills,” Donna continued. “To be honest, I know most people want to set the world on fire, but I’m just very happy that we’re still thriving.”
Arlene’s wide selection of products and the knowledge of its employees help set it apart from chain stores. Every employee is an artist, with most of them possessing a degree in art. If a staff member is stumped by a question, they will either ask their co-workers or conduct research to provide the best answer for a shopper.
Teachers, students, artists and hobbyists constitute the majority of Arlene’s customer base. Talking to clients is among Donna’s favorite aspects of running the business. Everyone is welcome, no matter their artistic background or abilities. Some patrons have been loyal to Arlene’s for decades; a few even remember seeing infant Donna behind the counter and make a point to ask how Arlene and Mike are doing. “My parents created a sense of community,” Donna said. “It’s nice that they’re so beloved that people continue to make sure they’re ok.”