by Jenn Bergin
I didn’t know what charcoal pencils were when I first started selling art supplies!” says Prairie Clark, general manager and buyer at I’ve Been Framed in Portland, Oregon. For more than 60 years, the funky, family-owned store has bought and sold new, used and rare art supplies. Today, it’s a veritable treasure trove of vintage artist tools and salvaged materials.
In 1995, when Prairie came on board, the business was called Art Supply Center. A local “business adventurer” named Bob Brisack had opened the store 40 years earlier, after his rise from delivery boy to management at a Portland office-supply company ignited his entrepreneurial spirit.
Bob stocked the store with large wholesale lots of damaged salvage goods, and was dedicated to helping artists, distributors and manufacturers move supplies they no longer needed. From one tiny room, the business expanded to include a 5,000-square-foot sales floor and a 3,000-square-foot custom framing facility. “It all started from one man’s crazy wheeling-and-dealing with his favorite people – artists,” Prairie says.
When she started working there, 80 percent of the store’s stock was random bargains and 20 percent was new products. “Bob would climb over piles of stuff to dig out treasures he knew were hiding somewhere, just to get customers what they wanted.”
Prairie learned the tricks of the trade by watching him. “Bob bought lock, stock, and barrel of everything under the sun, which taught me how to swing deals and work out details on crazy things.”
Today, Prairie reports to Mark, Bob’s son, who took over the business in 2003. For more than 10 years, the store’s been experiencing a solid growth spurt. There’s a bigger emphasis on new products, she says, and more than 35 percent of the business is in custom framing. While it’s less bargain basement today than it used to be, I’ve Been Framed’s roots remain in buying and trading salvage art supplies.
“Buy/sell/trade (BST) sets us apart from other stores and allows us to operate in ways other businesses can’t afford to,” Prairie says. “It’s everyone’s favorite thing about us, employees and customers alike. There are used book and clothing stores, but a used art supply store is unique.
“BST fills our store with great deals and funky, weird things which, of course, artists love!” she adds. “Customers stop in regularly just to see what’s new – no one wants to miss out on a treasure. They never know what they’ll find on any given day.”
Sealing a deal
The process is pretty simple. The store has scheduled “buying hours” in which people can stop in with two grocery bags or less of supplies to sell. For large lots, appointments are scheduled. “When they come in, we evaluate the materials and then make them an honest and fair offer that reflects current market value. The offers are for cash or store credit. If the items are more valuable than what we generally handle, we steer them toward other options that are more beneficial for them.”
To prevent attempts at unethical selling or trading – a rare occurrence – a valid ID and some paperwork completes the process.
“Some of the wacky things I’ve haggled for include a semi truck of 685,000 colored pencils and a manufacturer’s lot of 98,000 discontinued brushes! I have no problem jumping on deals for huge lots of stuff that I think will benefit us.”
It gives the store a competitive edge, especially when times are tough. That’s when BST sales peak! It also generates great word-of-mouth advertising within the local artist community and provides the store with singular opportunities to give back to its community in unexpected ways. “I recently donated an old dinosaur Autograph DB300 projector to a school,” Prairie notes. “When I can’t sell something I’ll find it a home.”
The store also handles artist estate sales. “BST offers a fascinating peek into artists’ studios and work,” Prairie says. “Over the years, I’ve handled the estates of artists of every medium: old-school graphic designers, painters, iconographers, sculptors, teachers, sign painters, screen printers, illustrators. There are stories in their hoarded supplies, hidden sketches, hand-painted color charts, and the various ways they organized tools. Their pencils, brushes and surfaces speak volumes.”
It’s sad to encounter the estate of a long-time customer, Prairie confesses, but it’s also rewarding, in a way. “They know their beloved treasures will find new and loving homes via our store. It’s an honor to feel we’re giving something back to those who have supported us.”
Some products, like powdered graphite and charcoal, are always in stock at I’ve Been Framed, but Prairie is always on the lookout for those unique treasures that round out the store’s mix. She likes to sprinkle brand new and exciting products into an existing balance of standard items, but with this practice Prairie is cautious. Floor space is precious and products need to prove themselves before they get lots of space, she says, so she starts with small orders. If the inventory constantly needs to be restocked, she’ll order a rack.
If an item doesn’t sell, Prairie quickly looks for merchandising alternatives. “We’ll try moving it or rearranging the display or shelf. If that doesn’t help, I want it gone.”
She keeps a “goal list” of racks and assortments to bring in each year and hunts for sales on them. The store stocks large single quantities to accommodate teachers and professional organizations. Managing so much inventory is a huge challenge, she says. “I would love to tone down the chaos, but that’s just how things are here. Stock is always changing and we’re constantly moving things around. We do our best to stay organized.”
Colored dot stickers worked well as price codes for used inventory, so now they’re also featured on new stock. But there’s no POS system – everything is done by hand and tracked in Prairie’s head. “It may not appear so, but I have a system and spreadsheet for almost everything. And I’m very visual, so I know what we need just by walking the store.”
To help move inventory, Prairie and her staff of eight employees make mix-and-match gift sets using different brands and products. Customers love the sets and the process helps to clear shelf space, so the number of sets produced each year keeps increasing.
Right now, buying and negotiating for products is handled primarily by Prairie, but she’s starting to include her staff in some of the deeper aspects of stocking that lead to buying – and building product knowledge. A year-long “remodel contest” gives employees ownership of certain store sections. They decide how their section is set up and stocked, and come up with ways to generate more sales and special orders. Winners are chosen every three months and prizes are awarded for the most successful sections. Prairie adds challenges to the contest like creating better signage, back tags, order forms and stocking checklists.
“Ultimately, it’s all about offering customers the best information and experience, so we work together to build our product knowledge and stay educated on techniques. It can be a fun and creative process.
“Our strengths and weaknesses balance out, and I try to create an atmosphere of building each other up,” she adds. “After all these years, I’m still learning, too!”
A Bizarre Bazaar
Although I’ve Been Framed is centrally located in an up-and-coming Portland neighborhood, it’s an odd spot, with no convenient parking. “I like to think it goes with our personality,” Prairie says. “You have to want to get here. And customers do. They travel here from all over.”
The building at 4950 SE Foster Road is a former auto garage; when Bob Brisack bought it, the floor was stained with oil. Today, it has the messy feel of an artist’s studio. “It reminds me of my high school art classroom,” says Prairie. “Although I get jealous of crisp, clean, organized stores, I love our space.”
The largest concentration of product is at the front. To get to the framing area in the back, customers must walk through the entire store “and there are treasures in every nook and cranny along the way,” Prairie describes. Thanks to eye-catching themed product displays, the “treasures” are never overlooked. A black light section, for instance, highlights black light-reactive products.
“Then, the store opens up into a random, less-organized, wide expanse of things,” she continues. “Aisles of paper lead toward a large back room with high ceilings and several mezzanines. The back room is primarily a stocking and receiving area, but there’s also canvas mounted on rolls and, of course, many other treasures to find.”
Further on are the store’s “private collection” of paintings saved from estates, pictures and drawings created by former employees, random items that hang from the ceiling, and a slew of vintage prints and paintings that employees have turned into new works of art. A glass display case called “The Museum” – a birthday gift from her staff – showcases Prairie’s collection of vintage art supplies and packaging.
“The space has really developed us more than we’ve developed it,” admits Prairie. “I worry that the store’s on visual overload and I’m constantly trying to tame things down a bit.”
I’ve Been Framed doesn’t do much advertising. Prairie prefers to spend her marketing budget helping teachers. For instance, students on class field trips to downtown museums are invited to stop in and try out products on the store’s demo tables.
“Art classes have been cut from so many school budgets and the dedicated teachers that still support art are left to their own devices,” she explains. “We do whatever we can to work within their budgets and get them what they need for their classes.”
I’ve Been Framed doesn’t host in-store classes or events. “Instead, we focus on having the supplies and tools that others need for those kinds of events and other creative endeavors, and we support and promote them here.”
The store generates a monthly e-newsletter to customers that features new products, “crazy deals,” estate buy-outs, how-to articles, tips and techniques. And while they maintain social media accounts – Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Instagram – posting is not a priority. Its website is only four years old.
“In so many ways, we are the true definition of old school,” says Prairie.
I’ve Been Framed opened its satellite store The Annex – a picture-frame production facility and custom frame retail shop – in 2001. Located on a side street in Portland’s Laurelhurst neighborhood, the 3,000-square foot ivy-covered building is a hidden gem among the vintage homes, parks, pedestrian-friendly streets, restaurants and shops. Nine employees and custom framers manufacture all of I’ve Been Framed’s picture frames there, which saves customers money and keeps costs low. “After customers started requesting art supplies at The Annex, I slowly brought in some basics,” Prairie says. “I’ve tinkered around with what supplies The Annex should carry for years.”
Recently, she decided to stick with framing as a theme, and is working to reinvent the space to cater to DIY framers or artists who do their own framing, a popular practice in the Portland area.
“We carry every kind of framing tool, ready-made frames and framing kits, which are very popular. Customers can dig through big bins of framing hardware and buy in bulk.”