by Jenn Bergin
Jules Webster, the owner of Shine Ceramics pottery studio in Toledo, Ohio, found herself searching for her supplies in other cities – frequently making the two-hour drive to Columbus, and crossing the state line to buy clay and glazes in Detroit. “The tools that fine artists needed just weren’t available here,” Jules explains.
A recent graduate of the School of Visual and Performing Arts at The University of Toledo in northwest Ohio, the skilled potter decided to put her knowledge of art tools and techniques to use in a different way. “Instead of selling finished art to buyers, I decided to sell art supplies to artists.”
Jules opened The Art Supply Depo in downtown Toledo in 2011 and it “took off running,” she says. Business has increased approximately 18 percent each year. However, the store’s success was never a “sure thing.”
“Everyone said Toledo couldn’t support a fine art store, and downtown was considered dangerous,” Jules explains. “I didn’t believe that. Where other people saw abandoned warehouses, I saw art studios. I see potential in everything around me.”
The artist envisioned transforming a former industrial space into The Art Supply Depo. When she discovered an abandoned tool and die shop in the Warehouse District, Jules knew it was the perfect spot. She renovated the 2,800-square-foot-space, keeping the original concrete flooring and exposed beams, while adding custom-built wood fixtures and shelving. Ultimately she created the look and feel of “an art supply store set up in a woodworker’s shop.”
When it opened, the store was one of only three retailers located there – the earliest pioneers of the city’s urban revitalization. Over the past decade, once-abandoned warehouses have been renovated into residential and entertainment centers. College kids, empty nesters and businesses – including two Fortune 500 companies – have recently moved in. Nearby is Fifth Third Field (home to the Toledo Mud Hens), the Huntington Center hockey arena, and the Toledo Museum of Art. They continue to bring more and more foot traffic downtown.
To meet her growing customer base, Jules expanded her product mix. “We carry a lot of products for urban artists, like spray paints, but we also carry small gifts found in niche boutiques: art on consignment, greeting cards, quirky socks from Blue Q, local jewelry and handmade soaps, and Ohio-pride souvenirs.
“I never sell anything that I wouldn’t use myself, or gift to a family member,” she adds. “I believe in quality, and I believe in the potential of my customers – and employees – to create great things.”
A second store for students
Last year, Jules opened a second location 20 miles away in Bowling Green. Like its Toledo counterpart, The Art Supply Depo there occupies a repurposed and renovated post-industrial space – an old car-repair shop. Its three giant garage doors roll up for alfresco shopping in the summer. Inventory is displayed on custom-made, adjustable wooden carts that feature three rows of shelving on the bottom. The retail floor can be completely reconfigured just by rolling the carts around.
Although they’re just a short drive from each other, the two stores serve communities that are worlds apart. While Toledo has a big-city, blue-collar vibe, “Bowling Green is a classic small town; close-knit and artsy,” Jules explains. Each September, it hosts the prestigious Black Swamp Arts Festival, which attracts more than 40,000 art and music aficionados. Also home to Bowling Green State University, it’s recognized as one of America’s best college towns. Around 600 undergraduate and 25 graduate students are enrolled in BGSU’s art programs compared to 120 art students overall at Toledo.
The Art Supply Depo’s 2,800-square-foot Bowling Green store is located just seven-tenths of a mile from the university’s art building, and opened a week before classes started for the 2016-2017 academic year. Jules says, “It’s the bookstore that students needed.
“Amazon killed the textbook market, and Barnes & Noble bought out the student bookstore, which happens more and more. There’s a better margin on school sweatshirts and sports apparel compared to fine art supplies and other specialty tools, so they stopped carrying them.”
Other off-campus bookstores started closing, leaving students to travel 30 minutes to an hour away for art supplies, or buy them online. As a former art student herself, Jules understood what the community needed.
“BGSU students are trained to buy a premium product so that it lasts, and they only need to buy it once. They spend five times more money, without batting an eye at the price – they’re willing to spend a total that ranges from $300 to $500 for the best materials, paints and brushes.”
Her customers in Bowling Green are primarily students and faculty who are progressive and engaged. “We’re intensely focused on their needs,” Jules says. “We ask our customers what they want us to carry, and only bring in products that big-box stores don’t, like open-stock colored pencils and pastels, Williamsburg oil paints, sable brushes and Rives BFK paper.
“We pride ourselves on our product and technical knowledge – we know how products could and should work together. Customers can tell us about projects they’re working on and we can tell them how to use what they have, what they should buy, and what the results will be.”
Classes that educate and inspire
The Art Supply Depo has seven employees who are cross-trained to work in both store locations. “All of our employees were repeat and regular customers before they became employees,” Jules says. Some are college students, one is a retired high-school teacher, and another is a former marketing/communications director for an art school.
Lyndsay, the store’s recently hired marketing coordinator, “has been able to corral all our ideas,” Jules says. “She makes sure our newsletters and emails get published on a schedule and she keeps us on track. Her combination of creativity and organization pushes us forward in a big way.”
Her duties include coordinating The Art Supply Depo’s “First of the Month” emails, which focus on a different product in each store and are filled with information and links on product history, tutorials and more. The ARC EN CIL newsletter (“rainbow” in French) is a customer favorite. It’s about “all things color” and details a Color of the Month – its pigments, how it was derived, how it’s being used, and more. Lyndsay also organizes art exhibitions on the store walls, which are dedicated gallery space.
Both stores also have classroom space – 500 square feet in Toledo and 200 square feet in Bowling Green. “We consider our classes to be educational outreach more than for-profit,” Jules explains. “We make them as affordable as possible and accessible to all levels of artists.”
Classes include Kids Summer Camps with fun themes like DIY Stamps and Graffiti Lettering; Drink and Draw events with a live model and curated music; and workshops ranging from Drawing for Beginners and Intro to Oil Painting to Sumi Brush Painting and Urban Sketching.
“Our classes can fill in where college leaves off, or inspire retirees. If someone really enjoys adult coloring books or wine and paint events, our classes are the next step for them,” Jules says. “Our ultimate goal is to offer a friendly and open environment that is a true community resource. We believe that if we engage, educate and inspire our customers, they will come back over and over again.”