Making a Splash in St. Louis

As owner of Artmart, St. Louis’s Creative Marketplace and Frame Center, Keith Baizer is known around town as the “Mayor of Creativity.” His 63-year old store is a local landmark, recognized for its signature “splash” signage, or as “the building with all the spots.”

If Keith leaves his office for the retail floor he’s often gone for hours, demonstrating new products, chatting with local artists or shaking hands with customers. He’s probably even held a few babies. “People are just more fun than selling pencils,” he says.

Success isn’t a science

Keith is a fourth generation retailer – for over a century, his family owned a chain of clothing stores. “I have a fancy business degree but my education really started at birth,” he says. “I learned by sitting at the kitchen table and listening to my dad.”

Artmart has been locally owned since 1952, and Keith’s dad, Dick Baizer, purchased the business in 1983. His aunt ran the calligraphy department in the original store, The Art Mart, which was opened by an eccentric local high school art teacher/artist. It was a town treasure, but not yet a true art store. Modeled after European open-air markets, it sold closeout merchandise, European art materials like Fabriano Paper and gifts – ranging from football equipment to pickled pigs’ feet, gold and coins.

“My aunt told us when the business was for sale,” Keith explains. “My dad thought it was a cool little store – but it was a disaster. With his retail experience, he planned to fix it and grow the commercial business.”

Dick did just that, and the newly-named Artmart flourished as they focused on serving professional and commercial artists in the early ’80s. As the industry changed, the new store’s tagline evolved from The Professional’s Marketplace to The Creative Marketplace. They began to focus on the needs of home artists, hobbyists and crafters. Keith joined Artmart in 1985, and took over management 10 years later.

“It’s not scientific,” Keith says of the store’s six decades of success. “Our philosophy is to penetrate and propagate. Get your foot in the door and try something. When you have success, grow it.” For example, Artmart’s kids’ department began as just two drawers inside a dresser that Keith decorated with red splatter paint. It grew from 8-feet of products sourced by one vendor to what is now a 1,200-foot “Kids’ Creative Store.”

They tried the high-end pen trend and that “failed miserably,” he says. They’ve ridden some waves like scrapbooking and decorative paper, and then jumped ship. But throughout Artmart’s 63 years of success, business has remained steady in the core categories of drawing and writing, and paint and surface, Keith says. In 1992, they renovated a 7,000-foot building adjacent to the 18,000-square foot store to house Artmart’s Frame Center superstore. Framing business has grown steadily since then.

“What we do, we do well,” Keith says. “We’ve built a brand and our customers have developed an emotional attachment to it.”

The go-to shop for greeting cards and gifts

Famed illustrator and greeting card guru Mary Engelbreit, a St. Louis native, began her career as an employee at Artmart. “I started working at Artmart and just loved it,” she told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in 2012. Mary never attended art school, but says her job at the store gave her a hands-on education. “I learned a lot. Everyone who came in was an artist, so one of the most important things I learned was that you could make a living as an artist. I also learned a lot about techniques and supplies.”

Keith calls his friend Mary “the queen of cute,” but the “Mayor of Creativity” isn’t selling her stuff – although he added greeting cards and gifts to Artmart’s product mix over 20 years ago.

“It started because I wanted to carry the largest selection of box and note cards in the Midwest,” he explains. “Gifts are an important part of the store, but the person who buys Mary’s cards is not my customer. I don’t like pretty and cute. St. Louis is a conservative Midwest city, but Artmart is edgy and fun.”

The store sold colorful and unique artist-made picture frames, he says, before they became mass-produced. Today, customers can find gifts ranging from quirky novelty items like bacon-flavored dental floss to a selection of quality Moleskine notebooks. “It goes back to the ‘mart’ in Artmart,” Keith says. “Customers love our selection. We’re their go-to gift store.”

Keith hasn’t been to a gift tradeshow in years, but when he does he knows exactly what he’s looking for. “I’m in jet plane mode,” he says of his gift show game plan. “I have my core six or eight vendors, and they keep coming out with great stuff. I know the look and feel I want. And I know my customers.”

Artists serving artists

“I can talk the language of art,” Keith says, “because I’m an artist.” He builds furniture and turns wood into bowls and vessels. In the early days, he built all of the store’s fixtures himself.

“When we first opened, I built a 12-foot easel that holds 36-inch rolls of paper,” he explains. “Kids would draw while parents shopped. Customers will say, ‘I remember when I used to draw on that easel, and now I’m an artist.’”

On the day we spoke, Keith was headed to an art showcase featuring the work of hobbyists. He attends shows every month, and Artmart’s walls are a gallery of local work he’s purchased. “I don’t buy fancy museum pieces, I buy from local artists,” he says. “I buy what I like, from people I like. And I like a lot of people.”

“Artists attach to genuine companies,” he added, “and they support local business.” In turn, Keith recognizes that many artists are tied to the local music scene, so he invites local musicians to drop off their CDs to be played in the store. “There’s a young, bohemian crowd in town and a big movement in food and restaurants,” Keith explains. It’s a little bit of Brooklyn, right in St. Louis, he says, and it’s been great for business because many of the locals are also art aficionados. Keith even purchased a building near the store which he rents out as artist studio space.

He’s also a part of Art Group America, comprised of 12 independent North American art retailers with a combined 46 retail stores and annual sales exceeding $1 million. Together they negotiate improved purchasing terms, produce shared marketing pieces and exchange ideas.

“Good business strategy isn’t about being the biggest or saying you’re the best,” Keith explains. “It’s about being profitable, and to be profitable there needs to be a real differentiation. Our standing in the community is ours. We don’t just support artists, we are artists.”

The business of giving back

Artmart has a long history of philanthropic involvement in the St. Louis community. Not only is giving back important to business, it’s important to the Baizer family.

“As we look forward, we think of ourselves more as social entrepreneurs than retailers,” Keith says. “Like many entrepreneurs, I’ll sit up at night worrying about numbers, but I spend just as much time thinking about ways to give back.”

Some of their community outreach programs and partnerships include the St. Louis Art Fair, where they sponsor a “Creative Castle” for kids, and custom-frame and donate hundreds of signed prints for sponsors and volunteers; Arts as Healing, where they provide supplies for hospital programs and space to host classes for cancer patients; and Craft Alliance, through which they support local children’s programs and summer education. They’ve endowed art scholarships at nearby Washington and Webster Universities, as well as a children’s art gallery, just to name a few. “Our goal is to give away 100 gallons of paint every year,” Keith adds. It’s been used to paint hospital murals, schools and support non-profit, inner-city projects. For the store’s 50th anniversary, Artmart gave away $50,000 to customers and local charities.

“We give because we’re drawn to give, it’s who we are,” he says. “Our competitors give only because we do.”

The community supports Artmart in return. When a fire severely damaged the store in 1996, their loyal customers helped Artmart’s 25-plus employees temporarily relocate merchandise into the Frame Center, brought coffee and donated cleaning supplies. The store officially reopened 10 months later, and sales soared to pre-fire levels almost immediately.

A future-focus on fundamentals

Whether getting to know local artists or giving back to the community, Artmart’s focus is on building relationships, according to Keith.

“We trust our customers,” he says. In fact, the store has a “no questions asked” return policy.

“If a customer wants to try a product, we just give it to them,” he says. “We don’t negotiate price. If someone asks for 20 percent off a damaged item, the answer is no – just take it for free.”

Artmart’s outside public relations team maintains the store’s active Twitter feed, featuring in-store videos and artist profiles. Next year, they plan to focus on attracting new non-art customers. Keith wants to get back to the basics of fundamental art supplies and framing, including a renovation to the Frame Center.

But for now, he admits to suffering from some fourth quarter anxiety. Customers look to Artmart for last-minute holiday gifts and stocking stuffers, and the store needs to unload the stockpile when the season ends. The Frame Center accepts orders up until December 23 and guarantees delivery by December 24.

But even after the holiday season, Artmart will continue to give back. “At our core, we care about the creative community,” Keith says. “It’s not all about buying and selling. Inspiring and supporting creativity makes for a much more enjoyable day.”

by Jenn Bergin

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