by Claire Sykes
Keith Christy has followed his passion for the arts since high school, when he drew charcoal portraits of his friends and played rock-and-roll guitar. In the ’80s, with his big hair and spandex, the Portland, Maine, native made a decent living doing what he loved – touring with a band.
But did he really want to be a rock star? As talented in math as he was with a guitar, Keith also enjoyed handling the band’s finances.
He got an accounting degree, cut his hair, put on a suit and opened up his own practice. One of his clients was an art-supply store. When the owner unexpectedly passed away a few years later, Christy was left to manage the debt (liquidation paid it off), but the unresolved two-year lease was a sticking point. In July of 1994, driving home one night he thought, “Hey, why don’t I take over the business?” The next day, he did just that. The Art Mart reopened a month later.
“When the lease expired, I moved the store downtown to the recently designated Arts District just one block away from the Maine College of Art [MECA],” Keith explained. “In 1997, I took over a second art-supply store in MidCoast Maine and opened a third in Kennebunk. Before long, I’d realized I’d spread myself too thin. I closed the two satellite locations and focused on the Portland store. Then things really started to take off.”
Here he explains why.
Art Materials Retailer: How did The Art Mart evolve into the business you love today?
Keith Christy: The first thing I did was create a more fun and relaxed atmosphere. The store had been too uptight; more like an office-supplies store where all the products remained carefully stacked in tightly sealed packages.
Today, customers know we enjoy their presence. They like to wander around and touch and experience the art supplies, and they’re welcome to do that. There are always good tunes playing – New Orleans jazz or ’70s acoustic rock – to create a great shopping vibe.
If a customer isn’t sure if she wants to buy something, I’ll open it up and show it to her. Artists love that, and it creates good customer relationships. Being part of the arts community in this way is really fun for me.
Your store is celebrating its 25 anniversary. Has the welcoming vibe kept it going so long?
That, and the fact that I’m really flexible. If someone needs a specific tool or brand, I go to great lengthsto get it, even if it’s not a big seller. I once traveled to Connecticut to pick up a hard-to-find item for a customer! And when students in MECA’s furniture-design program needed milk paint, I stocked it. Most large retailers don’t have the freedom to provide that kind of customer service. Being an independent store allows me to stock unique items that may not move quickly, and also take risks on bringing in new items.
People say The Art Mart is one of the best “real” art-supply stores they’ve ever seen. I like the over-stocked look, as you can see. There isn’t an empty spot in the entire store. I like having customers’ original artwork on the walls.
Who are your customers?
A lot of them are professional artists. When I started out, before computers, I sold a lot of supplies to graphic designers. Today, many of them are back to using vellum and pencil, and I’m getting these customers again.
Obviously we serve students. And tourists. A hundred cruise ships come to this port every year and dock about 10 blocks away. Many come here to shop.
What are your bestsellers?
There’s not one particular paint brand, brush, or canvas that sticks out for me as a “bestseller.” We serve customers who buy the finest oil paints, watercolors and handmade papers, and other customers who buy the student range of those brands. Little sketchbook journals are always popular, along with a variety of pens, especially brush pens right now.
Where do you get ideas for new products to bring in?
I go to shows. My favorite is the one hosted by wholesale distributor SLS Arts. I fly to their location in New Orleans every November to rub elbows with other art-supply retailers and pick their brains.
I also seek out new products from trusted manufacturers and take advantage of their deals. I’ll browse through their catalogs for something interesting that I haven’t carried before, maybe a funky brush or new type of waterproof pad.
My customers ask for materials, which helps me add new products. I also contact local art instructors to see what students will need.
Wherever I am, I’m on the lookout for unusual products. I could be in Mexico, for instance, and spot something really interesting that I feel I could use as an artist – like soapstone pencils for drawing on dark paper. I’ll bring a supply back to the store.
At hardware and surplus stores, I might find tools or products that aren’t designed for artists, but are a good fit for my store. I once spotted a set of cleaning tools for mechanics that a ceramicist could use to make marks and carve.
How many square feet is your store? And what about parking?
It’s about 3,000 square feet.
One of the drawbacks of a downtown location is that there’s only metered street parking and a parking lot a block away. But I have been known to deliver orders to customers at no charge.
How many employees do you have? Are they artists, too?
My wife Ginna is the store’s bookkeeper. Our son Maddox works here part-time and his brother Joshua works for us fulltime. They are both artists and musicians. Our daughter Ashley is also here, but very part-time.
We have four other part-time employees; three of them are MECA students. Typically the students stay with us throughout their college years.
My longtime employee Tony has been here for 25 years. We played in bands together back in the 1980s and ’90s. Tony is very reliable, so I can have some flexibility and travel. He’s a character, and a great right-hand man.
Who are your competitors?
There are craft stores in the suburban malls and an art-supply store on the other side of the city. The Art Mart is the only one downtown. If a customer needs something that we’re out of or don’t stock, we’ll call our competitors. They do the same with us. We need to support each other to keep the bricks-and-mortar art-materials sector strong.
Online selling is not fulfilling to me. I like to keep my head out of the “cloud.” That venue is too vast. I’d rather put my efforts into creating a great atmosphere of art supplies that people can see and touch. Also, deep down, I’m a performer. The Art Mart is sort of my stage.
Over the years, what has been the biggest challenge?
Wearing all the hats. I want things done a certain way, so I end up doing most everything myself. I have a hard time delegating, and yet I’m frustrated when I don’t have time to finish a task, or I’m rushing and forget to place an order, or I answer the phone in the middle of helping a customer standing in front of me. To compensate, I try to have more than one employee in the store at all times.
Another challenge is making sure my inventory is well stocked, so I’m investing more in it, buying in bulk.
What does the future hold for The Art Mart?
The arts in Portland are strong, and our business is consistent and still growing. I’m hoping The Art Mart will be part of the Arts District forever. My wish is that one of my children or maybe a grandchild will keep the business in the family, and have the passion to carry on the tradition and, perhaps, open other locations.
Meanwhile, what do you like best about owning and operating The Art Mart?
One of my slogans is, “I’m not in business to make money. I’m in business to make people happy.” I like my customers and I’m a people pleaser. I have a lot of regulars who come in and just want to talk. I enjoy it. Being part of the local arts community means a lot to me.
I like being surrounded by all the art materials. It’s nice to just pull something off the shelf and start painting, which I don’t do enough. Spending all day in the store is great, and I’m really proud of what I’ve created here. When I walk into my store, I say, “Wow, this is awesome.”