The Plans were Perfect but the Timing was Off

10/13/2020

Two Art Store Startup Stories

by Tina Manzer

1

What Dana Vingris calls “spitballing,” others would call “strategic life-planning.” Her big ideas become reality, despite significant hurdles. Take Hue House, her new art store in Dayton, for instance. COVID delayed its opening by a month, but according to a five-year plan she devised with her husband Ryan, it was two-and-a-half years early. A new baby, which might happen a few years down the road – or this October – arrived in September. But rather than change their plans, they stayed the course and are making it work. There’s a lesson in there for all of us. Here’s the story.

AMR: What brought you to Dayton?

Dana Vingris: We decided to move from Toledo, and looked for a destination that needed an art store and suited our lifestyle. Dayton fit the bill. It’s centrally located to our family and, like Toledo, is a manufacturing town. The cost of living is affordable, and it has a great park system.

Its only independent art store, McCallister’s, closed a few years ago. It had been around since 1953 and held a very significant place in the community. People here have childhood memories of it. We recognized the opportunity, but those nostalgic stories left us with very big shoes to fill.

Why art?

My background is in architectural history and general studio art. My career has been in the nonprofit sector and I committed to that for a number of years. I got away from creating art and missed it in my life.

In 2011, I opened The Art Supply Depo in downtown Toledo with a partner, and then sold my share of the business to her a few years later to pursue my career. I made a lot more art when I was involved with the store, surrounded by all the tools. I’m a dabbler; master of none – a good way to be if you want to own an art store.

What is the art scene there?

It’s very active and vibrant, especially downtown. We moved downtown three years ago; Hue House is there and we walk to work. Our neighborhood, St. Anne’s Hill, is an historic district.

Next door to the store is a fine-arts magnet school. A collection of warehouses converted to artists’ studios – 170 of them – is two blocks north. Another building about a 1/2-mile to the east has 30 studios. Many artists have independent loft studios/apartments in and around downtown.

A lot of art instruction and activity goes on nearby. Hue House is within walking distance of the downtown colleges, The Art Institute, and The Contemporary – an organization that manages a gallery for local modern artists. The Dayton Society of Art is just to the south.

The artists here are very engaged with the community. By “community,” I mean people who are not artists themselves. They attend the open studios each month, they buy art and they take art classes. It’s a very synergistic, cohesive community overall. I think that’s why there are so many artists here – they feel welcome, included and supported. That’s not always the case in other cities.

There’s a lot of redevelopment downtown. People are buying buildings, fixing them up, converting them. There’s big support for small, local businesses. The community has been very responsive to try to keep everyone afloat.

Hue House was, in fact, a house.

Yes, in St. Anne’s small, developing business district. One block of converted old houses contains a co-op owned microbrewery, Gem City Catfé, and now us. The European bakery across the street is a former violin repair shop. Each one has its own character and is painted a bright color. They’re all either women-owned or managed – a fluke, but kind of neat.

When we started discussing our store idea with our neighbors, they directed us to Karin Gudal. She owns the “catfé” next door, a combination espresso/wine/coffee bar and cat rescue lounge. “Karen has a vision for this neighborhood,” and had just purchased two vacant houses, they told us. Her plan was to gut and develop them as destination businesses.

She is exactly the kind of landlord I had in mind.
We had assumed that once we got the word out, it would take a few years to find a building and get started. It happened in a week!

Just like your pregnancy.

Yes. I’m 37, and I thought it would take a long time to get pregnant so I got started. It happened right away, and I’m due in October.

How did you know what products to sell?

I sent out a 10-question survey on social media in February, directed to the local artist groups. I asked them general questions like what materials they liked to use and what store hours would be best for them. I received more than 300 responses within a week-and-a-half. I would have been happy with 50 in a month! It was mind blowing. And they continued to come in!

Their answers informed our opening plans, which became totally moot due to COVID. Our operations had to be completely reevaluated as well. We didn’t know whether to open in August or hold tight until the coronavirus situation improved.

Then we started to receive bills – for the inventory, the rent, etc. I reached back out to some of the survey respondents, and they said if we opened they’d support us. Several said they had been intentionally holding off buying supplies until they could buy them from us.

So you opened.

We had a soft opening in which people could shop by appointment. We use the Square POS system which has an appointment module. We set it up on our website for half-hour intervals. That’s where we’re at now.

My neighbor is a doctor specializing in pediatric infectious disease at Dayton Children’s Hospital and we took his advice for keeping everyone safe. We installed medical filters and Plexiglass stands in the store, and we control the environment somewhat by controlling the volume of customers.

We were booked solid for three weeks. It’s dropped off a bit, and now will ebb and flow naturally, I think.

What are your bestsellers?

We have been surprisingly level in all categories. Alcohol inks are very big right now; acrylic ink too. We sold a lot of every kind of paint, and encaustics. It seems like the artist community is very diverse here.

Specialty papers, pads of papers, especially Yupo and Stonehenge, are also doing well.

Several recent retirees have come in who want to get started with art. When they ask, “I don’t know what I need, can you help me?” it is very rewarding to me to be able to do so. We’ve outfitted them with a good foundation of supplies.

What’s next?

We’ve hired two women to work here when the baby comes. They’ll take us through the holiday season. We’ll operate on a hybrid model – a few days of appointment-only, and other days for walk-in traffic in a limited capacity.

For the holidays, we’re bringing in more gift-oriented sets, and at-home art kits tailored to specific age groups, topics and mediums. Suppliers started preorders in July and August for October delivery.

Really, I’m not a planner, but because of the pandemic I had to be by default. The upside of COVID, if you will, is that it has allowed me to open the store in stages. I’ve been able to stagger tasks a little, which has made things better – not the numbers, necessarily, but my mental wellbeing.


2

In February, as the Sweterlitsch family drove from Florida to their new home in Texas, the coronavirus became a pandemic. By the time they reached Georgia, the country was shutting down and the job Hadyn Sweterlitsch had accepted was no longer available. He, his wife Julie and their 9-year-old daughter Frances looked at each other and said, “Now what?”

They had a lot of time to think about it as they hunkered down in Waco. The conclusion they reached was this: working remotely would become a “thing.” Hadyn, a copywriter, could freelance. With no office to go to every day, the family could live wherever they liked. Marfa, Texas, perhaps.

“It’s a special place,” says Julie. “It’s a very small town in the West Texas desert with a population of less than 2,000. Yet it is also home to many artists, and a tourist destination brought to prominence in the 1970s by artist Donald Judd. We thought it rather strange that there wasn’t an art supply store within three hours of the place, and saw it as a void waiting to be filled.

By early May, their art-store plan had gained steam. “Creating art and art appreciation are big parts of our lives,” she explains. “So when a great little commercial space – only 500 square feet! – became available, we jumped at the chance.”

It was a leap of faith. “With so many people struggling with the pandemic, it was obviously not a great time to open a retail store.”

They signed the lease, filed the appropriate documents, and hired Marfa artist and sign painter Carolyn Macartney (cmacpictures.com) to design a logo for Marfa Art Supply. “Having it painted on the building gave us an identity. We could set up our social media accounts,” says Jennifer. “Next came the research on what brands we should carry. We had to choose carefully since space was at a premium.”

With a target opening date of July 3, Julie started placing orders for Williamsburg Oils, GOLDEN Heavy Body and Liquid Acrylics, GOLDEN mediums, Princeton brushes, Field Notes notebooks, Uni Pin fineliners, Sakura Micron and Gelly Roll pens, POSCA paint markers, Pan Pastels, Gamblin mediums, ArtBin storage solutions, Flashe Vinyl Paint, and many types and sizes of paper, canvas and panels.

“Local artists have been very supportive, preferring to buy local rather than ordering online from big-box stores,” she says. “We don’t do e-commerce on our website and don’t plan to – but I have shipped phone orders to all parts of the country.

“We’ve learned not to underestimate the local newspaper in a small town!” she adds. “We run a weekly ad in The Big Bend Sentinel, although most of our promotion takes place on Instagram.” [@Marfa Art Supply]

Unfortunately, Marfa’s healthy year-round tourist economy has been less so because of COVID, but Julie is confident it will bounce back. “Tourists who do stop are looking for compact art supplies they can take with them, like travel-sized watercolor sets and small pads of paper.”

Marfa Art Supply has continued to grow its inventory with Copic Sketch Markers, embroidery floss and accessories, R&F Pigment Sticks, Blackwing pencils and tools, IUILE handmade watercolors, and more paper from Strathmore, Legion, Hahnemuhle, Rhodia, Fabriano and Art Alternatives. “The pandemic has slowed deliveries; some warehouses are just now getting up to speed,” adds Julie. “On the flip side, many vendors have eased minimums on orders and are offering free shipping.

“Despite its cosmopolitan reputation, Marfa is still very rural. Our shop is located in an alley, and therefore has no physical address. It can be a bit challenging. But operating in a small tight-knit community has many benefits. The retail shops and restaurants in town are great about promoting each other, especially now in this precarious retail climate.

Julie and her family are staying put. Plans for the future may include a separate pottery supply shop, she says.

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