The Shops Downstairs

by Tina Manzer

Betsy Yamron, manager of Albright Art Supply and gift store in Concord, Massachusetts, was taken by surprise recently when a young woman shopping in her store exclaimed, “Oh my gosh! I didn’t realize there were so many colors!”

In response to Betsy’s puzzled look, the woman disclosed that she always bought her oil paints online. She had never seen the full array.

“Amazon has claimed all the 20-somethings and taught them how to shop in their pajamas from bed,” sighed Betsy in a recent interview, explaining the customer’s disconnect with the real world. “It’s not a good thing for them, and it’s obviously not a good thing for stores.”

Luckily, bricks-and-mortar Albright Art has a lot going for it. Betsy is one of them. A graduate of Wells College in New York’s Finger Lakes Region, she majored in art history with courses in photography and drawing – skills that landed her a job in New York City with iconic ad agency Young & Rubicam. She and her family moved back to Massachusetts, where her husband grew up, 10 years ago.

“I love being back in the art world, especially researching and purchasing the products,” she told me. “I find art supplies just fascinating.”

Betsy follows the blogs of many different artists, and loves when her research uncovers, say, the differences between similar paints, or tools or mediums that perform the best in certain situations.

Storeowner Marie Foley, left, and Betsy Yamron, manager of Albright Art.

“I just had to know why Holbein’s Duo Aqua Oil is water soluble if it’s made with the same ingredients as regular Holbein oil paints. As it turns out, the difference is the addition of a surfactant instead of linseed oil. The result is a nontoxic version of the original.”

Here’s another one: “Cretacolor makes a wonderful line of oil pencils called Nero in a range of drawing tones: Black – five hardnesses! – plus Sepia Dark, Sepia Light, Sanguine, and White. They don’t smudge, even when you do a watercolor wash over them.  I get them through Savoir Faire.”

She shares these features and benefits with customers both personally and with signage displayed on the shelves with the products. “People who shop here appreciate our knowledge,” she says. “I educate my staff because I want them to be as intrigued as I am by the different options so they can help customers make good decisions.”

Double the fun

Albright Art shares its downtown space with Revolutionary Concord, a gift store extraordinaire that sells jewelry, candles, home decorations, cards, and souvenirs of the historic town. Both stores are owned by Marie Foley, a well-known local shopkeeper. “The space, about 2,200 square feet total, is located downstairs from street level,” explains Betsy. “On one side is Albright and on the other is Revolutionary Concord. We maintain the integrity of each store, but keep the doors open between them. Shoppers wander in and out through the doors and pick up candles, maybe a glass creation by artist Simon Pearce, and then some oil paint and brushes for themselves, and colored markers for their children.

“The fun, open atmosphere draws people down the stairs and keeps them coming back,” she says. “It’s an eclectic mix, and shoppers like having all the choices we offer them.”

Concord’s downtown is busy with restaurants, historic landmarks, and independent retail shops that offer everything from antiques and books to high-end furniture and women’s apparel. Albright Art is the only art supply store in a town.

“Concord hosts visitors year-round. They come here for the history – the revolutionary war started at North Bridge, and big thinkers like Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson began a literary movement here,” notes Betsy.

The community supports two local art groups. The 850-member Concord Art Association, founded a century ago, offers classes and exhibits. The Umbrella Arts Center, a former middle school, also offers classes. It features studios for more than 50 artists whose activities range from painting and photography to violin making and weaving.

“I’m taking a painting class there right now – acrylics – and I love it,” says Betsy. “I’m using the GOLDEN products that we sell, so there I am, ‘walking the walk.’”

She doesn’t attend trade shows to find products, “but Art Materials Retailer is always interesting to me, especially the recommendations from other stores. I compare what I have to their suggestions to make sure I’m in the loop.”

What’s hot now

“I would say I sell a heck of a lot of paint – oils, acrylic, watercolor paint and pastels,” she tells me. “It’s basic art-store fare, but I try to get premium brands because the quality makes the art experience so much better. We stock M. Graham, Michael Harding Oil Paints, Williamsburg, Golden Artists Colors, Winsor & Newton, and others.”

Paint may be Betsy’s bread and butter, but ink, dip pens and markers for hand-lettering are trending.  “People of all ages are enjoying making pretty letters right now, whether they’re for wedding invitations or for journaling,” she says. “Some customers make their own alphabets.

“Tombow’s Fudenosuke markers make a beautiful line for creative lettering,” she continues. “If you press harder, you get a thicker line, so they’re just wonderful for varied lettering techniques. Zig calligraphy markers are also selling well, as is the Pilot Varsity disposable fountain pen. It feels wonderful and comes with black, red, blue, purple, or turquoise ink. People like the idea of getting back to a fountain pen, and it writes so nicely.

“If I carried Montblanc pens, for instance, at the holidays, I think they would sell,” she adds. “I haven’t carried them, but I do have some Caran D’Ache ballpoint pens that are nice, and Retro Pens from Kikkerland sold really well last Christmas. Although I’m happy to offer them, high-end pens are a complicated business. I’d rather sell paint. People here love their paint.”

And brushes. “They are so important,” she says. “I have brushes for oil and acrylic – long-handled ones. For watercolor, I have short-handled brushes; even some high-end Isabey Blue Squirrel brushes. We also have craft and children’s brushes. The people who shop here can get any kind of brush that they want. 

“There are no rules in art. That’s my philosophy,” she explains. “I try to take away any sort of hesitation in terms of making art. Really – once you let your creative energy flow, you can do whatever. We offer options. Customers don’t have to buy the $100 mop brush. They can buy a $20 or $10 brush. I want people to feel comfortable with their art and the materials they use to make it.”

More materials for kids

The store continues to grow its children’s art section, and Betsy is expanding its offering of school supplies. Albright Art has always carried poster board, tag board, and foam core, but now Betsy and her staff – two part-timers most of the year, but six during the holidays – are actively selling them, and working with kids and parents on school project ideas. School glue, construction paper, tempera paints and air-dry clay are also on the shelves. “This year we were able to get the classroom lists from our local school, so I stocked Dixon Ticonderoga pencils, the Crayola 24-pack of crayons, Elmer’s glue sticks and other items on the lists – items that are not usually stocked in a fine arts supply store. Our goal is to get parents to buy school and art supplies here, rather than make the drive to Michaels or shop online.

“Of course, there are always those people who are going to shop online no matter what,” she adds. “I can’t do anything about that, so I just have to emphasize what makes us different: we’re educated and knowledgeable, we’re fun, and we have high-quality products. Even more important, we’re always here to talk through a project or an art problem, and provide some creative energy.”

When I asked Betsy to name the biggest challenge of her job, it was this: “When people say, ‘It’s so expensive.’ I tell them fine art materials make fine art. You’re going to get what you pay for.”

What she likes best, then, is when customers use her recommendations to create art, and open their phones to show her their progress. “I take that as a real compliment. It will make my day.”

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