Raquel Rodriguez-Fadraga says art saved her life, after she was devastated by the sudden death of her mother in 2006. “I had become incapable of doing simple things like taking the train to work or talking to people. Anxiety and depression nearly destroyed me.”
Drawing was her saving grace. A graphic artist who studied at the School of Visual Arts in New York City, Raquel managed her train commute into work by drawing. “I would sit in the corner of the train, not look at anyone and just draw. It calmed me. That little Moleskine journal and Micron marker were my therapy.
“One might see a paint tube or marker and think nothing of it, but I see them as powerful tools that have the ability to change someone’s life.”
Raquel and her husband Hector hope to help others find that same healing and inspiration through art with their store, New Heights Art Supply, which the couple opened in July in Jersey City, New Jersey.
The start of something big
“Our first few months in business have been incredibly hectic, but also satisfying,” Raquel says. “Customers tell us it’s great to have a store like ours in the neighborhood – they’ve been so supportive. We were surprised by how many professional working artists live in our area. We counted on it to be true, but it’s a relief that we were right!”
Raquel has been interested in art all her life. “As a kid, all I needed were crayons and a coloring book, as I grew older, I graduated to a sketchbook and pencils,” she says. Still, opening an art supply store was a learning experience. “My retail experience was limited to jobs from my teen years, which is to say, I had none!”
She got her start with help from The Start Something Challenge, a business competition for New Jersey entrepreneurs. In the summer of 2015 she mentioned her idea for an art supply store to a friend, who told her about the competition. Raquel entered a week later and made it to the second round. One year later, New Heights Art Supply opened for business.
“The Start Something Challenge forced me to go for it, even though I had nothing but an idea,” Raquel says. “It gave us the momentum we needed.”
“We received a lot of practical info and skills but, more importantly, we got a lot of support and self-confidence. They root for us. Like parenthood, no one is ever really ready to run a business. You just have to dive in and learn as you go. It gave us that little push into the pool.”
At just 300 square feet, New Heights Art Supply is a small store, but Raquel and Hector have big plans for the space. An adjacent, open, 1,000-square foot room will be used to host art shows, demos, art and kids’ classes and wine tastings.
“Our smaller size is a virtue,” Raquel says. With no other employees, she and Hector run the show. “When customers come in, they speak with us, the owners. We are their collaborators and facilitators.”
Raquel and Hector are still learning what their individual roles in running the day-to-day business should be. “We collaborate on everything and make decisions jointly,” Raquel explains. Hector handled the store build-out and deals with suppliers. Raquel manages marketing and “creative stuff.” Both deal directly with customers.
“We made something out of nothing just by entering the contest. It pushed us to put up or shut up. Things got real! It wasn’t easy or a comfortable year, but I didn’t take no for an answer – and I still don’t.”
“Our store concept is constantly evolving,” Raquel says. “We had to learn what our customers needed and how to succeed, given our proximity to New York City. Our guiding principle is to serve the arts community with new innovative products.
“We sell things that we love ourselves,” she adds, “like markers, drawing pencils and pens and coloring books. We carry a unique selection of materials not widely available, and focus on new materials. We also carry the basics, but the size of our shop means we have to be selective in our inventory.”
While the store carries some high-end materials for advanced artists, as the parents of two young children, Raquel and Hector target much of their inventory to children and other parents. “We carry a lot of materials for little aspiring artists, and the basics for local art students.” They also plan to sell materials produced by local crafters and makers.
As with many small businesses in urban spaces, New Heights Art Supply is short on storage space. It’s on the second floor of a two-story building, and it doesn’t even have a closet. However, it does have high ceilings, so vertical shelving from Ikea was built up along both walls. Floating shelves along one side provide storage space underneath, and the higher levels are used for more storage and display of less-often purchased items.
“We painted one wall with chalkboard paint, where we write announcements and sales,” Raquel explains. “Our center shelves are low to the ground so visibility isn’t inhibited, and they’re on wheels so we can change the appearance of the store and keep things fresh. We can also roll the low shelves into our event space if needed.” The center shelving and cash register are also on casters, so they can be wheeled around to change the configuration of the shop, or moved out of the way for intimate events.
Raquel and Hector rarely use suppliers’ displays, and prefer Ikea furniture like stacked bookcases that create cubbies to highlight items. “We attached pegboard to the back of the bookcases and covered it with wallpaper,” Raquel explains. “So we have the utility of pegboard.”
Track and pendant lights provide warm unobtrusive lighting, and large windows bring in an abundance of natural light. “Our color palette is a simple, clean black and white – this lets the art supplies be the focus of attention.”
After all, Raquel’s passion for the products is what started it all. “I LOVE art supplies,” she says, “they’re just so much fun!”
“Art is so important to me because of my own experience. I know how powerful it is, how it can better your life. If we can make it easier for artists to bring about positive change to our community, we will have succeeded.”
An exciting time for the arts
Raquel was inspired by the spirit and passion of her hometown of Jersey City to open New Heights Art Supply. “I’ve seen the city’s transformation, beginning downtown and climbing toward our Jersey City Heights neighborhood,” she explains. “I wanted to be a part of that change and build something in the place where I live, for my family and for the community.”
Jersey City is considered part of the New York metropolitan area, with easy access to lower Manhattan just across the Hudson River. Direct rapid transit into New York City has played a prominent role in the redevelopment of the Jersey City waterfront and the burgeoning of many of the city’s neighborhoods. As the cost of living continues to skyrocket across New York City, artists and creatives are moving from boroughs like Brooklyn into more affordable New Jersey neighborhoods like Jersey City Heights.
Subsequently, “It’s an exciting time for Jersey City and the arts,” Raquel says. “There’s a new generation of incredibly creative artists here that are amazing to watch. I love the collaborations and ideas flying around!”
Jersey City Heights is a densely-populated and diverse blue-collar neighborhood, with single and multifamily housing that attracts young professionals and families. New Heights Art Supply is located on the neighborhood’s main street, packed with small mom-and-pop shops and restaurants that get a lot of foot traffic.
The city and local business association champion the arts, as evidenced through the Mural Arts Program, which aims to turn the urban neighborhood into an outdoor art museum. “Every block has commissioned murals and the traffic light boxes have all been given up to artists,” Raquel explains.
Jersey City is not quite yet a destination – it’s somewhat segmented geographically, she says. “But new stores are opening every day, and they’re trendy and hip. Like us! And there are shops here that draw customers from all over. We hope to be one of them. We plan to become an integral part of a thriving arts community, to nurture and grow with it.”
Before the store opened, Raquel and Hector introduced their business to the community by taking part in holiday pop-up shops and selling from booths at festivals, which helped them build brand recognition and gain hands-on sales experience. They also printed, cut and bound their own line of “Jersey City Kid” sketchbooks.
“We kept the community updated on our progress via social media and conducted surveys to gather anecdotal information, which helped guide our stocking choices,” Raquel explains. “We attended NAMTA before we even secured a brick-and-mortar shop, which helped us make contacts and learn about the industry.
“When I look around this city – from the art and murals to the community cultural events – I know I want to be a part of fostering this creative environment.”
by Jenn Bergin