Did the Web Kill the Art Supply Store?

Sep 1, 2014

Credit Jm3/Flickr

From bike shops to breweries, Kalamazoo businesses cater to many passions.

Some are exceptionally well-covered; a reader could spend a day or more exploring the local bookstores.
But if you’re looking for pastels or a top-quality paintbrush from a local vendor, you might be out of luck.

That’s because Kalamazoo no longer has an independent art supply store. The likely culprit has a name that starts with “I," and it's found on computers.

Art supply stores were once abundant in Kalamazoo. At the Kirk Newman Art School in downtown Kalamazoo, director and watercolor artist Denise Lisiecki says when she first moved to town, artists could choose among three of them.

“There was Suzanne’s, which was a very small store on a second floor I believe. I barely remember that one. But I do remember Labadie’s, and it was on West Michigan right at the corner of West Michigan and Church.

“And it was a wonderful art supply store – your old-fashioned, with the wooden floors - it came down, it had been owned for many years and it was the go-to place for artists.

“And also Wheaton’s although because I had a studio downtown I went to Labadie’s more.”

Lisiecki has watched them all go – first Suzanne’s and the venerable Labadie store, and finally Wheaton Art Supply a few years ago.

That’s not to say Kalamazoo is an art material desert. Chain craft stores Michael’s and Hobby Lobby sell a few items, as does the WMU bookstore and a handful of studios around town. Lisiecki says KIA students can buy a few things at the school.

“I sell watercolor paper to my students, and from time to time I sell brushes if I can find them at a good price, and I know we sell matte board and in ceramics we sell tool kits,” she says.

But no one store supplies everyone from sculptors to painters. What does cover every medium is the virtual paradise of art supplies, a few clicks of a button away.

“With the Internet now, it is so readily available, shipping is usually free, you can get the supplies in several days, and the breadth of different media in this town – I don’t think one art supply store could cover it anymore," Lisiecki says.

That the web has transformed how artists shop is not news to Dan Anderson. He’s the owner of the brick-and-mortar T-Square Art Supplies in Grand Rapids. He says thanks to his framing business, the store is hanging on. But he says he wouldn’t go into retail art supply today.

Stores like his first took a hit when people started using software to make commercial art – instead of materials from their local retailer.

“Almost 90 percent of that business has disappeared, which made it pretty difficult to downsize and adjust to that loss of revenue,” he says.

And then came online shopping. When products costs so much to start with, Anderson says, you have to know you can sell them.

“Just having a single display of one vendor’s oil paints can be an expense of three to five thousand dollars. You start multiplying that by all the other paint lines that you need to carry, and if you don’t have a quarter of a million dollars to invest that you don’t need back, pretty tough to have a wide selection.”

Kalamazoo Book Arts Center Studio Coordinator Katie Platte says that for many people, buying supplies online makes sense.

She was folding handmade journals on a commission from WMU one recent afternoon at the KBAC, on the first floor of the Park Trades Center.

“I think a lot of artists know what they want already, and if they’re like me and they go to an art supply store, they see a lot of things they don’t need, and they buy something that they wouldn’t want otherwise and online, you just go and pick out what you need,” she says.

Then again, she does like to browse on occasion.

“If I go to a big city like Chicago, I like to go to Utrecht and look at all the different stuff and pick out like special supplies that I wouldn’t be able to get other places or touch in person if I were buying them online,” she says.

And the KIA’s Lisiecki is an avid art supply tourist.

“When I travel, my husband and I are both artists and yes, we always search out art supply stores and especially in small towns because they have a lot of times unique supplies, things they’ve had for a long time. You find paper and maybe different kinds of paint colors that are off the market now, different kinds of brushes,” she says.

Lisiecki is not sure Kalamazoo will ever have its own store again. But it would be welcome, she says, along with a commercial art gallery. She says that’s a gap to be filled in a town with a thriving art community.