‘Crafting’ success in retail: An interview with Patty Arbour of The Artisan Gallery

  • Patty Arbour, owner of The Artisan Gallery on Main Street in Northampton. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Patty Arbour, owner of The Artisan Gallery on Main Street in Northampton, on Thursday, Jan. 30. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • The Artisan Gallery at 162 Main St. in Northampton. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

Published: 2/17/2020 12:01:46 AM

EDITOR’S NOTE:This piece grew out of a class at Smith College, “Writing about Women and Gender,” taught by the journalist and author Susan Faludi.

Patty Arbour, owner The Artisan Gallery

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

In 1984, I opened The Artisan Gallery with my husband, Chuck Stern. He was a craftsperson, a furniture maker. Someone else was going to open a craft store, so he commissioned my husband to do a run of furniture. He tooled up and started production, then this man decided not to open. So my husband was without work.

At the end of the week, he said, “We’re going to open a craft gallery. If he’s not going to do it, we’re going to do it.”

We had nothing. We were on food stamps. We had a broken pick-up truck. We didn’t own any property. So no one wanted to loan us any money. We ended up opening on some money borrowed from a potter. She had done a major craft show, and she had some money. She said, “We can lend it to you until January.” We opened on $4,000.

We found some empty jewelry cases in the trash and took them in and refurnished them. People brought things in on consignment, and we got catalogs from all the major craft shows at the time. So that’s how we opened. We were in Thornes Market, on the lower level, with 600 square feet.

I had no retail experience. I didn’t have a clue how things were run. You’re supposed to have a whole business plan, and we didn’t have anything like that.

It turned out that because we didn’t have any money, we found a niche. It was very organic. There were already galleries in town that had high-end glass, and high-end jewelry, and high-end ceramics. And because we didn’t have any capital, we couldn’t do high-end.

In the ‘80s, there was an art-craft-jewelry movement that incorporated non-traditional materials like clay, and glass, and paper, so that’s what we had. We had things made out of felt. We had wooden boxes. Everything was really high quality, but it wasn’t expensive. It was very successful right away because of that.

We ended up not having money very quickly after a successful Christmas. Even though we were successful and paid all our bills, we had no money left over for the store. So, a young woman, an angel, who we knew briefly came. Long story short, she lent us $5,000, which was what we needed to get back on our feet and go forward.

I was full time on the floor. I had to do all those things and be on the floor. Over the years, I decreased the amount I’m scheduled on the floor. But in the beginning, it was just one other person and myself.

I am the buyer for the store, so everything you see out here has been picked by me. I look for things that move me in some way, that make me happy, artists whose work I respect, usually things which are fairly tactile. I never buy anything that I don’t like. Maybe that seems silly to say. I wouldn’t necessarily wear every piece of jewelry or piece of clothing, but I understand that person who would, and I respect and value everything that is in the store.

I think there is a common thread here; you can tell there is one buyer because there is a vision that becomes apparent regardless of what the item is. The vision then and now is to create a warm and welcoming experience that touches people through color, texture, respect for the handmade, humor and kindness.

It’s a completely different world than when I opened in 1984. It used to be that if you wanted a gift, you would have to come to Northampton, which is full of incredible craft galleries, and you would find unique things that you couldn’t find anywhere. There was no access to anything else. Now you could just go online. I don’t know what the future will be. Maybe there won’t be any stores. Maybe there’ll just be banks.

I get fueled by my customers. After 35 years in business, I know many of the people who come in here; we have kind of grown up together. We started with people coming in to buy things when they first were getting a home, when they first had real jobs and first had some real disposable income to buy jewelry for themselves.

I’ve watched their children grow up as newborns to now they come in and they have their children with them. Being part of the community in that way and being that connected to people, I don’t think there’s a word for it, maybe there is in another language. The people who are … they’re not your friends because you don’t socialize with them, but they’re far more than acquaintances. There is that whole middle ground of people who pass through here.

I never thought about myself as a businesswoman. I still don’t. I think that I represent craftspeople and designers, and I bring things here, and I hope that other people like them and that I can make a living doing that. I never talk to my employees about sales; that’s just not who I am. My idea is if you have beautiful things and you’re a kind and generous person, then the rest will follow.

In the retail world, there are and always have been a lot of women. I didn’t feel like I had to be a pioneer in a particular field. As a boss, I’ve always had mothering instincts, and I thought, well, you know that sort of has a negative connotation now for women, but you know what? There is nothing wrong with that. There were so many staff that came through here that needed nurturing in terms of being professional or how to conduct themselves, people who needed support to be who they were.

I was always aware that it was my need to take care of people. Sometimes there would be young women in particular who were kind of rough around the edges, and I grew up rough around the edges; people had to teach me how to be more professional, so I enjoy passing on some of those skills to people.

There were always people when I was younger, they never thought I was the owner. That would happen, and it would kind of be irritating, but now because of my age, they just assume that I’m the owner.

As a female, just generally, there’s always impostor’s syndrome, which I certainly suffered from. I probably still do. It came naturally to me in some ways to buy things people liked, and so when people give me credit, I’m just buying things that people seem to like.

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