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Survival is an art form

At Spokane Art Supply, custom framer Kevin Smith helps customer Rick Diffley find the proper frame for a photograph. Spokane Art Supply will celebrate its 50th anniversary in November.
 (The Spokesman-Review)
At Spokane Art Supply, custom framer Kevin Smith helps customer Rick Diffley find the proper frame for a photograph. Spokane Art Supply will celebrate its 50th anniversary in November. (The Spokesman-Review)

Don’t ask Claudia Myers to draw a barn. She’d be the first to admit she’s not an artist.

“If you don’t have time, you’re not going to be able to master watercolor,” said Myers, 56.

But running her family’s 50-year-old business, Spokane Art Supply, has become somewhat of an art form as she’s faced competition from discount retailers, the Internet and the multitude of other activities that eat up her customers’ leisure time and money.

She’s used her creativity to compete with the bulk buying and advertising power of big-box retailers. She’s focused on service, training her staff to understand all the product lines, even if that means opening a paint tube and smearing it out to ensure it’s what an artist wants.

“That’s how all specialty stores survive,” Myers said. “The independent art stores are still family-owned.”

Nov. 8, 2004 will be the 50th anniversary of the store her father, Addison Myers, never thought would survive. Claudia Myers grew up in the store and took it over from her dad when she was 28. Now, her own son, Craig Marshall, manages the store with his wife, Ann-Louise. They employ 16 people.

The store has survived and thrived by responding to the trends Myers saw in the marketplace. When businesses were clamoring for graphic design equipment in the 1970s, the store stocked all the newest fonts and colors necessary for creating advertisements and logos. That boom went bust in the 1980s when computers entered the scene and began to replace hand-drawn ads.

So Myers reinvented the store as what it was before and has been ever since — a place you could rely on for art supplies.

“We had to come back to our roots,” Myers said.

That move appears to have paid off. On a recent Monday morning, the parking lot is crowded at 10 a.m. Classes on watercolor portraits and figure painting are under way inside. Three models sit quietly in one room as students photograph them and begin to draw their faces.

The store has always carried the supplies that artists need, from paint and brushes to multi-colored decorative paper, and the artists decide how they want to use it. Myers said the materials themselves haven’t changed much in 50 years, aside from the advent of acrylic paint in 1963. The store offers custom framing, displays local artwork on its walls and brings in two or three nationally known art teachers each year.

“We are geared toward the professional painter,” Myers said.

The store’s original location was First and Monroe, most recently home to a Rocket Bakery. A year after its 1954 opening, it moved down the street to First and Madison, where it underwent a couple of expansions and remained until 1982.

In 1982, Spokane Art Supply moved into the 10,000 square feet it now occupies on North Monroe. And though most of the space is full with colorful displays, Myers said this is where it will likely stay. The last expansion occurred eight years ago, when a second store opened in Spokane Valley, in 5,500 square feet on East Sprague. The store’s Web site ( was launched in the late 1990s.

“We have people in Japan that buy brushes from us that are made in Japan,” Myers said with a laugh. She said the store’s Web site is a success because employees are responsive and turn orders around quickly. The store has a real location, not just a post office box, and a toll-free number to call. That breeds confidence in consumers wary of buying online, Myers said.

Over the years Myers herself has become an expert on art supplies, though she dreamed first of being a veterinarian or of teaching Latin. She was the first woman on the board of directors of the National Art Materials Trade Association in 1994 and its first female president in 2000. She’s written technical articles and reference guides and is developing a traveling seminar. She started a buying group among independent art supply stores in 1996 to try to compete with the buying power of large discount stores. That group now has 21 member stores.

“Technically knowing the products is what I am,” Myers said. Then she smiled and added, “But being able to draw a barn — isn’t going to happen.”