We’ve heard it many times before: Big national chain store comes into town, puts small, locally–owned store out of business. It’s a sad story. Except when it isn’t.
Robyn Reeder, co–owner of the beloved Primary Art Supply, says she and her partner were able to negotiate the sale of her nearly 20–year–old Broughton Street institution to the national chain Blick Art Materials into a win/win situation for everyone — including Primary Art employees.
“That’s the greatest part: Our entire staff has not only been offered jobs with Blick, they’re all actually going. It’ll be Primary on steroids,” she laughs. “We’ve been working with the same customers for almost 20 years now and we hope everyone will follow us over there.”
By “over there” Reeder is referring to what will be the new “superstore” location of Blick, at 318 E. Broughton Street closer to SCAD’s Jen Library.
She says the big switch could happen as soon as August.
(Reeder and her business partner Amy Spurlock own the current Primary building at 14 E. Broughton; their vintage clothing store Civvie’s stays in business upstairs while the downstairs art store space will eventually be leased to a new business.)
“The new space is huge and really impressive,” she says. “We’ve been a big part of the revitalization of Broughton since 1996, and now it’s neat that we’ll also be a part of the newest big thing happening here too.”
Reeder wouldn’t reveal the terms of the sale but says she’s very happy with the sale price, and at least as happy about the result for her employees.
“We were sort of at a standstill. We weren’t able to offer what the big chains can offer as far as benefits and wages,” she says. “Our priority in this negotiation was making sure our employees would have the opportunity to get jobs with what we know will end up being better wages and benefits than they had before.”
Primary Art Supply, one of the great downtown small business success stories, was founded by Spurlock, a metals and jewelry student at SCAD. “We met in class and I worked for her for a few years,” Reeder relates, “and then we became partners when she decided to move out west to Santa Fe in 2000. ”
Reeder still considers herself a strong supporter of local small businesses, and says she fought the good fight as long as she could. Those who doubt her resolve need only consider her seven–year battle with cancer as proof of her tenacity.
But the writing on the wall became clear awhile ago.
“Two years ago Utrecht came into town,” she says, referring to another chain store that set up shop on MLK Jr. Boulevard. “That was the beginning of tough times for us — the increased competition coupled with the recession really had us struggling. The simple reality was we weren’t going to be able to survive.”
Reeder says that SCAD’s growth, while good for the city overall, also meant that “it was only a matter of time” before another art supply chain would want to get in on the action.
Sure enough, “we got word Blick was coming, and the news was kind of devastating,” she says. “We knew we wouldn’t be able to compete at that point, sandwiched in between two big chain stores. Our days were numbered.”
Then something funny happened — Blick apparently did the right thing.
“This is where we have the utmost respect for the way they do business,” Reeder recalls. “They’re working like this all around the country. Instead of just crushing small businesses — which they surely could have done in our case — they put out a proposal.”
While Reeder confesses to having a certain amount of proud resistance in the beginning, she says after negotiation the terms of the deal simply became too attractive to pass up.
Plus, her longtime customers will get an added benefit.
“It’s hard to compete with a chain, because in reality we can’t compete on pricing. But now we can, and it’s exciting. We’ll be able to do the same thing we’ve been doing all these years, but will all of a sudden have the lowest prices in town.”
Reeder says she and Spurlock have agreed to work closely with Blick Art Materials on the new superstore for a year, mostly in sales and marketing.
“We’ll also be doing a lot of community outreach similar to the kinds of events we’ve always done with Primary. So we’ll be able to continue to do that but with a lot more resources behind us,” she says.
“They’re smart,” concludes Reeder of Blick Art Materials. “They knew we have a lot of history in this town, with a good customer following and really good energy. We hope to serve as a good bridge between them and the community.”