This is an installment of Shop Talk, an occasional series of interviews with business owners in Alaska, focusing on the state economy and how it is affecting them.
At Blaines Art in Spenard, Dave Haag said the art supply shop is feeling the pain of Alaska's recession just like so many other businesses in the state.
But Haag has also dealt with painful personal changes this year. He lost his wife, Rene, to pancreatic cancer. The two first met at the store's old location. She bought the business from its previous ownership in 1998, and now he's taken over.
Haag said the economy has affected both his workplaces in profound ways; along with his role at the shop, he works as an equipment operator and foreman for the Alaska Railroad Corp. He talked to the Anchorage Daily News about how business is faring at Blaines.
How is Alaska's recession affecting you?
With half the Permanent Fund (dividend), definitely every single small business I've talked to has said the same thing, how they've felt the hurt. People aren't spending. … It's kind of that sense of gloom and doom. You've got to be innovative. We've brought back something that we hadn't done for many years: We started having gallery openings or artist openings at the store once a month.
How specifically are you seeing that play out at your store in this downturn?
Traditionally, when Permanent Fund dividends come out, we see big-ticket items move out of the store. We usually see a big increase in the number of sales of easels, large ticket items, big painting kits. Some of the oil pigments can be quite expensive. The pigments themselves are difficult and expensive to get, so they necessarily cost more. And we definitely saw a decrease in those types of sales this year. Last year and this year.
What about the rest of the year, aside from PFD season?
Our sales have been down. They haven't been terrible, but they've definitely been down. My late wife believed in supporting the artists that support us, and I continue that philosophy. … Because of the kind of recession we've been in, artists are not moving their work. That's part of the reason why I think some of the galleries have been struggling. Purchasing original artwork is kind of a luxury, and when people are worried about, you know, what's going to happen next month, are they going to have a job, they're not as likely to spend that kind of money. And when they do, they don't spend as much.
I'm curious to know what other ways you have been adapting in this economy.
Social media has become big. You have to reach out to where people are, and everybody is staring into a smartphone nowadays, so you've got to contact them. It's constant contact.
We've also been a part of, for a number of years, a nationwide organization of small art retailers where we come together once a year and we're essentially presented to by the larger suppliers and we pool our buying power so we can compete for price with online and the bigger stores. You can pick up some art materials at Fred Meyer or Walmart, but they're generally sort of lower quality. Our niche market is not just professional artists, but they need to be catered to.
Looking toward the future, what are some of your biggest concerns?
I think everybody's terrified of Amazon. And I find it ironic, really, that so many millennials that are so anti-corporation continue to feed that monster. They just care about price point. If you're in the middle of a painting Saturday afternoon and need some titanium white, you can't just run down to Blaines to get it if we're not here. … When jobs start going away and people start leaving, the people that are leaving are not the guys that are wandering around on the streets. It's professionals. It's an income drain, it's a brain drain. And that's what concerns me. … Blaines has weathered many an economic storm in this state, and hopefully, God willing, we'll weather this one.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and brevity.