Wet Paint on St. Paul's Grand Avenue has more than 35,000 unique items. Yes, thirty-five thousand. Not bad for a small, independent, brick-and-mortar art materials retailer, eh?

Owner Beth Bergman is proud of Wet Paint's success. The 38-year-old store has grown significantly in its lifetime.

That Bergman owns an art materials store is a happy accident. She graduated from Macalester College in the mid-1970s with a studio arts degree and took a job with a Fortune 500 company to pay the bills. During that time she was active in the arts community, including helping to found the WARM (Women's Art Resources of Minnesota) Gallery in Minneapolis.

Her life took its current course when she took a job at her friend's art supply store, Wet Paint, in 1983. Bergman had stepped away from corporate America to pursue her painting but was in need of a new direction. At Wet Paint, she saw an opportunity to mesh her art and business skills, and she bought the shop in 1984.

"This was the perfect match," she says. "Wet Paint allowed me to be very creative. There are days where I feel like a marketing genius. I could use the much more analytical skills that I developed through my corporate career and was pretty good at, so there's the whole business side of things. And I was able to do this surrounded by artists."

Under Bergman's ownership, the store grew quickly and moved twice, landing finally at 1684 Grand Ave. Staff turnover is low. She employs 17 people, three of whom have been with her for more than 20 years.

Bergman is recognized as a leader in the art materials industry. In fact, she was inducted last year into the International Art Materials Association's Hall of Fame. It's another perfect match for Bergman, a self-described art materials junkie.

But it's a hard time for small retailers, Bergman says, and even Wet Paint is not immune. The perception that goods are cheaper online, coupled with a still-lagging economy, has put pressure on businesses that already run smaller profit margins. Plus, the closure of the College of Visual Arts in St. Paul was a blow to Wet Paint's customer base.

St. Paul visual artist Chillon Leach is a long-time shopper and former staffer, so she knows the store from both sides of the register. She praises the staff members for their humor, expertise and professionalism, and she gushes about the volume and quality of the stock. "I really respect that it's an independently owned business," she says.


The anti-big box

The store has something for everyone, Bergman says, and "we are competitively priced where we can be." But she has more than a fat profit margin in mind. Her longtime employees deserve secure jobs that offer good wages and benefits, she says. That's not common in big-box retail.

That's one reason Bergman is so involved with the Grand Avenue Business Association and was a founder of the Metro Independent Business Alliance (MetroIBA), an organization that urges Twin Cities residents to buy local. "The small business, the family business, has been a backbone of our economic culture in this country for a long time, and it's going away rapidly," Bergman says.

Businesses need to find ways to offer a secure workplace and to compete with bigger retailers. And they need to constantly evaluate and adjust their strategies to keep up with an ever-changing marketplace, she says. The business organizations can help, but they aren't cure-alls. "We need support from the community, that they see this as a valuable means of doing business in America," Bergman says.

Giving back

Small businesses support the community, too, and Bergman is committed to giving back.

As Leach points out, "You see Wet Paint's name in a lot of art events outside of our neighborhood as a sponsor, as a donator."

Says Bergman: "I was brought up as a Christian in the Presbyterian church, and Presbyterians kind of believe in doing good things. I know what the struggle is like in our arts communities. I've been on the other side with arts organizations trying to raise money ... and feel that I need to give back to that community as much and as often as I can.

"There are so many people who thank me for what I've done, and I'm always kind of startled," Bergman adds. "I feel like I'm just trying to pull my weight as being a good citizen in the world."

FFI: Wet Paint, 1684 Grand Ave., St. Paul, Wetpaintart.com

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