Fifteen years ago, Virginia Stephenson walked into Artists Emporium for her first painting class.
On Sunday, she came ready to paint again — but this time she brought a ladder and missed the St. James Street location by about three kilometres.
Stephenson was one of 38 customers to sign up for renovating the locally owned supplier’s new hub at 580 Roseberry St.
"This was a day I didn’t have anything on," she said. "So... we’re here painting."
Stephenson worked on Artists Emporium’s new classroom, admiring the big windows and getting excited by the air conditioning. It got hot in the old warehouse.
She’s volunteered for the company before. Once you become a regular, you get to know the staff, she said.
"It’s kind of a family (feeling)," she said. "Everybody that I know that paints knows Artists Emporium."
Despite being physically closed to customers during its busiest season last year, and flipping to online sales with a consumer base that largely prefers the in-person experience, Artists Emporium is moving and expanding its operations.
"I’m pretty stubborn, so I would never let (the business) die," said Janeen Junson, the shop’s owner and president.
Sometimes, that meant driving across the city to deliver a single pen after a long day’s work — couriers were too expensive.
"When (the pandemic) started, we were very apprehensive about how we would stay open," she said.
Artists Emporium stopped its custom framing, its classes, and selling many of its school art kits during the COVID-19 pandemic. As a result, most of its 22 staff were laid off.
But, online orders were flowing in.
"Families were at home with the kids, and they wanted to do art projects," Junson said. "In the beginning, it was kind of a novelty."
So, she switched from working "semi-retirement hours" to up to 16 hours per day. Family, friends, friends’ kids and customers took shifts answering calls and delivering orders.
"A lot of our customers have become friends over the years," Junson said, adding they’ve been a massive support through the last 19 months.
Transitioning to online was difficult: normally, people enter Artists Emporium for something specific and walk out with a bag full of goods, Junson said.
"It’s really like candy in a candy store for artists," she said. "I think that’s part of what does keep us in business, is the fact that artists like to see the actual colour, or touch (things)... They’re very tactile."
The vibrant rows of markers and crayons, the stands of canvases and craft kits, just don’t translate to a web platform, Junson said.
Being able to re-open Artists Emporium’s doors has been a blessing, she added. However, the hours haven’t returned to normal — they’re still 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. instead of 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.
Employees hover around the 16 person mark, compared to the usual 22.
"We’re still kind of watching (the pandemic)," Junson said. "We really have to budget."
Steady rent is needed to make ends meet, Junson said — hence the move.
"Our rent was just going through the roof," she said. "It was going up and up and up every year."
She’d been eyeing new locations pre-COVID-19, but the lockdowns solidified the need for a new place. Artists Emporium bought the 15,000 square foot building on Roseberry Street and took possession in September. Renovations have been ongoing since.
"It’s very much an upgrade," said Sylvia DeFehr, a customer who volunteered to help paint last Monday.
DeFehr didn’t know Junson or other Artists Emporium staff when she signed up. But, she was on the company email list and wanted to help the community. When Junson sent a memo asking for help, DeFehr responded.
She detailed the retail space.
When Junson first bought the company in 1999, she aimed to create a hub for artists.
"(I wanted them) to feel comfortable," she said.
She began product demonstrations in store "to encourage people to try new things". That gradually morphed to art classes where customers pay and take finished pieces home.
Artists Emporium’s new classroom will be in the front of the building. The retail space will be in the middle, with employees’ desks scattered around so patrons can easily access staff.
The company is taking over Floatmount Mounting and Laminating, a Main Street business. There will be a dust-free room on Roseberry for mounting and lamination.
In 2009, Junson bought Don’s Frames/Smith Gallery, an ornate frame manufacturer. She renamed the business AE Design One and moved into the custom framing market. Those operations are moving from a McLeod Avenue building to a room inside Artists Emporium.
"It was hard to travel completely across the city and back to get framing done," Junson said.
Artists Emporium’s lease on St. James Street ended on Halloween and it awaits an occupancy permit for its new space. In the meantime, online shopping with curbside pickup or delivery is available.
Junson has visions for the site’s future: different classes, more framing, walls covered in murals by local artists.
But, she hopes one thing will remain — the community.
"We have a huge, loyal community of... artists," Junson said. "Everyone is super supportive."
Gabby is a big fan of people, writing and learning. She graduated from Red River College’s Creative Communications program in the spring of 2020.