National Art Shop, a go-to place for local artists for decades, is set to close its doors for the last time Wednesday.
Jean and Jerry Sanders, who opened the store in 1970, are retiring and have been unable to find anyone to buy them out and continue selling art supplies.
The decision ends 51 years in business that began with a simple problem: Jerry Sanders’ mother and aunt — local artists Louise Prater and Lucille Hammond — couldn’t find art supplies for sale in the Queen City.
There were a few paint stores they could buy from, but selection was limited, and that got Jerry Sanders thinking.
“I had always wanted my own business, and I made a few calls to the art museum and some art professors about the lack of an art supply store,” he told the News-Leader in 1995. “I got a positive response.”
Soon enough, he had a $3,000 loan, enough to set up shop around the corner from the art museum in the building National Ave. Hair Salon occupies now.
His mother ran the place to start while he kept his job on the Frisco Railway, and the shop quickly attracted a solid customer base from local colleges.
“The art professors told students what they wanted them to use and we would get all their supplies into kits for them,” Jean Sanders said in an interview this week. “I wouldn’t say we made a whole lot of money on that, but it was enough.”
Once things got going, Hammond, Jerry Sanders’ aunt, came in to help his mother. The pair also had a little fun being identical twins.
They would regularly alternate days at the shop without telling anyone, and they took delight in people who came in and continued conversations with one twin they had begun with the other.
They retired about a decade in, and Jean Sanders filled the gap, leaving her job in banking behind.
It wasn’t easy, Jean Sanders said, “especially when you know what you’re doing with banking and you know nothing about art.”
But she learned a lot through reading and from her employees, who gamely answered her questions about supplies and disciplines when she asked.
“That’s why I still like (people we hire) to have at least some art knowledge,” she said. “It’s important.”
Customers appreciated that commitment, too, and they still do.
“Yes, there’s the internet now,” Aisha Farris, a local watercolor artist, said Wednesday. “But to be able to go in and talk to someone who knows what they’re talking about and someone you can trust … Springfield will miss that.”
Moving on up (a few blocks)
There were still plenty of challenges in the first few decades.
Perhaps the biggest the Sanders faced was getting a new building in 1986.
Their current home at National Avenue and Elm Street was Brigance Foodlane then, and by the time Jerry Sanders reached out to Lester Brigance about a buyout, the grocer was close to making a deal with someone else.
Brigance asked the Sanders to dinner when he saw how packed the art shop had become, though, and Jean Sanders’ Southern charm won him over.
“I introduced Jean and, of course, she’s got this heavy accent, and he’s from the South,” Jerry Sanders said in an interview last year. “So he said, ‘I’m going to sell my property to you.'”
(Jean Sanders maintains Brigance just wanted another family business.)
The shop was also buffeted by the dawn of computerized graphic design in the 1990s, which cut into business from advertising firms that previously did everything by hand.
But the Sanders adapted, adding a children’s section with acrylics and outdoor chalk as well as impulse items for weekend browsers.
By the time a News-Leader reporter swung by in 1993, the kids’ area was one of the fastest-growing parts of the business.
“We’re added enough other things we don’t notice (the losses) all that much,” Jean Sanders said then. “And there’s always going to be that artist or graphics person that doesn’t have a computer.”
Prevalence of computers aside, there were certainly still plenty of talented people working with their hands.
Mark Hillenburg, who worked at the shop in the 1990s after architecture school at what was then Drury College, said Tuesday he was wowed many times by what came through the door.
“And a lot of these people that would come in, they would seem like your average customer,” he said. “But then you’d hear that they’d just gotten commissioned to do a portrait of, say, the governor of some state, and that was why they needed the big canvas.”
“I got to know a lot of cool artists in Springfield that I wouldn’t have known otherwise,” he said, naming folk artist Robert E. Smith among them.
The shop also attracted folks who took a different approach to art.
Weber Warren, who’s worked at the store for 22 years, said he once had a man come in looking to frame a ticket stub, a small pink slip, and the grass stain on a pair of Kansas City Chiefs workout pants.
When Warren looked closer, he saw that the pink slip was a legal summons — the man said he wanted to commemorate the time he was arrested while rushing the field at Arrowhead Stadium.
“It’s not all ‘Starry Night,'” Weber said.
“It’s more than an art supply store”
All those memories resurfaced in recent days after the Sanders announced their impending retirement.
“When I heard the news, I reached out to another person that used to work there and we were all kind of shocked and a little sad,” Hillenburg said. “It’s more than an art supply store. It’s really the centerpiece of artistic culture in Springfield.”
It certainly seemed that way on Thursday, when doors opened for the closing sale and the line to get in wrapped around the building.
Kevin Kloppenburg, an art professor at Ozarks Technical Community College, was among those on hand and lamented the loss of a place he’s shopped for decades.
“I bought all my supplies for school from there and now they put together kits for my students,” he said. “And the personal service you get there, you just don’t get that anymore.”
Jean Sanders acknowledged those losses, too.
“We have a lot of loyal customers,” she said, “and we’ve truly appreciated them.”
But she also said the time had come to move on.
Those knowledgeable employees that customers love have been retiring, she said, and it’s proven difficult to replace them.
“And we’re getting older,” she said. “There has to be a time that you do it … while we’re still healthy.”
The shop’s fans get that.
“Jean and her husband are amazing, they worked for 50 years,” Kloppenburg said. “God knows they’ve earned some time off.”
But it still hurts.
“I’m sure there are some very nice people at Hobby Lobby,” Hillenburg said, “but at National Art Shop, you can pull up and park right next to the door, you don’t have to walk through 200 feet of things you don’t need, and everything is in the same place it’s always been. I can put my hand on what I need and go.
“I don’t know what I’m going to do now.”
Austin Huguelet is the News-Leader’s politics reporter. Got something he should know? Have a question? Call him at 417-403-8096 or email him at [email protected].