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Tuesday, Dec 6, 2022
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Low Tech, High Touch

From genocide in Darfur, to iPods, to squirrel habitat, to a trend toward white automobiles … a lot of things impact the art material retail industry in ways that are clear to Steve Aufhauser, the owner of Continental Art Supplies in Reseda. Gum arabic, a binding agent in water-soluble paints, comes only from a narrow but continent-wide stripe of sub-Saharan Africa that roughly includes Sudan and Somalia where conflicts over the years made the material hard to come by. “War is not good for many things including art,” Aufhauser said. “But we have sold our fair share of picket signs,” he said, joking. Then there is the business impact of consumer trends in car colors. “Color in this world how it’s mined, refined, made available to the consumer, the consumer being paint manufacturers is entirely and absolutely driven by the automotive trade,” Aufhauser said. “The providers do what they do based on demand for their product. If all of a sudden we’re not buying brown cars anymore, then they stop making the plethora of pigments for browns,” he said, “and that can drive the price and availability of the product.” In addition to the climate effects on crops like the ’80s drought in the South that tore into cotton yields and thus rag-content paper supplies, climate affects the content of fine paintbrushes also. “The best sable brushes can be very specific,” he said. “It comes from a male animal living out in the wild trapped after a lousy winter because their coats are fuller.” Conversely, art materials can have an impact upon events. Aufhauser recounts circumstances around his address at the last convention of the National Art Materials Trade Association, where he is a past president. The convention occurred just after the massacre at Virginia Tech where 33 people died. He was given an ovation when he wondered if perhaps the killer “had gotten an art box instead of an Xbox, that may not have happened,” he said. Not that he blames video games for the shootings, but he does say they’re bad for business. “Technology is our competition. Kids aren’t drawing and painting, making comic books and making their own stories,” using their own creativity, Aufhauser said. “With video games they are playing in other people’s stories,” engaged in someone else’s creativity. He also notes how he is in competition for people’s finite supply of expendable income. “It’s a choice of an iPod or art supplies … or art lessons,” Aufhauser said, speaking generally: “No one thinks to take art classes because they aren’t being offered.” It’s systemic, he said. “Society isn’t making more customers … no one even thinks about the arts except those people who are already into it.” “We ignore every study that’s ever been published about how children excel in other areas of education and social skills by developing artistic methods,” Aufhauser said, citing “music, dance or visual arts, theater arts … it doesn’t really matter which.” Arts, he said, create “better spatial relations, better human relations, better coordination skills, better study skills, problem solving and we ignore that.” Aufhauser, noting the dearth of art impacts, wonders where our society and culture is going to be in 25 years or five years time, stressing that it “certainly has effects on the art materials industry today.” As a means to provide a place for more art to be created, Aufhauser has recently rearranged his regularly rearranged store (“My whole store is an end-cap”) to open up space for classes where books and work tables were previously displayed. “People got ideas from art books but didn’t necessarily buy art books. We really scaled down, but in reality we probably still have the largest section in the Valley for art books,” Aufhauser said. The new workshop area in the rear of the store meets a need for the arts community, he said. “It’s a place rented and used to take classes or give classes, not a school,” he said, filling a gap left from when “there were places like Everywoman’s Village and Learning Tree that are gone.” The community of artists that Continental is tapping into, is one that it has nurtured philanthropically. Spike Ward of the Arts in Education Aid Council, a non-profit that gets art materials into the hands of school teachers, cites the gift certificates Aufhauser donates for raffles, the art show he’s sponsored for art teachers, and the “shopping” day of free supplies for art teachers. “He’s a good family man and good for the community,” Ward said. Plus he donates all his freight-damaged product which the AEAC funnels into Valley schools, Ward said, and “he donated to us a copier and a desk. Now I have a desk.” He also donates prizes to juried exhibits of various arts organizations and art leagues “recognizing accomplishments of artists exhibiting more or less based in the Valley,” Aufhauser said. “It’s important to give back something. Visual arts is something you do on your own, not like ballet which you do with a handful of people,” he said. “We want them recognized beyond the art that hangs on wall. We sincerely care about them.” That feeling of care was returned last year. At one of those art league exhibits for which Continental Art Supply provided a prize to a winning artist, many heard of Aufhauser’s heart attack for the first time. During the reception for the Valley Artists Guild’s fall exhibit, between announcements for awards, the emcee told the crowd of Aufhauser’s coronary. “Pray for him,” she said, “to stop smoking.” Lessons learned: Aufhauser has stopped smoking and dropped a lot of weight from going to the gym five days a week. And there were business lessons to learn as well. “My heart attack made me realize how well-trained my staff is,” he said, “They stepped up to the challenge of running the business in my absence.” That staff is the key to the Continental Art Supplies appeal, Aufhauser said. “People see we bring our knowledge and experience and a certain amount of joy.” And they create joy, he said. “We create for some people a euphoria they find perhaps few other places. It sounds lofty, but there are definitely people who walk in here and the skies part and angels sing,” Aufhauser said, tongue only half in cheek. “People ask if there’s any magic to your success. I don’t know how successful we’ve been, but there’s certainly magic here,” he said. “I get notes and letters in the mail saying we’re an awesome store. Go onto Yelp.com, people say amazing things about us,” said Aufhauser. For example, the public comment site includes this: “They have an entire floor just for paper. I think that says it all. Worth the drive to the Valley, as nothing in Los Angeles comes close.” Victoria S. from L.A. The store’s regulars know to expect something to be moved from where they used to find it. It’s part of the plan. “Shift something six inches to the right, something you haven’t sold in months, and all of a sudden you start selling,” he said, “It’s the strangest thing.” “People do come here to browse,” Aufhauser said, and “find new things and discuss new things.” Moving things around is not so 21st Century like so-called “e-tailing,” but Aufhauser isn’t convinced the Internet is a good way to sell his product. “We don’t sell on the Internet,” he said, simply because online “you can’t touch paper; you can’t see true color; you can’t feel a brush.” Art materials are the result, Aufhauser said, “of the culture of fabrication that has developed over hundreds of years. You need to see it, feel it and sometimes smell it. Sometimes you have to hear it, a subtlety in how a brush is made. Flick the bristles near your ear and notice ‘this one’s a little different.’ That can make a difference.” Aufhauser’s business model customers interacting with knowledgeable people and the products they sell is something that doesn’t go digital. Appealing to the customer he can see has been the plan since 1960. “I’m much more comfortable moving stuff around than changing our business model. Our business model is to have everything that anyone could possible ever need and have staff that knows everything there is to know about that product and to treat people with respect and kindness and civility,” Aufhauser said. “That’s the way Dad started things almost 50 years ago.” Good retailing remains vital in the bricks and mortar world, he said. “The definition of a good store is dependent upon the products that they carry and the knowledge they carry about the products they carry. That pretty much defines good retailing, universally.” Continental Art Supplies Location: Reseda Revenues in 2006: $2 million Revenue in 2007: $2 million Employees in 2006: 18 Employees in 2007: 13 Year Established: 1960

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