Art Boutique Sees Its Business As Developing Artists

By Brandon T. Harden The Philadelphia Inquirer

WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) One of the owners' goals is to streamline the buying and selling of art for up-and-comers.

PHILADELPHIA

At Trunc, a Northern Liberties artisan boutique, there are three requirements for artists who aspire to sell their work there: All items have to be handmade, their art has to tell a story, and every artist has to host an event at the boutique.

Trunc's ambiance is itself a work of art. The walls are strewn with abstract and contemporary paintings while recessed lighting illuminates mahogany-stained shelves. Warm earth tones fill the room as soft R&B music lulls visitors into a soulful state.

The store at 929 N. Second Street doubles as an event space, hosting fashion shows, play readings, and small concerts. But for owners Dorothea Gamble and Dagmar Mitchell, both 63, bridging the gap between local artists and consumers remains the paramount focus.

"I really want to continue to be a vehicle for emerging artists," said Gamble. "If the Art Museum is looking for new artists, I want them to call us."

Like the burgeoning artists they serve, the owners have faced many challenges to get Trunc going. They bought the building in 1999 for $40,000 when Northern Liberties was still undiscovered and "banks wouldn't lend money to businesses in a dilapidated area," said Gamble, a longtime resident. That changed in the 2010s, she said. Now, the building's market value has surged above $400,000, according to Zillow.

But then the property was stolen through adverse possession in 2005. A career criminal tried to take the property by falsely claiming squatter's rights.

The battle to earn back the property lasted another five years. And it wasn't until June 2012 that they officially regained rights to the building, records show. Six years and thousands of dollars in renovations later, Trunc finally opened in October.

One of the owners' goals is to streamline the buying and selling of art for up-and-comers. But Trunc also works with more established creators, like the noted mixed media artist LeRoy Johnson, who has worked the Philly art scene for over 65 years.

"When I was young, I used to walk in some places and they would act like I was sticking them up. I would show them my work and they wouldn't believe I made it," said Johnson, 81. "Stores like (Trunc) are great because IKEA's not going to pick me up." Graffiti and hip-hop pioneer Darryl McCray, better known as "Cornbread," agrees that opportunities for black artists aren't plentiful. In McCray's experience, having a strong business acumen is as important as having talent.

"A lot of the artists (of color) are taken advantage of by people who know what they're doing," McCray said.

Next steps for Trunc are still developing. The shop moves about 20 units per week with items ranging from $10 to $2,500. The average price point is $25. Gamble said she hopes to make at least $50,000 in revenue this year. "And that's nothing," she joked.

The duo are in the thick of an experimental phase for their business. Finding a profitable strategy is a priority. The couple plans to remodel the lower level to host yoga classes for children. Their newest policy mandates all artists who have items for sale at Trunc host at least one event in the space.

And every item must have a story. Generations of women in Allison Stackpole's family were given whistles to wear around their necks for protection at college. Inspired by that, she created Blo jewelry, a line of accessories with a rustic whistle attached.

Trunc may be the new kid on the block, but there's significant competition nearby for art connoisseurs. Stores like Swag and Art Star, which opened in 2004, also sell handmade items. Like Trunc, Art Star hosts events and classes. Gamble says she doesn't view other stores as competition, but rather potential collaborators.

"Whenever we do an event, we try to do it with other businesses in the area," she said.

Before owning the shop, Gamble worked in retail management for over 30 years while Mitchell continues to work as an addiction counselor. Gamble grew up in a creative family in Red Bank, N.J., where she was reclusive, often taking her sketchbook to her bedroom to create.

"I was extremely shy and extremely poor, so I started drawing on my bedroom wall, and my mother didn't see it until it was finished." Gamble said. "I used little pencils because there were no crayons."

On the 4-feet-by-6-feet wall of her bedroom, Gamble drew a portrait of The Last Poets, a spoken word collaborative that gained national attention during the late 1960s. Gamble grew up during the Black Arts Movement, which she said inspired her aesthetic.

"I loved the group's rapper, and I drew his picture on my wall, with his rap right next to it," Gamble said.

The Black Arts Movement was the "sister of Black Power concept," said Sonia Sanchez, the Philly poet who's revered for her involvement with the movement. During the late 1960s and 1970s, black people were united in forging their own political and cultural identity amid the struggle against colonialism and racism, Sanchez said.

Trunc is a testament to the founders' artistic aspirations and their resilience.

"There was a time, not too long ago, when (Dorothea) looked at me and asked, 'Should we just give up?' " Mitchell said. "And I said, 'Not yet.' "

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