Success Is No Secret Here

Top Retailer Don Muller believes that galleries should approach business the way artists approach their raw materials: with an unwavering commitment to producing something memorable. Credit: Paul Shoul

When it comes to art and culture, Northampton, Mass., has a storied past. Puritan Jonathan Edwards preached here, unleashing The Great Awakening. Sylvia Plath wrote poetry while a college student here. Thomas Cole painted the surrounding countryside.

The Don Muller Gallery, which has been named NICHE Magazine’s 2011 Top Retailer of the Year, sits at the heart of this historic landscape and is a longtime staple of its cultural richness.

Owner Don Muller, who has been selling art in western Massachusetts since the early 1970s and at his Main Street, Northampton, gallery since 1978, has seen many changes through the years. But his story isn’t as much one of survival as it is of vision—or perhaps of vision and dedication combined.

When asked for the secret of his success, Muller says simply, “I do what the store needs me to do when the store needs me to do it. ” He believes that galleries should approach business the way artists approach their raw material: with an unwavering commitment to producing something memorable. “Merchandising,” he maintains, “is an art form.”

Indeed, the gallery stands as testimony to Muller’s gift for blending art and commerce. He steers clear of straight lines in favor of soft, flowing curves. Walking through the store is like drifting through a landscape awash with glass sculptures, gold and platinum jewelry, and all manner of craft works. It invites customers to linger and savor individual pieces by hundreds of artists.

“I think what I sell deserves to be presented in an artistic way,” says Muller. “That’s a real priority of mine. I want people to feel comfortable in here, and I want that comfort to be carried over to the selling.”

Lucine Dirtadian and Ursula Rodgers, who sold their handcrafted jewelry to Muller for more than 20 years, consulted with him when they decided to open their own retail gallery in Tucson, Ariz. Running a gallery is both a calling and a challenge, according to Dirtadian. “But Don really helped us to learn and grow in a shorter period of time. He has a great sense of style and art and how to present. It’s why so many artists truly respect him.”

In operating the gallery, Muller describes his primary goal as creating a “seamless integration of vision,” one that flows from advertising through customer experience to the merchandise itself.

He has certainly proven his flexibility and staying power. Business revenue at the gallery declined just once—in 2008. When he first started out, calculators were cutting-edge technology. Today it’s not unusual to have several employees working computers. Soon the gallery will sell its merchandise online.

Still, weathering economic downturns can be the most daunting challenge art galleries face. The key, according to Muller, is to continue buying and selling distinctive inventory that builds customer loyalty.

“When there’s trouble in the economy, the first thing a lot of businesses do is to cut quality,” he says. “In the end, I think that really hurts them. I always want to keep raising the bar for myself. I think my customers rely on me to do that. I believe that’s why they come back.”

Muller is also not afraid of creative—even counterintuitive—business methods. In 2008, when competitors were slashing their advertising budgets, he increased his. This dovetailed with his philosophy of “promoting the gallery nonstop.” But it also meant increased visibility for the gallery since there was less competition.

In the end, as long as people keep coming through the door, Muller knows that sales will follow.

“Everything I purchase is selected because I feel passionate about it.” He says. “I don’t buy things because I think, ‘Okay, we’re going to sell tons of this.’ I’m happy if we sell one. And if it takes five years? I’m okay with that.”

Muller believes that long-term vision is critical for new and aspiring gallery owners. They need sufficient capitalization at the outset. They also need to know what customers want and then give it to them. Trends come and go, he says. The economy is always in motion. It is vision and commitment that keep successful galleries thriving and vibrant.

Of course, loving what you do doesn’t hurt. Muller consistently expresses gratitude at having been able to spend his life doing what he loves: selling art and making an art of selling. He takes more vacation time these days than he used to, but he remains a store fixture, the rock on which the Don Muller Gallery’s success is grounded.

“The owner has to be there in order to make it work,” he concludes. “It’s personal. Running a gallery is really a people business. We sell a story with every piece of merchandise. There’s no other way to do it.”

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