Even before we moved to North Carolina's High Country, I was already very familiar with Cheap Joe’s Art Stuff. Like many artists, I ordered online from Cheap Joe’s, dreamed about attending a workshop, and occasionally dropped by their resource section to search for information.
That was about the extent of my Cheap Joe’s knowledge… until we moved. Now that we live within easy driving range of Cheap Joe’s outlet, I find myself searching for excuses to stop by. (A dangerous activity for an art supply junkie. Yep, living la vida loco!)
"Life is short. Make art!" Joe Miller
As I’ve wandered Cheap Joe’s gloriously stocked aisles, I’ve been bowled over by Joe's kind, knowledgeable staff. In a world where customer service is in short supply and get-it-yourself is the attitude of the day, finding a store where employees actually enrich a shopper’s experience is refreshing indeed.
As I’ve looked past the merchandise, I’ve also noticed a lot of corporate spunk and spirit. There are funny signs and neat sayings sprinkled through the store, including one that proclaims Cheap Joe’s as an Authentic Landmark on the National Register of Hysteric Places. (I had to read it twice; it looks official.) Nearly all of Joe's publications are imbibed with humor, including the "You-Done-Good Certificate" that I received for entering a Cheap Joe's art contest.
“There will be days when my creative forces aren’t forcing too well. I’ll try not to worry. Take a break from making art. Do something else, like sky diving.” Joe Miller
I had noticed founder and owner Joe Miller (aka “Cheap Joe”) trotting through the store, but I had not met him. I wanted to learn a bit more about the mastermind behind it all, plus I liked his art, so I picked up a signed copy of his book, Joe’s Journals: The Art & Tales of a Sojourner.
I thought Joe’s book would be another good art book, but I thought wrong. Joe’s art is wonderful and awe-inspiring, but this book is more than a good art book. There’s also a lot of spunk and humor within these pages. And there's a lot of honesty and tenderness that is freely (and possibly unknowingly) displayed throughout Joe’s writings. He writes as if he's sitting on the front porch or bicycling down the lane beside you, just talking. I like that.
"I don't worry about these things [perspective, errors] when I'm doing these little scenes. It's more an exercise in living than being perfect." Joe Miller
Did you know Joe was in his mid-40s before he tried watercolor painting? And then he promptly got discouraged and gave it up! It would only be a bit longer before the paint stuck, but eventually it did, and Joe began selling art supplies at Boone Drugs while working there as a full-time pharmacist. I like that too.
Recently, I was able to meet Joe and talk with him in person. As my arm swept the rows and rows of merchandise inside Cheap Joe’s vast warehouse, I asked him, “So you didn’t plan any of this? It was just a hobby?” He laughed and said, “Heck no. I only did it because I wanted to get my art supplies wholesale.”
Ah, spirit and humor in spades! I really, really like that.
"Find something, no matter how small, positive in all you do." Joe Miller
Joe’s granddaughter, Meghann, works for the company with Ambassador relations and donations, and recently she offered me a grand tour. I jumped at the chance to see Cheap Joe’s Art Stuff behind-the-scenes operations.
Here are the top 10 insider secrets I learned during my tour.
(Don’t tell anyone I told you…)
1) Cheap Joe assembles all their Kilimanjaro & American Journey pads, blocks, and sketchbooks in house.
2) Their longest employed worker has been with the company for more than 30 years.
3) Cheap Joe's call center has a sign on the wall that says, “World's friendliest call center." Amen!
4) In the 1980s, Joe chose the name American Journey because he saw U.S. industries moving overseas and he wanted to reflect the spirit of his American-made products.
5) Winsor & Newton Rose Madder watercolor smells like bliss. Best word I can think of to describe it. (Thanks, Meghann, for letting me sniff the paints!)
6) The corporate offices are centered around a long hallway of original masterpieces that were given to Joe by fellow artists, including an inscribed illustration by Archie Comic artist Al Hartley. (Joe, if you ever decide to put me in your will, I want the Al Hartley.)
7) When you meet Joe, you will be hugged. A lot. He’s about the friendliest person I’ve ever run across. In person, in his art, and in his writings, he exudes warmth and shares his good nature freely. Of course, also be prepared for a joke or two. That’s Joe.
8) Joe’s hugging is infectious. As I watched the employees and regular customers interact, there was always a hug or two involved. It even started affecting me. I left there wanting to hug the world. Contagious, I tell ya!
9) Joe usually only hosts one workshop in Boone per year, and they book up fast. (Psst... at the moment, Joe's 2018 workshop still has a tiny bit of space in it. If anyone wonders what to get me for an early Christmas present...)
10) Of course, I asked the question everyone asks: Who really makes Cheap Joe’s American Journey paints and Kilimanjaro papers? Meghann refused to tell. Everyone is sworn to secrecy. Literally. Employees are asked to sign a nondisclosure agreement.
I was raised in a town with a population of 500, working at the soda fountain in my grandfather’s pharmacy and continuing to work there when my dad took over the business. My dad kept the pharmacy going until retirement, refusing to sell out his customers when Walmart came knocking and then later when other retail giants like CVS and Walgreens tried to woo him.
I was taught, as my grandfather said, to “stay put and shop local.” Our family tries to support privately owned businesses and our local economy as much as possible. But we also care about the heart and mind behind the companies that we support. Cheap Joe's Art Stuff is the real deal, the total package.
"I don't expect to be remembered for being a great artist. Maybe not even a good one. But this can be honestly said about me—I followed my bliss, my dream." Joe Miller
All throughout my tour, I was blown away by Cheap Joe's overwhelming spirit of kindness and positivity. Plus, I really love Cheap Joe’s goods and prices! Their return policy is the best, and just check out their recent green initiatives.
If you are interested in shopping and supporting this amazing company, just follow this link to their website. (I don’t receive a commission or anything from your click; it’s just a way to tell them that I sent you.) If you visit Cheap Joe’s in person, please let them know at checkout that Tonya at Scratchmade Journal said hello!
P.S. All of the quotes in this post are borrowed from Joe's book, Joe's Journals. I highly recommend this book that's filled with pages and pages of sketches and writings from, what else, Joe's art journals. Plus, Joe's simple, down-to-earth musings about life and art are highly inspirational and encouraging.