Sluggish sales force Lake Worth gallery owner to downsize

LAKE WORTH — Bruce Webber is a throwback, an old-school businessman who could care less about Facebook, the internet or faster Wi-Fi.

The longtime owner of The Art Shop, a picture framing and art supplies store, and Bruce Webber Gallery on Lucerne Avenue in downtown Lake Worth, enjoys meeting customers in person, not behind a computer screen.

It’s all about the personal touch for him.

“I’d rather talk, show and smile,” said Webber, 69. “The computer doesn’t interest me. I don’t want to sit behind a desk and type all day. I have a website, but it’s not up to date. The world has changed, but I guess I haven’t changed with it.”

That’s one of the reasons why Webber, with a heavy heart, said he’s downsizing the gallery he loves so much. The gallery now occupies about 2,000-square-feet. That will shrink to 800 in the next few weeks. The Art Shop won’t be affected.

Webber is struggling to make money, like other local artists. Foot traffic is practically non-existent as more customers buy art the way customers buy so many items these days — with the click of a mouse.

“I’ll have people come in, look at what I have and then they’ll see something similar on the internet for less,” Webber said. “You can’t really compete with that.”

Recently, Webber said he thought he had a $300 sale for a custom mirror frame. But the lady came back and told Webber she found one in Home Depot — and made in China — for $39.99.

He’s been offering 20 percent discounts, but that hasn’t helped.

Webber has about 30 original Florida paintings for sale, with prices ranging from $100 to $10,000. The $10,000 work is of a fully bloomed royal poinciana painted by James Hutchinson. In recent weeks, Webber has been liquidating much of his work, putting 45 paintings up for auction. He sold 38, netting $3,100.

“It’s really a shame,” Webber said, his eyes welling up.

Webber’s wife, Maryanne, an artist herself who closed her gallery two years ago, said her husband is going through a tough time. “The Art Shop has been our whole life,” she said. “But it’s hard to change when you’ve done things a certain way your whole life. He’s still a product of the ’50s. He didn’t get a fax machine until 1989.”

The Webbers are considering selling the two buildings they own and which house the gallery and The Art Shop. Webber declined to say how much he’s asking for the properties. Artist Rolando Chang Barrero is renting the old space that once housed Maryanne’s gallery. Webber said there’s a chance Barrero may move into his gallery and that the space that was once Maryanne’s could become a beauty salon.

“If Bruce decides to retire, it will be an end of an era in Lake Worth,” Barrero said.

When art sales were robust before the economy tanked , Webber said he had about 150 paintings for sale. He’s still waiting for those days to come back.

“We’ve been hearing that Lake Worth has so much potential,” he said. “Well, hopefully someday that potential will come to fruition. I’ve worked long and hard trying to do my share, but we still haven’t moved too far forward.”

Webber said last year a customer asked if he was interested in moving to Palm Beach Gardens, home to a wealthier client base. “He said that’s where the money is,” Webber recalled.

But Webber had no interest, saying he didn’t want to pay rent and didn’t want to leave Lake Worth.

Local artist AnnaMaria Windisch-Hunt said Webber’s timing to downsize could be off. “The C.W.S (craft bar and kitchen that recently opened) has bought some good foot traffic to Lucerne Avenue,” she said. “The Lake Worth Art League is now open later because of that.”

The Art Shop is a Lake Worth institution and is celebrating its 60th anniversary this year. It’s believed to be the city’s oldest downtown business. Webber, a Vietnam veteran, came to Florida in January 1970 from Minneapolis, fresh off his one-year stint at the Minneapolis Institute of Art.

“I wasn’t too well received there because I was a veteran,” he said. “So I had left.”

One day, he popped into The Art Shop and asked if the then owner, Richard Purnell, needed help.

Webber never left. He bought the store in 1985 and quickly after that began selling paintings in addition to frames and supplies.

Framing has always been the bulk of Webber’s business. He’s created them for such celebrities as the forever tanned George Hamilton, soap star Deidre Hall and late sports announcer Curt Gowdy. Webber once made a $3,500 frame for a museum he declines to name.

The good ‘ol days, however, didn’t last forever. They usually don’t.

“It’s sad for me,” Webber said, sitting inside his empty gallery one recent afternoon, eyes welling up again as he stares out the window, looking for customers who aren’t there.

“This shop has been good to me.”

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