Business Spotlight: Art Mart
It wasn’t always easy to start a women-owned business. Just ask Linda Ballard about her experience when seeking a loan for their small business, Art Mart, which is now the oldest women-owned business in Champaign County and the second oldest in the state of Illinois. Linda and her sister, Carol Ann Hunt, took over Art Mart which opened its doors at First & Heavy on the University of Illinois campus in 1958. After the original owner, Jan Fox, graduated and moved away, the sisters took over what was originally an art gallery for students and faculty.
Linda and Carol Ann approached the bank for a loan before women were allowed to have a credit card in their name. Linda will tell you that she had never been told she couldn’t do something, thanks to being raised in a large extended family, with an enterprising and independent mother who owned her own catering business. So, when the bank denied their loan–said the banker, “I might as well take the money and go to the track,”–they were shocked. Their husbands co-signed the loan allowing them to get what they needed to expand their business, but the moment the Equal Credit Opportunity Act of 1974 was signed into law, they changed the loan and all utilities so they could be sole owners.
They moved the business down Green St. and were located next to the C–Ed Theater, sharing a lobby. Linda shared that during that time, her infant daughter, Courtney, who now operates the store, was placed in the window of the shop to watch the people go by, attracting attention to their store. While in this space, they expanded on the original concept of the store and added housewares, pottery, and some clothing, bringing in new shoppers. In 1977, they moved again to Lincoln Square Mall becoming a retail hub and adding product lines along the way.
In this space, they opened a bakery using many recipes from their mom’s catering business, such as the cookie recipe still used today. Wine was introduced in the shop after another local shop closed, and a toy section for kids was added when Courtney had children. This was originally going to be temporary, but it went so well that they leased additional space to keep it intact and today offer one of the largest unique toy and game section for kids.
As their customer base kept changing based on their location as did the ebb and flow of the community, they closed the Lincoln Square space in 2015 and re-opened in Champaign in 2016. The shop is found in the middle of several neighborhoods, walkable to hundreds of homes within a one-mile distance, allowing more people to discover this local gem.
In talking with Brian McKay, Linda’s son-in-law, he explains one of their secrets of success. “We believe every item has its Christmas season,” taking the philosophy that something should sell every hour of every day of every week in every month of the year, whether it’s the line of people getting coffee and croissants at 7:00 p.m. With a diverse product line of housewares, clothing, gift items, pantry items, toys, games, freshly made goods from the cafe, cheese, chocolate, and wine, Art Mart is a one-stop shop that knows its audience.
Linda, who has been with the business for over 60 years, still comes in every day. She takes pride in knowing all their customers, but with so many continuing to discover the space, she gets help on the community connections from her daughter Coutney, son-in-law brian, and Brian’s sister Cathy. As a family-owned business, they pride themselves on being a part of the community. They live and work here, run their business here, and hire many in the community.
When we asked Linda if she ever thought Art Mart would be what it is today, she says, “I never thought I’d be in retail. The store just took on its own life, and here we are today.”
Learn more at shopartmart.com