Reimagining Local Retail


Any shopper who’s found himself or herself ordering online can understand why retail businesses have taken a hit the past few years. While it’s troubling to hear stores like Toys ‘R’ Us, The Limited and Payless all filed for bankruptcy this year alone, a national retail recession can be even more devastating for small businesses and mom and pop stores. Luckily, area retailers are getting creative when it comes to bringing in customers and engaging with shoppers. They’re building storefronts and shops that show customers the value of experiences and education.

For many of us who haven’t picked up an art supply since grade school (we’re not counting cleaning up your kids’ markers and crayons), tapping back into our creative selves might feel uncomfortable and intimidating. Fear not. The shops and owners featured in this story are warm and welcoming. They break down any barriers when it comes to getting started with art projects and they have a desire to teach, so you’ll want to continue using what you learned. These female business owners want their students and customers to feel the same excitement for art that they do, and experience the satisfaction of completing a project. Here are three retail shops in the community that are sure to get your creative juices flowing.

DIY and Buy at AR Workshop

Joanna Rapuzzi first went to an Anders Ruff Workshop while visiting family in North Carolina. The Staten Island native-turned-Westfield resident said when she went to the flagship store in Pineville, “I fell in love and inquired about how I could open this in my area.” AR Workshops were a smaller operation then but have since become a franchise. “We’re still all individually mom and pop, but the business has that [franchise] feel and corporate helps come up with fresh designs we can use,” said Rapuzzi. AR Workshop has 32 stores nationally.

“I wanted to move to Westfield because it’s a great place to live and raise children,” said the mom of two. “Before I landed in Westfield, I was an administrator in a hospital for five years. I’ve always had a DIY passion. I enjoyed doing different things around my house like refinishing furniture, and making projects my own. I also always had a passion for opening my own business; I just didn’t know what it would be.”

Rapuzzi opened AR Workshop in the heart of Downtown Westfield last May. “The surrounding businesses and the mayor and elected officials have been so nice and supportive,” Rapuzzi said. “The mayor and officials came to the grand opening. People have been checking in to make sure the business is thriving, and they even invited me to participate in a town hall and give an overview of the business here,” she said.

AR Workshop hosted some summer camps and will offer more next year once school lets out. Rapuzzi hosts classes on any days local children have off from school, making sure they have activities to do that day.

Unsure of where to start with all the projects they offer? Rapuzzi says the wood signs with their signature sayings are very popular. “Our canvas totes are growing in popularity too because they’re user-friendly. You can stencil different designs on them, add your name or a monogram, something sports-themed, the ideas are endless! Students get an experience in making them and then get to use it,” she said. The AR Workshop classes start at age 8 and up.

You can visit the workshop in person or browse the website to see examples of projects you can complete in one session. There you’ll also find a calendar of events. “We just came out with a whole slew of holiday designs that will knock your socks off. You can find a design for whatever you’re looking for, and it’s personalized so it’s even better,” said Rapuzzi. Every person at the table could be making a completely different design and that’s what AR Workshop wants. “We want everyone to have their options open and do whatever they want to do,” she said. The canvas projects start at $40, wood projects start at $50 and they can do custom design projects as well.

“I think the reason why this model is so successful is because you’re going to a place where you can have fun, catch up with your friends or family, but at the same time, you’re getting this great DIY experience where you’re leaving with something that you can be proud to hang on your wall or put on your shelf,” said Rapuzzi.

“I think the reason why this model is so successful is because you’re going to a place where you can have fun, catch up with your friends or family, but at the same time, you’re getting this great DIY experience where you’re leaving with something that you can be proud to hang on your wall or put on your shelf.”

“It’s empowering when people come in and make something themselves. It really gives them the courage to take on projects in their homes they may never have thought to do. We’re teaching them how to use a drill, a nail gun and how to distress and stain wood. Some of our customers have never done that before and they feel so proud of themselves that they’re learning how to do it,” said Rapuzzi. Her customers have told her after classes that they’re inspired to paint or refinish a piece of furniture in their homes. “I think that’s the most important part: to make the customer feel proud of what they made. They’re going to hang it and use it in their home,” Rapuzzi said.

If you want to gift someone an AR Workshop experience, you can order a gift card online or pick one up in the store. Rapuzzi says you can also order personalized gifts for the holidays and pick them up in the store. AR Workshop also hosts private events, Moms’ night outs, date nights and more. Contact Rapuzzi about availability.

Affordable, Accessible Art on South Ave.

Whether you want to learn how to paint, desire a space to launch a special event or simply need a spot where you can do art without messing up your house, South Avenue Arts has something to offer every level of artist. Studio owner Sharon Reed grew up drawing and painting as the daughter of an art teacher, but she graduated from Rutgers with an MBA and pursued a career in business before going back to school to study a creative field at the New York School of Interior Design. Reed is an award-winning oil painter who specializes in custom pet portraits and serves on the Board of Trustees for the Westfield Art Association. She was painting from home and looking for more of a sense of community. She wanted to find a place where she could paint with other local artists and be able to store her supplies and art. “I was looking for a co-working environment and didn’t really find any in this area, so I created one,” Reed said.

“I lucked out finding this old VFW building and then the studio grew from here. It’s centrally located to a lot of towns,” she said.

Artists can bring their supplies and sign up to use the co-working space for $20 for three hours. You can also rent a locker and store your belongings and supplies there. “It’s your studio away from home. Come whatever three hours you want during the times that we’re open and do your work,” Reed said. She also has two semi-private rooms that are 9 feet by 9 feet that artists can rent month-to-month. These rooms have their own locks and the artists can use the room at any time. One room is still available for rent!

The front area has a bar left over from the VFW days and it’s a nice place where parents sit and chat while their kids are in class and they’re waiting to pick them up. “The first thing everybody would say when they walked in and saw the bar was, ‘Oh, we can have a party here!’ It wasn’t part of my original business model but I thought, ‘Well, why not?’ So I started doing some of the paint and sip [wine] parties. I also rent out the space for parties on Sundays. We’ve done first birthday parties, christening parties, things like that. Customers can get their own caterer and use the whole space,” Reed said.

Reed selects works from local artists to display around the workshop and have for sale. “The art we have for sale is affordable, accessible art, created by local artists… maybe even one of your neighbors,” she said. She says art students and parents who browse while their kids are in class are interested in buying some of the pieces.

“The art we have for sale is affordable, accessible art, created by local artists… maybe even one of your neighbors.”

A large part of Reed’s business comes from classes. Check out the updated schedule on her website for kids, teen and adult art classes. “There are daytime and evening classes. Some students are brand new and have always wanted to do some sort of art and give it a try, and then there are people who did art when they were younger and now they’re coming back to it. There are some who are pretty experienced and they just want to find someplace close by where they can create with other people,” said Reed. A six-session watercolor adult painting class starts around $150. Reed instructs some classes and hires teachers. “I just want to be accessible, nice, encouraging and warm. I’m trying to hire people with those characteristics so that customers and students have a positive experience,” said Reed. “My original thought for this business was, ‘I’m going to have this studio and lots of people are going to come and use the studio,’ but it turns out more people really want to learn through the classes,” she said. Reed says the space can be rented out for holiday parties, community groups, fundraiser events and more.

Embellish Your Creative Side

You might recognize Donna Del Guercio from her “Belladonna’s Yarn Room and Interiors” shop, which is located in downtown Cranford at 106 North Union Avenue. This September, she reopened as Embellish Workshop, a destination where customers can craft, make decorations, create favor boxes, sew and more. Del Guercio was going to open this store with her younger sister, Nicole Del Guercio, but Nicole passed away last year. Del Guercio decided to forge ahead with the business and is donating 10 percent of each sale to the Pixeimagic Foundation, which will give the money to a local charity of Del Guercio’s choosing each month. “[This business] is a combination of things she liked to do and what I like to do. I’m a big knitter and crocheter. My sister had a design background. We’re creating fun projects people can do in our workshop or at home and give as gifts,” said Del Guercio. Or, if you have something in mind you’d like to have Del Guercio make for you – perhaps something you saw on Pinterest, in a magazine or on a design sign – you can bring it in to have Del Guercio make it for you.

While doing arts and crafts in a community setting isn’t a new trend, Del Guercio’s business features a state-of-the-art paper-cutting machine called “Accu Cut” which makes designs for custom cards, decorations, wall hangings, garland, ornaments and any paper design imaginable.

Customers can bring in their own beverages and food and have a social outing with friends. A beginner might want to sign up for a three-hour ornament making class for $20. In this class, you’ll assemble a pre-cut design, embellish it and take home a completed project. Students must be ages 12 and up.

“People can still come to me with knitting or crocheting projects. I’ll eventually have beginner classes for those and I’ll be making kits that customers can buy and start a project at home on their own time if they’d like,” Del Guercio said. She’s selling yarn kits that range in price from $35 to $100 depending on the type of project and whether it’s made with high quality yarn. There will also be other kits for sale during the holidays with which you could make your own decorations, tote bags or favor boxes. . You can pick them up and make them at home or work on your project at the shop.

The best place for customers to get a sense of what classes are available is on Embellish Workshop’s Facebook page or by visiting the store for the latest calendar. For the holidays, Embellish Workshop will offer classes on how to make wreaths, paper garlands and paper favor boxes. “Next year, I’ll have jewelry making classes and I want to bring in other instructors who have different expertise than I do. That could be painting on furniture and journal making classes,” said Del Guercio. On Saturdays, customers can book the space to host parties and events while making a craft. The workshop can fit 15-20 people. “It’s all about setting up a stimulating environment where someone’s imagination can flow freely.”

“It’s all about setting up a stimulating environment where someone’s imagination can flow freely.”

The Skinny

AR Workshop
226 North Avenue West

South Avenue Arts
221 South Avenue

Embellish Workshop
106 North Union Avenue

About the Contribuor

Diana Kelly grew up in the Garden State and is a writer who has been featured in Bloomberg Businessweek, Reader’s Digest and others.