When COVID Hit, This 50-Year-Old Art Store Went Digital

As the second owner of the Art Coop, Anna Peters was determined to keep the Champaign–Urbana business going while also evolving it as a safe space for the queer community.

Jun 11, 2021 · 6 min read
Hilary Pope and Anna Peters, co-owners of the Champaign-Urbana-based art store Art Coop.

Artist Anna Peters began working at the Champaign–Urbana-based art store Art Coop in 2006. Ten years later, she bought the business from the founders and later brought on her friend Hilary Pope to join her as co-owner.

As one of the only independent art supply shops in Illinois, Art Coop has been a staple in the Champaign–Urbana arts community since 1971. Since acquiring Art Coop in 2016, the new owners have kept the spirit of the store alive while finding ways to make it their own. One example of that evolution to reflect new ownership: Art Coop introduced an initiative last year called “queerantine kits,” a curated selection of art supplies donated to LGBTQ+ youth during the pandemic.

Hello Alice recently spoke to Peters about her journey from working as a clerk to owning the shop, how they digitalized the business during the pandemic, and why it was important for them to share that they are a queer-owned business. What follows are her own words, lightly edited for length and clarity.

On the first few years as an owner:

“I’ve worked at Art Coop for about 13 years. I started working there when I was in college as a clerk. Now, I co-own the place. The previous owners were burnt out. They were the original owners that started the store in the ’70s, so they had a long run and were tired. So, I bought the business.

For the first year and a half, I was running it by myself. It was before I asked Hilary to help. That was a little rough because it was more about keeping the business going. It was just learning everything to keep the store on the same trajectory, not necessarily make any improvements or anything. And once Hilary arrived, it was so much easier to have two brains working on a problem. Then we were able to make some changes or improvements. I think the first year, I was a little nervous about doing that. I felt like potentially it would be a little rude or disrespectful to the past Art Coop owners. I wanted to keep it going. I wasn’t coming and rehiring everybody or painting it purple.”

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On making pivots during COVID:

“It was really hard during the pandemic. Nobody planned for that or anything, but it was just like, ‘Oh good, you know, we just barely started getting our footing. We started to do some pretty cool, exciting new things.’ And then this catastrophe happens. We cannot be the owners that let the Art Coop go under. Art Coop has been around, and you’d want it to be around for another 50 years. 

If you’re just a brick-and-mortar and your brick-and-mortar is closed, no money will come in. So right away, Hilary and I worked on getting a website together that would allow us to do e-commerce. In the beginning, we sold gift cards and did pre-orders for some T-shirts. It was really, really simple. While Hillary was mostly working on the website, I was answering the phone. People would still call in and be like, ‘Hey, I need this paint.’ So we would run around, pack up the stuff for them, ring them out over the phone with a credit card. Our space is in a mall, so we don’t have a door to the outside to do curbside pickup. We did deliveries, and we also partnered with other small local businesses that did have doors to the outside and had remote pick-up spots.

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But anything that we added to the site, we had to keep track of by hand. It works for a few things, but we’ve tried to put as much stuff online as we can. When you only have gift cards and T-shirts, you can keep track of them. But when you have so much more to sell, it just gets crazy. The website was like last summer’s big, serious push. This summer, we’re working on revamping the website. We started the process to computerize our inventory system, so I don’t have to do it by hand anymore. It’s such a small thing, but it’s going to be so amazing. We’re going to have scanners, and we never had scanners before. We joke about the dragging Art Coop from the 1970s into the early 2000s.”

Art Coop’s e-commerce website

On giving back to the community:

“Hilary and I’ve started doing more work directly with higher education like colleges and universities around Champaign–Urbana. We also started working with the K-12 school system here, especially during COVID. Kids weren’t at school, so each kid needed their own pile of art supplies. We started working more in concert with them. We’re pretty lucky to have some great relationships with our distributors. We’re able to get some pretty great deals from our distributors that we’re able to pass on to the schools, and that feels really important to us for kids to be exposed to these different opportunities.

During COVID, we’ve been creating these things called “queerantine kits.” Hilary’s partner is an art teacher, so we kind of had firsthand knowledge of when everybody was going virtual. Some of the safe spaces that LGBTQ+ children had at school were taken away pretty quickly. Maybe they weren’t able to be authentic at home, but they could at school, or they had those relationships with other friends or other teachers that are supportive. 

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Hilary and I came up with this idea for queerantine kits that people could sponsor. They could buy one for $25 and donate it. The kids or the parents of the kids would be able to fill out a form and say, ‘I’m bi. I like purple. I really want to paint.’ And we would put together some kits for them. I think we were just surprised at how much people were excited about it, and they’re continuing to be excited. We’re still doing it. That’s the thing that we’re pretty excited about.”

On being a queer-owned business:

“We tried to keep the business and politics separate. And I think that that’s kind of what we did at the beginning, sort of like not wanting to repaint everything purple and like completely change. This has worked for 50 years; let’s try this for a little bit, and then you can start making changes. 

But especially in the last year, Hillary and I are best friends and pretty loud and chatty about the stuff that we like, and similarly about things that are important to us. We’re definitely lucky to be able to announce that we’re a queer-owned business. There are some serious privileges as white ladies. But I feel like we need to use that privilege to announce that we’re a safe space, that we want other queer people to feel safe to come in and talk to us or see an example of a queer-owned business.

My parents were both academics. It didn’t really occur to me that I could be a business owner, that I could be an artist. Not that it was shunned or anything, but it was not in the sphere of where I grew up. So when I figured out like, ‘Holy crap, there’s this whole other situation and way of being.’ I just had to think about what I would want when I was little. We have people bring their kids in, and they’re like, ‘Oh yeah, Hilary and Anna own the store.’ And it blows their mind, too. But that mind-blowing happened earlier than mine did. That’s the important part for us, just trying to be vocal and supportive and let people know that we’re around.”

Do you have your own questions for the co-owner of Art Coop? Click the “Introduce Me!” button on her Hello Alice profile to connect directly with Anna today.