Across the street from Lakeside Mall in Metairie, Louisiana, tucked a couple of buildings off of North Causeway Boulevard, a store named Gary’s Arts, Crafts and Needleworks has been serving the creative side of residents and small businesses for 30 years. The story of how the store came to be is as interesting as the selection of tools and materials Gary sells.
Born and raised in New Orleans, Gary’s Arts, Crafts and Needlworks founder Gary Mader grew up on Canal St.. Following his high school career at St. Alouicious, Mader applied and studied at the University of New Orleans. After a semester or two of classes, Mader felt the work was not a good fit for him and joined the army for a two year campaign in the Vietnam War in March of 1970.
“In high school, my grades were not very good, and to me the next step was joining the army because we really needed the financial security,” Mader said.
After a year on the front lines, Mader was moved to the intelligence sector of the war, keeping him out of harm’s way for the remainder of his service.
In 1944, the American government passed the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944, or the act more commonly known as the G.I. Bill. The bill gave veterans many different benefits after returning to the United States, one of which included college tuition coverage after serving overseas. The G.I. BIll still exists in the form of the Post-9/11 Veterans Educational Assistance Act of 2008, and is still providing college tuition for veterans today.
Upon his return to New Orleans, Mader decided to utilize the G.I. Bill incentives of military service by going to back to college. At the time, UNO would not take him back due to the grades he left with and he transferred to Delgado Community College down the street from where he grew up.
“This time around I took my college studies very seriously,” Mader said. “I really started enjoying what I was studying which led to me to graduate on the President’s List.”
Following his graduation from Delgado, Mader began working his way up the corporate ladder at Hinckley-Tandy Leather Company where he worked in sales and service. The work mainly consisted of sales calls and selling products in the company’s catalogue. Mader’s hard work led his superiors to fly out to different regions of the company to give talks on what were expected from employees during sales calls.
“I was flown around on the corporate jet and wined and dined by the president and vice president of Tandy Leather,” Mader said. “I had a lot going for me at the time.”
Earlier on in Hinckley-Tandy’s history, the company acquired many different businesses in the crafts and do-it-yourself field including the American Handicrafts Company, the American Hide and Leather Company of Boston and Radioshack. Once the companies converged, Mader said friction began to build between the divisions in the companies.
“Once the head of Tandy Leather became the president of American Handicrafts, we could tell our days were becoming numbered,” Mader said. “I had always focused on leather and selling products in that area, and I knew nothing of the crafts side of sales at that time.”
The Tandy Leather company offered Mader management positions in Tandy Leather stores in Florida and Texas. Each time Mader turned down all of them and kept his assistant manager job at the New Orleans location. According to Mader, the company would not let him manage the New Orleans store due to his age. When the head of American Handicrafts offered the management position of the New Orleans location, he wanted to prove to Tandy they made a mistake in not letting him run their store and showing his age did not affect his drive to succeed.
When Mader took over at a mere 20 years-old, the store was ranked number 273 of 300 out of all the retail locations in the country. As stated earlier, Mader knew almost nothing about do-it-yourself projects, arts and crafts when he took on the challenge. The transition was not gradual to say the least.
“We could only prepare so much until one day I just got a truckload full of supplies, and I was in the craft business,” Mader said.
In one year, moved the store up 123 spots in the rankings to 150 showing incredible growth in just one year.
“When I arrived at the store, the store’s net income was losing 20 percent of its money year over year,” Mader said. “When I was done with it, the store was gaining 20% in profit each year.”
Mader said the secret to his success of building the store’s reputation was going back to his sales roots by making sales calls which spread the word of the store. Classes were also offered to teach customers about crafts they could build using American Handicraft products.
When American Handicrafts shut its doors, the New Orleans retail store ranked number two of all 300 companies, putting it 271 spots above where it began. The company’s demise became a blessing in disguise for Mader. Upon losing the New Orleans shop, Mader opened his own store, Gary’s Arts, Crafts and Needleworks.
“When this store opened 30 years ago we started with an inventory of $30 thousand worth of merchandise and materials,” Mader said. “Today we are proud to say we offer over $300 thousand worth of products.”
Ever since, Gary’s has been helping locals and small businesses make their creative ideas into realities using his experiences with American Handicrafts.
One of his more frequent customers is founder of local jewelry business Beads By Molly or BBM Molly Katz. Katz makes necklaces and other jewelry for sororities and other college activities using materials she buys at Gary’s.
“Ever since I was a little girl, my grandma would take me to Gary’s for art supplies, and now that I make all of my jewelry by myself, I continue to shop there,” Katz said. “His store has a warm, welcoming feeling when you walk in that chain stores do not have these days.”
In the past five years, Mader has seen the rise of competition from larger chains such as Michael’s and Hobby Lobby.
“The competition is a good thing,” Mader said. “What is more surprising to people who talk to me is that the competition really doesn’t hurt business, but rather the rise of the internet.”
According to Mader, the internet has taken many of the advantages of being a small business away and now favors anyone who has an online presence. Despite the rise of the internet, Mader said most customers are very loyal as he has built a name for himself over the last three decades.
As for the future, Gary is optimistic the store he has built a reputation for will continue to succeed despite the challenges of the internet. His continued success hinges on one aspect: customer satisfaction.
“We make sure our customers are treated right,” Mader said. “If customers are treated right, they keep coming back.”