Sunday, May 26, 2024

Nine-decades-old Wallack’s arts stores find a new lease on life

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The Wallack’s move is to happen this month — but it’s turned out to be better than owner Michael Wallack could have hoped for.

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When Michael Wallack learned almost a year ago that his businesses, Wallack Galleries and Wallack’s Art Supplies and Framing, would have to vacate the Bank Street space they had called home for five decades, he was shocked.

Wallack, the third-generation owner of two businesses that Ottawans have frequented since his grandfather launched Wallack’s Art Gallery in the mid-1930s, had already dealt with the disruptions of the COVID-19 pandemic, constantly pivoting to keep Wallack’s viable.

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“I was recovering from extreme exhaustion, I was working six to seven days a week,” recalls Wallack, a 36-year-old who took over the family business in 2016. Then came the news that the store’s heritage building, and indeed, its entire block, would be redeveloped by Smart Living Properties, which plans to build a nine-storey apartment building.

“Finding out we had to move was shocking to me,” he says. “It was like spraining your ankle playing sports, and being told you have to keep playing.”

The Wallack’s move is to happen this month — but it’s turned out to be better than Wallack could have hoped for.

Michael Wallack, the third-generation owner of Wallack's Art Supplies & Framing, gave this newspaper a tour of the current store and gallery space, as well as the former Foster's Sports Centre that they are taking over as their new space. Wallack was photographed at the new space, Sunday March 3, 2024.
Michael Wallack, the third-generation owner of Wallack’s Art Supplies & Framing, gave this newspaper a tour of the current store and gallery space, as well as the former Foster’s Sports Centre that they are taking over as their new space. Wallack was photographed at the new space, Sunday March 3, 2024. Photo by Ashley Fraser /Postmedia

In a Centretown shuffle, of sorts, Wallack has managed to relocate his 12,000-square-foot business just three blocks south on Bank Street, into another heritage building, which was vacated when Foster’s Sports Centre, which was Ottawa’s oldest bicycle store, closed in early January.

The owner of Foster’s will be Wallack’s new landlord. And there’s one more aspect to the shuffle, which speaks to the resilience of Centretown’s business scene in the face of pandemic-induced pressures. The Foster’s business and stock was bought by the Hintonburg bicycle store Quick Cranks, which this week will stage the grand opening of its second store, on Cooper Street near Bank Street.

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Wallack, a Centretown resident who lives less than a 10-minute walk from work and is the chair of the Centretown BIA, is pleased that his neighbourhood will continue to have a bicycle store, thanks to Quick Cranks. He’s also positive about his neighbourhood’s business prospects, despite the many vacancies along Bank Street.

The Foster's Sports Centre at 305 Bank St. has closed, and Wallack's Art Supplies & Framing announced they will be moving into the space.
The Foster’s Sports Centre at 305 Bank St. has closed, and Wallack’s Art Supplies & Framing announced they will be moving into the space. Photo by Ashley Fraser /Postmedia

Because of the pandemic, Wallack had already put all his energies into transforming his business. “We really had to transition,” he says. With the first COVID-19 lockdown, Wallack’s shifted to compete directly with Amazon. Thanks to a big bet on social media advertising and speedily filled orders for customers who were sheltering and indulging in their artistic hobbies, sales increased tenfold, Wallack says.

“It was like this beautiful success story,” he says, before adding that his expenses also rose exponentially. “It was 10 times the work for nothing,” he says.

It was soon obvious to Wallack that remote working would be the new normal, and people working from home during the pandemic would not be returning to Ottawa’s downtown. When he received notice last year that his store would have to move, he said he considered all options and asked staff to brainstorm about what their ideal Wallack’s store would be.

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The data Wallack’s had collected about its customers showed that while they were distributed from one end of Ottawa to the other, the highest concentration of customers surrounded the Bank Street location. It didn’t make sense for Wallack’s to move to, say, Kanata or Orléans, because the move might alienate customers who would have much longer drives as a result, Wallack says.

The second floor of the new space.
The second floor of the new space. Photo by Ashley Fraser /Postmedia

Wallack considered moving just across Bank Street, into the spaces that stores as the Comic Book Shoppe and Venus Envy called home, which have been empty following an April 2022 fire. But that relocation, he says, “really did not fit the vision I had for the company at all.”

He pondered and then thought better of moving into the Cooper Street space that Quick Cranks ultimately took over, which had been the home of Pat Flesher Furs until that veteran Ottawa business, begun in 1929, closed in 2021.

Eventually, the possibility of moving into the Foster’s space arose. Its owner was considering retiring. A deal was struck, and Wallack is looking forward to this third iteration of his family business.

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Wallack’s grandfather, Samuel Wallack, launched the business at 192-194 Bank St. in the 1930s and his father, John, moved it to 231 Bank St. in 1973. In a few weeks, Michael Wallack will move Wallack’s to 305 Bank St.

Michael Wallack
Michael Wallack, the third-generation owner of Wallack’s Art Supplies & Framing, gave this newspaper a tour of the current store and gallery space, as well as the former Foster’s Sports Centre that they are taking over as their new space. In the basement of the current location, Michael showed this newspaper the collection of art that is stored in one area, Sunday March 3, 2024. Photo by Ashley Fraser /Postmedia

The Foster’s space is a little smaller than the space that Wallack’s is leaving. But Wallack says he can make better use of the Foster’s space because it is so open. He also enthuses about its heritage character and little features that allude to the building’s history before it became Foster’s.

Quirkily enough, Foster’s leaves behind air hoses and compressors that once inflated bicycle tires and which will come in handy for Wallack’s framers.

Wallack just completed a long stretch of seven-day workweeks in preparation for the move. He says 60 per cent of the work has been done, but the physical move remains.

Far from the initial shock he felt, he’s now excited.

“It’s amazing to see a business survive and move forward,” Wallack says.

phum@postmedia.com

The beginning of the transition of the former bike shop has started.
The beginning of the transition of the former bike shop has started. Photo by Ashley Fraser /Postmedia
A sign in Wallack's window on Sunday, March 3, 2024.
A sign in Wallack’s window on Sunday, March 3, 2024. Photo by Ashley Fraser /Postmedia
Michael Wallack, the third-generation owner of Wallack's Art Supplies & Framing, gave this newspaper a tour of the current store and gallery space, as well as the former Foster's Sports Centre that they are taking over as their new space. Wallack was photographed at the new space, Sunday March 3, 2024.
Michael Wallack, the third-generation owner of Wallack’s Art Supplies & Framing, gave this newspaper a tour of the current store and gallery space, as well as the former Foster’s Sports Centre that they are taking over as their new space. Wallack was photographed at the new space, Sunday March 3, 2024. Photo by Ashley Fraser /Postmedia
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