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Laurel Art Center closes following family transfer of inventory

Future of Leo and Joyce Emery's long-standing Main Street business uncertain, according to son

By Kevin Rector, krector@tribune.com

February 23, 2012

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The 35-year-old Laurel Art Center on Main Street has always been a family business under Leo and Joyce Emery.

Now it seems family matters may cause the store to permanently close.

The fact that the cavernous store, which opened in 1977 and has become a regional destination for artists, has been losing money for the last few years hasn't helped.

According to Randy Emery, the couple's son who owns the Gallery Frame Shop, also on Main Street, his father's stroke four years ago left the family less able to maintain the store and its massive inventory of art supplies, especially considering the lagging sales.

With their parents facing a worsening financial situation, Randy Emery's brother Matt, who owns Rehoboth Art and Framing in Rehoboth Beach, Del., recently decided to purchase the art center's inventory from his parents for a large sum of money — about $150,000 — that would alleviate their money problems, Randy Emery said.

"It was kind of decided that we would stop the bleeding now," Emery said.

He said while the family had gone to great lengths to maintain the store, in part because his father still loves to be there, the fact that his mother was becoming more concerned about her and her husband's finances pushed them to act.

"It was done kind of for my mom's sake, whereas for the last few years, we've held it together for my dad's sake," Emery said.

Emery's son, Mike, who has worked at the store since he was a teenager, and Resa Moran, a manager at the store, have been trying to find funds to buy the store and keep it alive, Emery said. So has a local doctor who is one of the store's best customers.

But records show the store property alone is worth more than $1 million, and Emery said he doesn't think either will be able to make the purchase.

Emery said if those talks do fall through, his brother, Matt, will likely begin moving the inventory out to Rehoboth slowly over months.

"He said he's going to take his time, mostly because my dad still comes down here and piddles around," he said. "From now until Christmas, my brother's going to slowly take this stuff and put it in his shop."

In the meantime, the family will make decisions about whether the store will reopen on a temporary basis or whether they will look to sell the property.

"It might go up for sale in two months, it might go up for sale in three years," he said.

Leo Emery and his wife, Joyce Emery, opened the store in 1977 following their earlier success opening the Gallery in 1963. They purchased the property in 1982, which was formerly Polan's Five and Dime, and then Polan's Mini Mall, from Bernard Polan for $200,000, according to property records.

Though they sold the Gallery to Randy Emery in 1983, the older couple has maintained the Laurel Art Center themselves over the years, establishing it as a regional destination for artists looking for specific art supplies not found anywhere else in the state.

A story about the store that ran in a supplement to the Laurel Leader in May 1989, under the headline "Leo Emery's treasure trove for Artists," quoted Leo Emery as saying the store carried supplies from more than 500 different companies.

News of the store's closing surprised many in the local arts community, who recently gathered to talk about the city's designation of a downtown arts district and how it will reinvigorate the Laurel art scene.

Deborah Randall, who leads the Laurel Arts District Exploratory Committee, said the news seemed "really sudden" and "out of the blue," and posted a photo of the sign on the store's door on Facebook in an attempt to gain more information about the closure.

Leo Emery and his family were honored by Laurel Mayor Craig Moe and the City Council for their long-standing contributions to the Laurel business community in January.