20 Years, 20,000 Square Feet, One Big Key to Success

Woolworth Walk Curating Manager Erin Kellem sits in the soda-fountain section that retained its original use when Woolworth Walk underwent an award-winning renovation 20 years ago.
Photo by Colby Rabon

The F.W. Woolworth building, located at the corner of Haywood Street and Battery Park in downtown Asheville, was constructed in 1938 and has since undergone a few changes in ownership. When the initial five-and-dime operation moved to the Asheville Mall in 1989, another discount retail store took over the space until it, too, closed. In 1997, Scott Sirkin purchased the building.

He soon began a multiple-year renovation of the structure, along the way garnering two Griffin awards for historic accuracy (one for restoring the exterior of the building and the other for saving its iconic soda fountain) that were presented by the Preservation Society of Asheville and Buncombe County. With renovations mostly complete, the building opened for business on June 14, 2002, making this year its 20th anniversary.

Items at all price points and high-traffic visibility are other winning factors.
Photo by Colby Rabon

Two years later, Sirkin had finished work on the lunch counter. Thanks to its classic soda fountain and many of the original menu selections dating back to the F.W. Woolworth days, the feature has remained a stalwart favorite.

Originally, an Internet company wanted to use the former retail space by putting curtains over the windows and installing mainframe computers in the lower level. “But my thought instead,” says Sirkin, “was how could we use the space effectively [to] serve the community better.” Turning the bulk of the building into a meandering, multi-vendor art gallery was the winning factor; giant storefront glass faces the thick of the bustling downtown scene, with the action on the sidewalk a kind of festive gateway inside. Woolworth Walk has since become nationally known for its art offerings, colorful themed exhibits, and that retro-cool soda fountain outfitted in red and chrome.

Erin Kellem, curating manager of Woolworth Walk for the past 18 years, says the 20,000 square-foot-gallery carries works created by nearly 170 makers working in just about every conceivable medium: glass, pottery, painting, glasswork, woodwork, textiles, leatherwork, book art, and more. 

“We try to carry ourselves as a community,” she explains, “with common goals of success that de-emphasize competition. If an artist feels they are in some kind of competition, they potentially compromise their artistic voice, instead of pursuing their own inspiration. An artist that follows their muse and creates out of the joy of creating produces genuine artwork, and I think you can feel the artist’s genuineness when you see it.”

The original lunch counter mid last century
(photo provided by Woolworth Walk).The original lunch counter mid last century
(photo provided by Woolworth Walk).

Importantly, she points out, Woolworth Walk doesn’t ask for exclusivity of its artists, allowing them to show at other galleries, as well. “That gives them the freedom to stretch and grow their artistic pursuits as much as they’d like,” she explains. 

This collegial approach serves everyone well and has proven to be quite popular. There continues to be a wait list of artists wishing to become part of the Woolworth Walk experience. Kellem says artists who have submitted their portfolios for consideration often have to wait as long as two years for a space to open up.

High foot traffic, an in-house diner, and approachable artwork all add up to one key factor: accessibility. Original pieces run from several hundred to several thousand dollars, but there are also matted prints, notecards, magnets and other small, giftable items. The most expensive piece currently on display at Woolworth Walk is a motorcycle clad in 16 different hardwoods (featured in Asheville Made in May). “It’s absolutely stunning,” says Kellem, adding that its price tag is $60,000.

Sirkin recently completed his vision for the property when he created the Lofts at Woolworth, eight apartments on the third level directly above the gallery. These choice pockets of real estate are available as rental vacations through Airbnb.

Meanwhile, Kellem likes to point out that the nearly 200 artists shown on the floor are strictly local.

“All of them,” she says, “live within an hour of the gallery.”

Woolworth Walk, 25 Haywood St., downtown Asheville. Open 11am-6pm Monday through Thursday, 11am-7pm Friday and Saturday, and 11am-5pm Sunday. In honor of its twentieth anniversary, the venue is holding a “Don’t Miss the Scoop” free ice-cream social from 11am-4pm on Tuesday, June 14, and giving away 20 gift bags. For more information, call 828-254-9234 or see woolworthwalk.com.

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