Endless Accessibility has Kept Woolworth Walk True to its Roots

Curating Manager Erin Kellem inside Woolworth Walk, almost certainly the largest gallery in town. (Right): Woolworth spans the busiest stretch of downtown Asheville’s Haywood Road and is a popular spot for buskers.
Photo by Colby Rabon

A few years ago, an overly exuberant dancer — apparently moved by a busker’s lively music — fell through the large plate-glass window of Woolworth Walk, a popular art gallery located at the intersection of Haywood Street and Battery Park. Fortunately, he was uninjured. 

Meanwhile, tens of thousands of others have entered through the gallery’s doors without incident. Apparently the pros of high visibility far outweigh the perils.

Woolworth Walk, with its iconic 1950s-style lunch counter, has been a favorite fixture in Asheville’s downtown art scene for the past 17 years. The building, originally constructed in 1938 as an F.W. Woolworth “five-and-dime” store, was part of the largest chain of retail shops in the world. When the company moved its store operations to the Asheville Mall in 1989 and closed its downtown location, the building was given new life as a Family Dollar store for a few more years before it, too, was shuttered.

Scott Sirkin purchased the empty building from the Woolworth family in the late 1990s, and set about restoring it, winning two Griffin Awards for Historic Preservation from The Preservation Society of Asheville and Buncombe County along the way.

He admits, however, that “opening a gallery was never a thought, but rather a temporary idea to give local artists a place to display their work, and, at the same time, buy some time for the town to grow.” He adds, “I am very excited for how things worked out.” Woolworth Walk opened its doors on June 14, 2002, and has been home to hundreds of area artists and craftspersons ever since.

Photo by Colby Rabon

By 2004, Sirkin had also restored the Woolworth lunch counter and soda fountain, which quickly became a customer favorite in its own right. Erin Kellem, Woolworth Walk’s curating manager for the past 15 years (she began as an exhibiting photographer at the gallery and recently began displaying her own mixed-media works), says many of the items “hail from the original Lunch Counter menu, like the BLT.” She adds, “Lots of customers have shared their memories of having stopped for a treat after school or on weekends with their families.” Sirkin’s latest project is renovating Woolworth Walk’s third floor, with the goal of creating eight or nine loft-style apartments.

Is Woolworth Walk the largest art gallery in Asheville? “I believe we’ve got more —at 20,000 square feet of gallery — than anyone,” answers Kellem. “And if we don’t win on square footage, we can point to the 160+ local artists displaying their artwork. That’s a lot of creativity in one space.”

A long-time Woolworth Walk exhibitor is Celia Barbieri, aka “The Button Florist,” who creates bouquets using ceramic buttons and found objects. This whimsical ingenuity marks the work of many Woolworth exhibitors. The gallery’s legacy presence downtown “honors the history” of the city, notes Barbieri, by “showcasing the unique talent found in this quirky place.” 

Celia Barbieri’s button bouquets and Darryl “The Bookie” Maleike’s leather-bound journals are quintessential Woolworth draws. On the other side of long stretches of artists’ booths is the in-house cafe.
Photos by Colby Rabon

As the community of artists continues to grow, the gallery has put a fine brush on its definition of local. “At first, we accepted artists we would now call ‘regional,’ meaning those who live up to four hours away. Now we accept only artists who live within one hour of Asheville,” says Kellem.

Those wishing to exhibit their work at Woolworth Walk must exercise patience as well as creativity. Kellem explains, “After an initial portfolio review, artists accepted are put on the wait list, where they generally hang out for two years, give or take.”

The rents on spaces range from $45/month to $325/month, depending on size and location. Commission on sales is 19%, which Kellem calls “very low.” She adds that artists aren’t locked into exclusion contracts; many show in multiple galleries.

Two participating vendors, Darryl “Darryl the Bookie” Maleike, who makes leather-bound books and journals, and Kings Pottery, have shown there since the gallery’s opening day. “Woolworth Walk get a lot of traffic — locals and tourists,” Maleike emphasizes. “It’s a great community to be in.”

Woolworth artists represent just about every avenue of visual expression, including pottery, photography, painting, digital, mixed media, wood, glass, metal, and textiles. The prices also definitely run the gamut. Stefan Bonitz, of Steebo Designs, sells metal sculpture that tops out around $7,000. 

Then there’s watercolor painter Ann Vasilik, well known for her lush, affectionate depictions of Asheville cityscapes and mountain scenery. “Right now, her postcards are on sale for 63 cents,” says Kellem.

Until they run out.

Photo by Colby Rabon

Woolworth Walk, 25 Haywood St., downtown Asheville. This month’s featured artists are Claudia Field (metal) and Kasey Jackson (lotion candles). A First Friday reception happens 4-6pm on Friday, March 1. For more information, call 828-254-9234 or see woolworthwalk.com.

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