The Success of this ‘Family’ Business was Set in Stone

Seven Sisters Craft Gallery has benefited from a great location in downtown Black Mountain.
Photo by Colby Rabon

Despite what its name suggests, Seven Sisters Craft Gallery in Black Mountain isn’t owned by an artsy mob of siblings. Instead, the name honors Tomahawk, Stomping Knob, Brushy Knob, Forked Ridge Knob, Little Slaty, False Greybeard, and one other undesignated topographic feature. Together, the seven peaks form the backdrop of this picturesque mountain town.

Founded by Sara Marcia Rafter and Kaye Greene in 1981, Seven Sisters has, from the beginning, occupied the space at 117 Cherry Street, in a structure built in the early 1900s. When the gallery first opened, says current owner Andrea McNair, “there was not a lot of action going on in downtown Black Mountain. Sara Marcia and Kaye helped spark the revitalization of the area.”

Visiting Montreat from Fargo, North Dakota, as a kid “altered the course of my life,” says gallery owner Andrea McNair.
Photo by Colby Rabon

McNair was born and raised in Fargo, North Dakota, and graduated with a degree in studio art from St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minnesota. She began working for the gallery in 1995, shortly after moving here. She says she’d visited Montreat on a trip with her church youth group. “That trip really altered the course of my life … I fell in love with Western North Carolina’s mountains, streams, and lush forests.” 

When Rafter and Greene decided to step away from the retail business in 2002, McNair accepted their offer to purchase Seven Sisters. “Kaye had already moved out west with her partner, but Sara Marcia stuck around and taught me the business side of things that I had not learned yet from being a sales associate,” she explains. “She is still someone I can always count on for advice when I need it.”

Seven Sisters represents approximately 250 artists, including one who’s been there since it opened 38 years ago. Printmaker Jay Pfeil, of Black Mountain, notes that “it was exciting to be in on the start of a new gallery. Having a stable place to show my work meant I could focus on creating my art and leave the selling to them. I loved that.”

Another regular exhibitor is John Wayne Jackson, who makes vivid sculptures using real leaves. “He’s very busy doing larger installations,” says McNair, “but he still manages to bring me his work, for which I am very grateful.”

Photos by Colby Rabon

The majority of Seven Sisters’ artists live in the region, including painters Colleen Webster, Cheryl Keefer, and Kate Thayer. The gallery also features artists working in glass, jewelry, pottery, metal, and wood. “Black Mountain metal sculptor David Taylor makes the ever-popular doggie in the window,” McNair points out. She also expresses gratitude for Burnsville potter Michael Rutkowsky and Hendersonville landscape photographer John Smith, but adds, “There are too many to list.”

All retail is risky, small businesses more so, and art galleries are up near the summit of uncertain endeavors. And yet Seven Sisters has thrived. “I can pretend to know the answer to this,” says McNair, “but I don’t.”

She will admit, though, that “location is key.” Black Mountain is right off the interstate, a short drive from Asheville without that city’s saturation of shops, and close to several popular lunch spots. A fluid price point also helps. “I try to keep a a wide range of items so there’s a little something for everybody,” she says.

McNair also credits a staff of long standing, including Titia Saville — “she’s stuck by my side since the beginning”  — Arlene Martin, and June Hewett.

And that loyalty extends well past the register. “I’ve heard customers say that Seven Sisters is their favorite store in the world, that we’ve got the best collection of any place they’ve ever seen. Hearing compliments like that makes me feel humble — and proud.”

Seven Sisters is heavy on local artists.
Photo by Colby Rabon

But the only real constant is change, and the gallery is about to jump a few address numbers. Last year, McNair was granted approval from the Black Mountain Historical Preservation Commission to build a two-story structure at 127 Cherry Street. The lower level will be the new home of Seven Sisters Craft Gallery, with three residential apartments on the top floor. McNair says construction will start within the year.

Her daughters Chaley, 24, and Chloe, 21, have both worked in the gallery — and the idea of real-life sisters running Seven Sisters might bring the whole concept full circle. Right now, though, they are out in the world, going down their own paths. “Maybe someday,” says McNair, “they’ll want to come back and take it over for me.”

Seven Sisters Craft Gallery, 117 Cherry St., Black Mountain. Hours are 10am-6pm Monday through Saturday, noon-5pm Sunday. For more information, call 828-669-5107 or see sevensistersgallery.com.

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