Glass Growers Gallery, the gift shop and art gallery at 10 E. Fifth St., has a unique charm, from its historical building to artwork dangling in the windows and a bright sidewalk mural outside.
Emily Ernes, who bought the shop from founder Deb Vahanian in 2020, can attest to its appeal. It was one of the first places she visited when she moved to town in 2014 to take a job at Gannon University.
“When I arrived in Erie, I took a walk around downtown Erie, and I quickly found my way to Glass Growers Gallery,” Ernes said. “I found it to be an incredibly beautiful and peaceful space filled with impressive artwork and many unique treasures.”
She visited often in the next several years and was saddened to learn in 2020 that Vahanian wanted to sell the shop. But Ernes’ “Oh, that’s too bad,” soon turned to “I wonder …”
After discussing it with her husband, Rich, she decided to look into buying the shop.
While Ernes didn’t anticipate buying a small business at the age of 30, especially in the middle of a pandemic, she knew it wasn’t just any gallery and gift shop. It was an Erie institution, a well-established and much-loved business that had been in the heart of Erie for nearly 50 years.
Still, Ernes, an accomplished student with a bachelor’s degree in psychology and two masters’ degrees — one in public administration and a second in business administration — did her homework.
“I asked a lot of questions and spent a lot of time reviewing financial statements and projections and learning as much as I could about the business environment and potential threats and opportunities to make sure it wasn’t just an emotional decision,” she said.
After further consultation with multiple banks, Erie Downtown Partnership, Erie Downtown Development Corp, and Gannon’s Small Business Development Center, Ernes bought the business in August 2020.
It was a tumultuous time in retail, but Glass Growers Gallery had weathered a lot of storms over the years.
“My goal was to carry forward the same approach and spirit that led to the shop’s ongoing success,” she said. “I think one of the reasons GGG has been so successful has been its ability to adapt to change and stay closely tuned to what customers want.
“GGG had a great business model already set up, so much of that has stayed the same since I took ownership,” Ernes said.
She also retained longtime staff members Noreen Finn and Suebee Martin.
Ernes quickly learned that the peaceful atmosphere in Glass Growers Gallery belies a somewhat chaotic environment behind the scenes.
“Often, it doesn’t feel as peaceful to me these days, but I love it more and more as I learn more about GGG’s history and community network,” Ernes said. “Our small but mighty team of four is constantly in motion with tasks such as updating inventory, our website and social media; changing out displays, wall groupings and gallery exhibits; and communicating with customers and artists.”
Glass Growers works with a broad network of artists, including painters, photographers, printmakers, glass artists, fiber artists, woodworkers, jewelry makers and ceramists, who bring them new work every three to five months.
While visitors to the shop may not notice significant changes, they will find shopping more convenient as the pandemic forced a few changes.
“We’ve also been working on growing our website and social media pages to create additional opportunities for customer convenience, such as free local delivery, curbside pickup and free shipping on all jewelry orders.”
Ernes said it’s not hard to keep Glass Growers updated. “It’s pretty easy to keep things fresh because our regional consignment artists and artisans across the country are always creating new work.”
Future plans for GGG include further improvements to their website, increasing the diversity of artists, and “continuing to look for ways to collaborate and support local nonprofits to make a positive impact” in the Erie area.
“I’ve enjoyed Erie from the start, but it’s been amazing to see how much growth has happened since I moved here in 2014,” Ernes said.
Financially, Ernes has reason to be optimistic as well.
“I was pleasantly surprised by the support we received from loyal customers in 2020,” she said. “While we still have ongoing pandemic worries, at GGG, we are focusing on what is in our control and we remain hopeful for the future.”