Penn Avenue Pottery still fired up after 20 years in the Strip
March 28, 2010 4:00 AM
Pottery by Gary Pletsch at Penn Avenue Pottery.
From left: Penn Avenue Pottery owners Valda Cox, Matthias Bodnar, Gary Pletsch and Mike Gwaltney.
Gary Pletsch takes the wheel at Penn Avenue Pottery in the Strip District.
By Diana Nelson Jones Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
In 1990, Penn Avenue Pottery's four founding members hung their sign at 1905 Penn Ave. It was going to be a cooperative, with a studio in back and retail space in front of the 1,000-square-foot building.
There was no business plan and scanty business acumen. They advertised with pots on sidewalk crates. It helped that they were right in the middle of the Strip District scene and had a generous landlord who worked with clay himself.
With three of the founding members and four newer partners, Penn Avenue Pottery is coming up on 20 years this summer. Two hundred people came through the door for a recent open-house celebration. That day's sales of almost $2,000 was a bigger one-day take than even during the Christmas shopping season.
But some mornings, the only person in the place is the potter on shift manning the counter.
"It's so insecure," said Gary Pletsch, a founding partner. "We've never made $100,000 here collectively. Some of us do have to supplement" their incomes.
But the overhead is low. The partners share a $750 rent and utilities.
The longevity of Penn Avenue Pottery owes to "Bill [Foglia, the building owner] and luck," said Mr. Pletsch. "And we have kept it simple."
He shares the studio with Mr. Foglia, who had a studio there before 1990 and whose father had operated a food import business before that.
"It is neat that they've been able to hold their own while other businesses come and go," said Joe Abeln, a potter from Indiana Township who has collected Mr. Pletsch's work.
"It is a unique gem in the diversity of the Strip," said Becky Rodgers, executive director of Neighbors in the Strip. "I admire their spirit, their being in business for 20 years and how they have been able to work together and share responsibilities. Also their talent."
Ceramics are a vulnerable product, even after a successful firing. They don't like recessions, they don't wear out, and they're not even worth stealing because pottery has no street value. But people who love pottery buy it even when they have no more space.
"I don't have room to put all the pottery we own out for display," said Mr. Abeln, who spoke of pottery's emotional value. "Pottery is what they find when they dig up ruins." Thousands of years from now when people dig up our civilizations and find our pottery, they will know something about us, he said.
The emotional tie is strongest with potters themselves.
"I still have pieces I can't part with," said Valda Cox, an original co-op member. "Pricing to me is the hardest part."
Mike Gwaltney, who joined the co-op in 1999, said that, at first, "every piece was precious. After 1,000 pieces, I'm more attached to the process." His driveway is lined with failed pieces -- "my road of good intentions."
Both Mr. Pletsch and Mr. Gwaltney took classes from Ms. Cox.
"I was a student at the Carnegie Museum taking a painting class at night," Mr. Gwaltney said. "I went around poking my head in studios and saw Valda throwing a big vase and said, 'I want to do that.' "
Two years ago, Neighbors in the Strip offered the group a grant of $600, money that came through the Urban Redevelopment Authority, for a marketing analysis. Consultant Randy Strothman recommended an uptick in outreach. One suggestion was that they have an Internet presence.
Mr. Pletsch had an artist friend who had design and computer know-how. He asked Matthias Bodnar to join the group, getting approval from the others to admit the first "other" artist. Mr. Bodnar works on canvas, paper and tile and handles the group's Internet presence at www.etsy.com/shop/pennavenuepottery.
He began pitching ideas, suggesting new ways to display wares, including using pottery as light fixtures. He suggested a different doorway, and partner Duncan MacDiarmid sprang for the new doors.
"I felt their storefront and windows could be stronger marketing tools," said Mr. Strothman. "Gary was enthusiastic about changes. Enthusiasm and Gary's personality are among the business's strengths," he said.
"Then there's Gary's reputation in the art community. The business fits in with the marketplace nature of Strip."
One bonus to customers is that the artists man their own store, said Mr. Strothman. Mr. Gwaltney said the Strip's trajectory from wholesale to public destination has coincided with the shop's maturity.
"Twenty years ago, this was a groundbreaking idea," said Mr. Bodnar. "I think when people look at the shop now it's a no-brainer."
But the economy is taking a toll. Ms. Cox said she has never seen a more depressed market for pottery, in shops or at shows. Art centers are suffering, too.
"If we didn't love it," she said, leaving the "we wouldn't do it" unsaid. "I still can't believe it's been 20 years. When we first started, it was all about building a kiln."
Correction/Clarification: (Published Mar. 30, 2010) This article as originally published Mar. 28, 2010 incorrectly identified the Penn Avenue Pottery member who paid for new doors on the storefront. Duncan MacDiarmid is the partner who paid for the doors.
Diana Nelson Jones:
or 412-263-1626. Read her blog City Walkabout at post-gzaette.com/localnews.