ELKTON — The Palette & The Page co-owners Patti Paulus, Janet Youse and Lynn Strano-Whitt joke that running a business with one another is like being part of a married throuple.
“Just like a marriage, we have to constantly have that communication with each other and work through those things that are difficult or a problem,” Strano-Whitt said.
For better and for worse, in sickness and in health, for richer and for poorer — especially that last one in the years before the business managed to break even — the art gallery and bookstore at 120 East Main St. in Elkton has been through its fair share of ups and downs over the past 10 years since it first opened as an arts cooperative on Nov. 9, 2009.
Now, The Palette & The Page will be celebrating its 10th birthday on Saturday, Nov. 9, 2019. At 10 a.m., the store will get the ribbon cutting that it never received when it first opened a decade ago, followed by coffee and treats from East Main Café.
Starting at 10:30 a.m. and continuing throughout the day, the gallery will be raffling off artworks and books donated by member artists and authors. Attendees will get a raffle ticket just for coming and can earn an additional raffle ticket by presenting a receipt from a purchase made that day from any downtown Elkton merchant.
There will be music by Em McKeever in the morning and Box Turtle Bob in the afternoon. The gallery will offer sliders from C3ntral Tavern, macaroni and cheese from Spork Café, cake and other treats throughout the day’s festivities.
At 4 p.m., the owners will put every raffle ticket back into the mix and draw for a $100 gift certificate for The Palette & The Page. After that final raffle drawing, the gallery owners and their guests will head a few doors down to Elk River Brewing Company where they will tap a new beer named in their honor: The Palette & The Page Pale Ale.
A blank canvas
Ten years ago, in the shell of what was at one point a Verizon Wireless store, the vision for an arts cooperative in downtown Elkton took shape.
At the time, Youse wanted to open a bookstore on Main Street with her sister, Diane Price, and her niece, Jessica Price. The three of them worked full time, making the dream infeasible, but Jessica told her aunt about a co-op that was being formed.
Paulus found out about the co-op from an advertisement she saw at Cecil College and started calling around to find more information.
Mary Jo Jablonski, former executive director of the Elkton Chamber & Alliance and town commissioner, called a meeting for people interested in forming a co-op by artists and for artists. Jablonski also negotiated down the rent when the art space was looking at a six-month lease.
Early on, the co-op was known as Main Street Art. But after Strano-Whitt came aboard in May 2010, she and her business partners — Paulus, Youse, the Prices, and Elkton Arts & Entertainment District chair Margie Blystone — decided to “do it right” and form an LLC.
“Main Street Art” was already taken as an LLC name, so after a bit of brainstorming the group of women came up with the name “The Palette & The Page.”
As time went on, some of the business partners left to pursue other endeavors — though they still remained involved with the Elkton arts scene — but Paulus, Youse and Strano-Whitt maintained their solid trio.
When the gallery opened, Paulus said she and the other women didn’t know each other well. But Strano-Whitt said their excitement about the new venture overshadowed any fear they might have had during that “honeymoon phase” of the business partnership.
“I don’t think we thought about it,” Strano-Whitt said. “It was probably scarier later on when we were like ‘Oh my gosh, it’s like I’m married to these people.’ … When you’re young and you get married, you don’t think about how there’s going to be hard things. You think ‘Oh, this is going to be fabulous.’”
Finding a groove
While the cooperative-turned-art-gallery opened on the heels of the Great Recession, Strano-Whitt said the economic downturn at the end of the 2000s was part of what made The Palette & The Page possible.
“In a way, it’s really how it wound up that it even happened because this was an empty storefront,” she said.
But financial issues at the time caused many downtown businesses to close, including the Howard House, a historic tavern and restaurant that was in the owners’ family for more than 40 years until shutting its doors in 2013.
“I certainly think that it kind of almost got worse before it got better,” Strano-Whitt said. “The year that Howard House closed was pretty dark here.”
The Howard House building, which dates back to the 1800s, eventually found a new resident with Minihane’s Irish Pub and Restaurant opening there in 2014. But before that, Strano-Whitt recalls her, Youse and Paulus pondering the fate of their gallery.
“That year, we were sitting here going ‘I don’t know,’” she said. “We were questioning how is this even going to work. We were a little panicked.”
Yet Elkton officials, including Jablonski and Blystone, maintained their dream of growing downtown Elkton, and Paulus said she found herself believing in the vision right along with them.
“We were the start,” Paulus said. “We just kept believing that it would change.”
Slowly but surely, it did change — with new businesses moving into Main Street storefronts each year.
In the first several years that The Palette & The Page was in business, Strano-Whitt said people constantly told them that they were wasting their time in Elkton and that they should move to other Cecil County towns or even to Delaware. But they stood by their town, waiting for others to see what they saw in it.
“For us, it wasn’t necessarily part of the decision in the very beginning. I think we found ourselves here,” she said. “But then once we were here, we saw a potential for this town to be amazing. It’s a cute little town and the people who are here are all really fabulous people.”
Life, loss and learning their voice
Prior to the co-op’s formation in November 2009, Paulus lost a friend to cancer in February and her father passed away in July of that year. Those experiences led her to reevaluate what was important to her in life and pursue her own art with greater fervor.
“I had turned 50 and I had realized I’m halfway through this thing and I really wanted to focus on my art,” she said.
Youse joined the co-op 10 years ago with her sister and niece. So when they left, she discovered that she was able to stand on her own.
“We wanted that big bookstore, and that would’ve been fine if there had been the three of us … Then when they both left, it was like, ‘I can really do this. I can do this by myself and I can do this good.’”
Although she has learned independence through managing The Palette & The Page, Youse said she also has been able to lean on her fellow co-owners for support.
“I’ve always thought that a part of our success is the three of us,” she said. “We’ve stuck it out through the good and the bad.”
Strano-Whitt agreed, noting that the three of them are there for one another so that nobody has to shoulder any burdens alone.
“If something big happens, which they do, there’s three of us to figure out how to proceed, what do we do, how do we approach this, what’s the way to fix it,” she said.
Each member of the trio also brings a unique skill set and perspective to the business, according to Paulus.
“The universe conspired because we all brought different gifts to thing and they really didn’t overlap,” she said.
Paulus worked as an elementary school librarian at Immaculate Conception School for almost ten years and took a year off to work with another artist before pursuing her own art and joining the co-op. She serves as the gallery’s unofficial spokesperson and helps artists network.
Meanwhile, Youse is a licensed practical nurse and worked for Perry Point VA Hospital for 37 years until she retired in March 2018. She manages the business’s book selections.
Strano-Whitt worked as a paralegal for 15 years until she took some time off to be a stay-at-home mom while her husband was deployed as part of the military. Now, she handles the finances for The Palette & The Page.
Paulus and Strano-Whitt lauded Youse for keeping the shop’s used books in pristine condition and for her uncanny ability to recall from memory whether they have a specific book in stock at any given time — only a third of their stock is displayed on the main floor. The rest is stored in the basement.
‘We all rise together’
It wasn’t until 2013 or 2014 that The Palette & The Page was able to break even, according to Strano-Whitt. Until then, she said they all pitched in money to pay various bills.
But Paulus is proud to say they never borrowed money. Instead, they found a way to raise capital through gallery sales.
Paulus fondly remembers having $1,000 at the end of one year and being able to buy paint and shelving to remodel the gallery.
Recently, The Palette & The Page invested in rebuilding their website, thepaletteandthepage.com, which will be unveiled at the 10th anniversary celebration.
Paulus said it is “unbelievable” that they have made it 10 years. A lot of businesses don’t make it past one year, she said, let alone an art gallery.
“When we say we’re going to do something, we do it,” she said.
Paulus said The Palette & The Page’s more than 60 member artists and authors — as well as the five business’s whose products the gallery sells — have been “incredibly supportive and very understanding” throughout the years.
When she emailed them ahead of the anniversary, asking if anyone would be willing to contribute any of their art to be raffled off, Paulus hoped they would receive enough to raffle off one piece every hour. Currently, she expects they have enough for a couple drawings every half hour.
“They understand that they can’t be successful and we can’t be successful without the people that come in here and support us by buying art,” she said.
Not only does the gallery sell artists and authors’ work, but they also host monthly First Friday shows alongside the Cecil County Arts Council and Cecil College’s Elkton Station, multiple artist workshops during each month, and community events in coordination with other downtown merchants throughout the year, such as Small Business Saturday in November and Elkton’s annual Cookie Throwdown in December.
Youse said part of the business’s success is the artists who contribute their work and time. But she also said how The Palette & The Page treats those people is what keeps them coming back.
“I always tell people my little spiel that our artists are great and we are so fortunate to have all of them, but then I will say, ‘But we take care of our artists too.’ … They support us in many different ways, but we’re good to them. We work hard and it’s nice that we get that in return,” she said.
According to Paulus, the gallery and its neighbors also help one another because a rising tide lifts all boats.
“We all rise together,” she said.
Continuing to build up Elkton
One of the newest additions to Elkton’s Main Street, local theater Showcase on Main, is displaying art in conjunction with The Palette & The Page.
Lee Lewis, owner of Showcase on Main, told the Cecil Whig recently that he knew from the start that he wanted the The Palette & The Page to be his “partner in art.”
“They have been here, working tirelessly, for the last ten years to bring art to downtown Elkton,” he said. “They are the OGs of breathing life back into our wonderful downtown — so, I wanted to make sure they were involved in bringing the visual arts to Showcase on Main.”
Strano-Whitt said what sets Elkton apart from some other towns around the country is the camaraderie among business owners.
“I think the main difference between Elkton and lots of other towns all over the country I’m sure is I think that all of the merchants here get that it’s not just about them specifically being successful; it’s about us all being successful,” she said. “The more success we have means the more success they’ll have and we all share that. The more we build the town, the better all of it’s going to be.”
As the gallery prepares to celebrate a decade of being in business, Paulus said she and her partners didn’t expect to reach this milestone. They reached this point by simply taking it one day at a time.
“We didn’t think about being here 10 years,” she said. “I think we thought about the next month or the next week, and then it all added up.”