#15. Melissa Ellis
I’ll admit it. I was one of the people that Melissa is referring to in this interview. I had no idea what the Western New York Book Arts Center (WNYBAC) was. All I knew was that there was this cool looking space that I drove by everyday on my way to/from work. Turns out, it’s an amazing space, with great people behind it. Introducing, Melissa Ellis, the Exhibitions & Retail Operations Manager at WNYBAC.
Tell us about Melissa
“I was born and raised on the East Side of Buffalo. My parents were also raised in Buffalo, and my grandparents were raised in Buffalo, so I’m very deep in Buffalo, family-wise. Growing up, I moved around a lot within the general Western New York area. But I’ve always been really connected to the city where I grew up. In college, I wasn’t really sure what I wanted to do, and then I did my gen ed classes, and discovered Art History, and I was like, “Wow, I can actually do this as a profession?”. It’s something that I’ve always just loved and I didn’t know it was actually possible to have a career in it. Through that, I graduated with my Associates and went to Buff State and majored in Art History. From there, I just kind of submersed myself in everything Arts in Buffalo that I possibly could do. At one time, after I graduated, I volunteered at the Burchfield Penney Arts Center in the archives for a little while and I helped coordinate the volunteers for the Elmwood Arts Festival. I recently was Aaron Ott’s intern at the Albright Knox, he’s the curator of public arts. Which was an amazing, incredible experience. Through all those things, stayed in touch with my professors also. And one of my old professors was on the board at the WNYBAC and when the retail manager position opened up, he told me to apply and I got the job. So it was kind of, destiny. I’ve been there for about a year now.”
Tell us more about your role at the WNYBAC
“I’m the retail manager and I also work in the gallery. So I help our Executive Director and our Program Director coordinate all the artists that we show. Through a NYSCA grant, we are able to show five artists throughout the year and do a residency program for them. And our gallery is always free and open to the public, which is really nice. But I handle the store, I handle all the online shops. We sell a lot of our merchandise on Etsy, Amazon, our website, eBay, a place called ScoutMob, which is a website for independent makers. And then I also handle consignment. So artists from the area or general area come to us and want to sell their stuff at our shop, and we also sell our stuff at other places in the area, like the Roycroft and things like that. I also help in the studio, to an extent. I took a letterpress class here after I started. So I’m very very new to it, but every chance I can help in the studio, I try to get down there and do what I can. I also do festivals, so any local festivals we’re available to do, I apply for that for WNYBAC and go set up and reach out to the community and expose people to who we are and what we do.”
“We only have three full time employees, so balancing that plus all the other stuff we do, between three people is busy. For everything that we do, plus all of our events, we also rent out our space for event rentals. The UB Poetics department comes in and does poetry readings a lot. We do fundraisers; we just got our Liquor & Letterpress fundraiser, which was the first time we did it, and it was a huge success. We sold out. It was incredible. Plus all the community outreach we do and the workshops we offer. It’s crazy. It’s a good crazy. We all kind of wear different hats in the collaborative.”
What makes this a viable downtown business?
“Since we’ve been here since 2008 and a lot of people still don’t know about us. With the development that’s been going on us downtown, I think we’re really going to explode. Since we’re primarily a letterpress studio, we’re the only one in the general area that’s functioning and still working. There are some that are farther away, like our founder, Rich Kegler, works at Wells College. They have a book arts center and a letterpress studio. And then there are a few in Rochester that I know of. But within the really general Buffalo area – we’re it! There are a lot people who crave that and don’t know how to feed it, and then they find us and are like, “Wow, I can come here and do my own stuff, and have all this really cool, old equipment that still works and still does the job!”. That is definitely one thing that makes us really important to the arts downtown. We expose people to this craft that you can’t really get anywhere else.”
Can you think of any instances or people that inspire you or makes you love what you do?
“With our recent event, Liquor & Letterpress, it was the first year we did it, and we planned it in a really short amount of time. The overwhelming response that we got for pre-sale tickets was insane. And it was all people, for the most part, who didn’t even know who we were or what we were. During the event, I got to talk to a lot of those people, and ask them how they found out about it, if they were having a good time, and they were just blown away. And that’s really satisfying, to know that we can still reach out to people and they can come down and have a great time and support a local non-profit. But also make a ton of cool stuff that you can take home (and drink liquor). We used this event to replace our New Years Eve art auction and gala, because that was kind of dying out. We had a pretty loyal crew that used to come, who said they were going to do something different this year. Attendance was really dwindling and we thought, what’s something that will appeal to people who don’t know anything about us or what we do? And it worked! It’s awesome to see people have fun and get really excited about a space that they didn’t even know existed.”
Are there any areas of need for the Center?
“Absolutely. We always love donations, whether that be money, checks; everything goes back into our program and to keeping our building up, and us doing what we do. But we also pretty much take anything; old equipment that people don’t use anymore, that have been sitting in their basement or anything like that. Also, just any kind of supplies that we could use for our workshop. We do workshops in a various array of book arts. Supplies in general are great. Volunteers! We get a lot of students, which is great, but then they go off and get jobs. But one thing that we really cool use is just people who want to use our space and make merchandise for our store. We’ve been trying to open up the open studio time for people who want to sell their stuff at our store. We love putting new art on the shelves, and obviously that makes my job a lot easier. Since our full time Studio Director stepped down a year ago, it’s been a struggle to balance everything that we do, plus our merchandise, so we try to really nurture the creativity of the people who come into the space and want to sell what they create.”
Any predictions of the future for you or for the Center?
“All of us at the Center have different goals of where we’d like to see accomplished soon. I think the biggest one for me personally… this has been a huge, awesome opportunity for me to meet so many different people in the arts in Buffalo, and people that I never would have gotten the chance to be exposed to before. Not only our board members, who are involved in different organizations, but the artists that we work with for the shows, and the students that come in for field trips, and things like that. It’s really rewarding to be able to meet all these people and find out about what they do. As for WNYBAC in general, I’m really excited about, like I mentioned before, the development that’s going on around here. Casa Di Pizza moved in next door. We’ve already seen lots of foot traffic and Jeff has been really awesome working with us and for our openings with food, with whatever in general. Deep South Taco that just opened nearby. The big building across the street from us is being rehabbed into luxury apartments, so that’s going to be huge. And then, finally, the opening up of East Mohawk Street since it’s been closed for so long has been amazing. The foot traffic alone from that has been great. Of course, the 500 block of Main Street is just blowing up. I think that is really going to help us grow as a collaborative.”
What might you tell a younger version of yourself?
“Being twenty-three, that is a tough question. I’d say, just follow your heart – as cheesy as that sounds. Just roll with the punches. Any more cliches I can think of. No, again, it’s true. I hit a point in my life after I graduated college, when I was like, “What am I going to do now?” I love school, I was great at school, and then school was over. Now what the hell do I do? Just submerging myself in everything and anything that I could possibly get my hands on that I enjoyed doing was what led me to this point. And still is really exciting. So, just keep going.”
It’s definitely a different time, and people are starting to change their mindset. People told me “Why are you going to school for Art History? You’re never going to find a job. What are you going to do with that?” And it’s like, I’m going to prove you wrong. That also helps me a little bit, that drive.
“My first instinct is to nominate my boyfriend, Mike Puma, he works at Preservation Studios, but he also is a homesteader. He bought a house for a dollar and he’s been rehabbing that for the past couple years. He’s obviously amazing. So he’s my first choice.”
Upcoming Events at WNYBAC
Small Business Saturday
Saturday, November 28
Buffalo Place is organizing it to encourage and promote shopping downtown for the holidays. WNYBAC will be one of the check points!
8th Annual Last Minute Panic Holiday Sale
December 18th from 4-8pm and December 19th from 12-6pm
A two day holiday market held right here at WNYBAC on all three floors of our space, over 40 local artisans, a holiday card letterpress activity, and a gift wrapping station.
WNY Book Arts Center
468 Washington St.