Joe Miller and the History of Cheap Joe's Art Stuff

Joe Miller, Founder of Cheap Joe's

It all started back in 1956. I was a senior in high school. In the afternoons after school, I went to Boone Drug to work on the fountain. Two brothers, who owned the store, Wayne and Odell Kelly Richardson were both pharmacists. Great guys – I mean really great. They became dads #2 and #3 to me. One day, they came to me and said, “Why don’t you go to pharmacy school and come back and work with us?” They both drove nice cars, fished a lot and were very respected in our little town of Boone. So, after high school, I trucked it off to the University of North Carolina School of Pharmacy. I graduated somehow and came back to Boone and began my career in community pharmacy. I loved it.

Today, Boone Drug is still going strong. It’s where all the movers and shakers meet. The soda fountain seats over 100 people and it’s usually full and always fun. It really is the place where everybody knows your name. During my years of pharmacy, when I would see watercolor paintings, I would tell myself, “I can do that. It looks so simple. Anyone can do it.

So, in the mid 1980’s, I broke down and bought a little dime store set of kids watercolors. You know the kind, six quarter-size round pans of color in a white plastic holder with a miserable little brush. A brush you couldn’t bring to a point in a hundred years. To make matters worse, I bought dime store watercolor paper. Hard as I tried, I couldn’t make my paintings look like Andrew Wyeth’s. Wonder why?

For Christmas that year, my good friend, Rogers Whitener, gave me three lessons with Noyes Capehart Long, a fabulous art professor at Appalachian State University here in Boone. I had admired his art long before I met him. After looking over my dime store material, he told me to go buy a Winsor & Newton Series 7 size 14 brush, a dozen Winsor & Newton watercolors, a Pike palette and 25 sheets of 300lb Arches paper. No one in Boone sold such items, so I had to drive to Winston-Salem, 100 miles away to the nearest art store. The bill was over $600.00.

Driving back home, I thought I’d lost my mind. Turns out, it was one of the best investments I ever made. My painting took an instant leap. Noyes continued to guide me and we became very good friends.

Somewhere around 1985, I had the idea of adding art materials to Boone Drugs’ list of wares. It took me a while to find a company that would sell to a drug store, but when I did, I felt like I’d hit the mother lode. We had Arches paper, Rembrandt paint and everything one needed to get started. I was so excited with the materials. I priced them, put them on a shelf between the Aspirin and the Xylocaine and made a sign that read “Cheap Joe’s Art Stuff.” That was the beginning.

Luckily, I had joined the Watercolor Society of North Carolina and had the list of the members or I might never have sold a tube of color. I hand printed a sale flyer on an 8" x 11" sheet of paper, ran 150 copies on the drug store copier, hand addressed each one and mailed them. Then, I sat back and waited for the orders to roll in. They did! To my surprise, I practically sold out.

I placed another order, did another flyer and sold out again. I didn’t make much money but I was having a great time and was able to get my Arches paper at cost, which I loved. I was painting everyday, so I was using lots of paint and paper. The sales continued to do well and I continued to fill orders for art supplies and prescriptions—playing artist pharmacist or pharmacist artist.

In the years that followed, our little business that started out as a hobby outgrew the drug store. In 1990, we moved into a rental space of 2500 square feet. I thought we’d be there forever. I was wrong. By 1994, we had outgrown that space. We moved into our own 20,000 square foot building. We loved it and knew we’d be here forever. I was wrong again!

By 2000, we needed more space, so we added on another 20,000 square feet. In it we built a state-of-the-art workshop space and an outlet store. Today, this place called Cheap Joe’s is full of creativity and is alive with fun. There are bargains galore in the outlet store and hundreds of great places to paint, and close by there are excellent trout fishing streams and rivers, fabulous golf courses and hiking trails on the highest mountains east of the Mississippi. Come see us. We’ll give you a tour, a hug and even a cup of coffee.

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