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Offering That Special Something: 50 years after opening Uncle Eli’s, Douglas Albert is sticking to ‘Plan A’ with his emporium and his gallery

by on September 04, 2020 7:05 AM

Douglas Albert came to Happy Valley in 1968 to attend Penn State and more than 50 years later, he hasn’t left. While he never graduated from Penn State as he intended, he has become a fixture in town with longstanding businesses celebrating big anniversaries – Uncle Eli’s Artist Marketplace and Gift Emporium celebrates its 50th anniversary this year, with the Douglas Albert Gallery ringing in the big 4-0 next year.

During a time when business owners – and pretty much everyone – are feeling the economic impact of COVID-19, Albert, 70, is thankful he has been able to stay in business for so long.

“I’m stubborn and I don’t have a Plan B,” he says. “I’ve been sticking with Plan A. It’s a challenge, but here I am, trying to figure out what next year will be like.”

Rewind to the day Albert was born and you find a baby destined to be involved in art. That’s at least how Albert recalls his passion developing. He says he always loved art and was constantly drawing and illustrating. He was art editor of his yearbook and was drawn to Penn State’s fine arts department.

It was quite the time to start college, with the Vietnam War raging and universities across the country navigating incredibly difficult times with chants of “Make love, not war.” Albert found himself in the draft lottery, but had a four-year deferment, eventually not being called upon to serve in Vietnam. Instead, he became a young business owner, both from a love of art and out of necessity.

After having a few short-term jobs, he decided to open his own art supply store, which birthed Uncle Eli’s Artist Marketplace and Gift Emporium, which provides top-quality art supplies, gallery pieces, greeting cards, gifts, and custom framing.

“In my naiveté, I thought I’ll just go buy art supplies and sell art supplies and pay my tuition,” he says. “I didn’t know boo about business – never took a business course – but I had a very short-term partner and with $1,500 in purchasing power, I went and found a wholesaler and that’s when I started my business and now this is my 50th anniversary.”

The store’s first location was just a 10-by-10-foot platform, which he quickly outgrew. The Emporium moved a few more times before finding its current home on Beaver Avenue in 1975.

“Businesses have changed, but I’m still standing,” he says. “I never thought 50 years ago I’d be talking about still being in business. I just think of all of the businesses that have come and gone.”

Albert is looking forward to Philadelphia artist Bruce Evans completing a mural on the Emporium, nine years after a mural was first added. Years ago, Albert also had a mural on the Emporium when it was located in Humes Alley.

In 1981, Albert opened The Douglas Albert Gallery – which offers fine art, collectibles, and American craft – and finds his two businesses complement each other. He tries to make both spaces welcoming and show people that art doesn’t have to be so rigid. As he says, “It doesn’t cost to look.”

“People are very apprehensive and think they can’t afford artwork, and that’s just not true,” he says. “If you are buying from a furniture store that’s one thing, but if you buy from a gallery like mine it’s like going from polyester to silk. The dividends you get from your art is what you get when you come home and you never get tired of looking at it. It doesn’t always need a big story. It speaks for itself.”

Bob Steinbach has been a long-time friend of Albert’s and has also owned various State College businesses over the years. While some businesses have not been able to compete with other retailers and online shopping, Steinbach says Albert has that special something.

“His businesses have always had something the consumer wanted, something unique, and something you couldn't get anywhere else,” he says. “He also had the foresight to open his businesses in a very vibrant college town only a four-hour drive from New York City – the buyer’s paradise – and since Doug loves to be on the go, these buying trips to New York, as well as Las Vegas, came easy. I guess it's all about chemistry and it's obvious by his successful years in business, he's got the chemistry.”

 

Jennifer Pencek is a freelance writer based in State College. She is programming coordinator of Penn State’s Gender Equity Center.

 

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