Laughing All The Way
Florida jewelry and art gallery prefers fun over tradition.
STORY BY JULIE FANSELOW
It’s quiet in vero beach, fl, this time of year, but the dog days of summer are the perfect time to prepare for the much busier months ahead. When holiday cash registers ring and snowbirds land, the Laughing Dog Gallery will be ready with a fresh selection of fine handmade jewelry.
The Laughing Dog Gallery
Vero Beach, FL
URL: thelaughingdog gallery.com
OWNERS: Susie and Jeffery Wilber
LAST RENOVATED: 2005
AREA: 4,000 square feet
BUILDOUT COST: $250,000
TOP BRANDS: Alex Sepkus, Suzy Landa, Jamie Joseph, Elizabeth Garvin, and Adel Chefridi
ONLINE PRESENCE: 4.4 stars and 1,180 likes on Facebook
Laughing Dog Gallery tallies 90 percent of its annual sales from November through April, says “Top Dog” Susie Wilber, who owns the shop with her husband, Jeffery. “So we try to tweak something every summer when I have time to step back, look at the gallery and say, ‘this is what we need,” Susie says.
Last year, for example, they switched out all the lighting to LEDs. “New carpet, new paint, whatever needs doing, we take advantage of the slow summertime to do those chores,” she adds. It’s also a good time for store staff to take a little time off. “That way, when we all come back in September when things are really gearing up and inventory is starting to come in, we’re all fresh, enthusiastic and ready to go.”
When Laughing Dog Gallery opened in 2000, it didn’t carry jewelry. The shop’s mission — then as now — was to offer fine art that is handmade in America, a collection that “represents the best in American creativity and ingenuity,” says Wilber, who has a background in art history and architectural design and is licensed as an interior designer. (Jeffery is a building contractor specializing in luxury homes.)
From the start, Laughing Dog Gallery has offered gorgeous and functional glass, ceramics, wood and furniture works. But as the business grew, and especially after it moved to expanded quarters in 2005 after two hurricanes battered Vero Beach the year before, it became clear that jewelry could have an important place. After all, the shop’s longtime motto is “Own Art. Be Happy.” When it’s art you can wear, all the better. Yet it took thought and time to figure out how to be sure earrings and necklaces don’t get lost in 4,000 square feet of much larger pieces.
“People would come in and say, ‘Look at all this beautiful jewelry. I didn’t know you had jewelry,’” Wilber recalls. “A little bell went off, so we started changing things up a bit.” The gallery had big banners made featuring large photos of works by jewelers including Suzy Landa, Elizabeth Garvin and Alex Sepkus. Prominently displayed in the gallery’s corner storefront windows in downtown Vero Beach, these helped elevate jewelry’s prominence to passers-by.
Once customers are in the door, they find jewelry front and center in the very first room. Fixtures include locked, lighted cases plus pull-out drawers below that spark a sense of discovery. “It’s fun,” Wilber says. “It feels a little bit like being in someone’s attic or secret closet.”
Accessories also help direct attention to key pieces. “Let’s say you had a Mexican fire opal necklace,” Wilber says. In a regular jewelry store, such a stone might not need much help to stand out among art glass treasures, but here, a selection of pink and orange perfume bottles help do the job. The shop also moves things around, since, as Wilber adds, “Merchandise takes on a whole new look when moved to a different case or location in the gallery.” And fresh flowers and tillandsia (also known as air plants) bring in the aura of the tropics.
The Laughing Dog Gallery got a running start on an American craft renaissance that’s now going strong. Wilber recalls how it was once difficult to find American-made items at gift shows. “Now, it’s a whole different animal,” she adds. Even during the depths of the recession, “we stuck with our made-in-America mission and it’s worked.”
“Jeff and I have always maintained that the gallery is an extension of us. So I personally make it a point to meet every artist who we carry,” Wilber says. She’s after jewelry that her customers will love and that appeal to her, things that clearly look handmade.
Now, jewelry accounts for at least half of revenues, and The Laughing Dog Gallery currently represents 27 jewelry artists, adding at least two or three new jewelry artists every year. They take a curated approach and rely heavily on referrals from other artists and gallery owners. For example, at a New York show, they met owners of a Denver gallery. “We chatted, shared stories and traded a few ‘favorites’ with them,” Wilber recalls. “They introduced us to Sarah Richardson, who was one of our top-selling silver jewelers last year.”
Another time, “we were hosting a trunk show and asked the visiting artist if she were familiar with another designer we were considering,” Wilber adds. “It turned out that she knew him well and sang his praises, both as a designer and a lovely person. Her endorsement meant a lot to us, and consequently, Adel Chefridi’s work has been in our gallery ever since.”
The Laughing Dog Gallery hosts five or six shows in their store between January and April, and many of them are jewelry trunk shows. “We have also had glass shows, wood carving demonstrations, and sculpture shows. Jewelry, comparatively, is easier to set up and transport. A glass or sculpture show is a much larger undertaking.”
Vero Beach is a fairly conservative town, so the Laughing Dog Gallery has found a niche by offering things that more traditional jewelers in the area don’t carry. “Our clients love to come in and see what’s new, and they expect to find things that they’re not going to find elsewhere, at least locally,” says Wilber.
“Our clients want people to stop and say ‘wow, look at that necklace’ as opposed to just admiring someone’s fancy diamonds,” Wilber says. “To sum it up, our philosophy is feel good about what you buy. Feel good that it was made in the United States, feel good that it was handmade by an American artist and feel good about purchasing something that is supporting your local economy.”
PHOTO GALLERY (7 IMAGES)
Five Cool Things About
The Laughing Dog Gallery
1. Three-dog days. The shop’s name was chosen in part so the Wilbers could justify bringing their bull mastiffs to work, and the 120-pound official mascots — currently Sophie, Sherman and Stella — can usually be found lounging around the store. “We’ve heard every ‘bull in the china shop’ joke there is,” Susie says.
2. Paws for thanks. Everyone has a pet cause in Vero Beach. Laughing Dog Gallery donates a portion of every sale to the Humane Society of Vero Beach and Indian River County.
3. Scratch my back. The owner of a neighboring deli wears jewelry from Laughing Dog to work and slips trunk show promo postcards into customers’ bags. The Laughing Dog, in turn, posts photos of its mascots visiting the deli on social media feeds.
4. Sit a spell. A spacious bar offers a place to consolidate refreshments during events as well as a place to relax. “We have plenty of people who just come in to have a cup of coffee and see what’s new,” Wilber says. “The longer you can keep a person in the store and make them feel comfortable and happy and have a dog to pet, it’s just a way to keep them engaged.”
5. Local favorite. Laughing Dog Gallery holds a popular “Biscuit Sale” near July 4 to commemorate Stella’s birthday and boost slow summer sales. Customers pick a dog biscuit from a large jar, and each has a surprise discount tied to it that can be used that day only.
This article originally appeared in the August 2017 edition of INSTORE.