Local staple Wallack’s opts to stay in Centretown and bets on Bank St. – again

‘Destination store’ moves to retail space formerly occupied by Foster’s Sports Centre

Michael Wallack's headshot
Michael Wallack is the third-generation owner of Wallack's Art Supplies and Framing, a longtime Ottawa business that also features an art gallery. Photo by Caroline Phillips

When Wallack’s Art Supplies and Framing realized it needed to find a new space after nearly half a century in its current location, the venerable Ottawa store and commercial fine art gallery approached the problem with a blank canvas, just as one might expect of a business that revolves around the visual arts. 

The team imagined fresh ideas for transforming Wallack’s into a vibrant creative arts hub.

“We came up with this great vision, but then we had to find a place that would fit with that vision and that we could afford,” said owner Michael Wallack during an interview to discuss new changes for this third-generation family-owned business, which has been deeply rooted in Centretown for nearly 90 years.

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About a year ago, Wallack became fully aware that his business would have to move due to Smart Living Properties’ plans for a nine-storey mixed-use complex where Wallack’s Art Supplies and Framing is currently located on Bank Street. 

While the redevelopment will encompass the entire block, the front facade of the store is expected to remain intact.

Twelve months may sound like plenty of time to hunt for a new home, “but it’s not, especially when you’re looking for a large space, a unique space, that has to be affordable,” said Wallack.

Wallack knew nearby property owner Rami Aroosi, owner of Foster’s Sports Centre, was thinking of retiring, so he expressed his interest in leasing Aroosi’s retail space, which is just three blocks south. 

Wallack recalled: “We were talking over many, many months. He hemmed and hawed it over, but I was running out of time. Finally, we met up again and he said he was ready.”

Securing 305 Bank St. was a huge win for Wallack, whose other options included relocating to a strip mall. 

“It’s a rejuvenation of my soul and spirit, for sure. Coming from such a wonderful building – despite its issues – to discovering such a beautiful, unique space, I’m very excited we’re going to be the custodians of the building.”

Come March, Wallack’s will start its occupancy of the former Foster’s store. Establishing the new space will take several weeks. Wallack is gearing up for a grand opening, slated for April, preceded by a soft opening in early March to accommodate customers as inventory arrives, and to finalize light renovations.

The two-storey, 10,000-square-foot property will be filled with Wallack’s art supplies, framing services and commercial fine art gallery. Meanwhile, Foster’s is reopening under new ownership at a different location in Centretown at 437 Cooper St.

New Wallack's location
Michael Wallack, owner of Wallack’s Art Supplies and Framing, seen inside 305 Bank St., where his business is relocating to over the next few days. Photo by Caroline Phillips

The new setting for Wallack’s aligns with the owner’s vision of creating a place for artists and customers to gather. The store will offer free parking, with plans to include a hybrid café, artist studio space and eventual outdoor patio.

There will be a small gallery on the main floor until accessibility can be improved to the bright and airy upstairs, where the main gallery will be.

For Wallack, it’s been a stressful year – er, make that a stressful few years. 

“I’m not going to lie. Having to maintain the business and work on the business, at the same time as moving a massive business like this is challenging.”

The 36-year-old entrepreneur faced a couple of difficulties in finding a new home. First of all, he was still recuperating from the three-year-long pandemic, which saw him constantly adapting and problem-solving. 

“Mustering up the resources and energy was probably the No. 1 challenge,” he said.

Secondly, he had to figure out whether Wallack’s should remain in Centretown. On one hand, it’s a neighbourhood that’s near to his heart. It’s where he and many of his friends live, and is home to many of his favourite hangouts and amenities.

On the other hand, the district has been slower to recover from the effects of the pandemic due to the COVID-accelerated decrease in downtown office workers. 

“During the pandemic, this area bottomed out. Hopefully, this is the bottom,” said Wallack while expressing surprise that commercial rents continue to hold at pre-pandemic levels. 

As the board chair of the Centretown BIA, Wallack has in-depth knowledge of the area. He anticipates a resurgence due to the prevailing trend toward urban densification and adaptive reuse of vacant office buildings. 

“A lot of people like living downtown,” he said. “They like the interconnectivity.” 

‘One-stop shop’ for visual artists

Wallack also knows from his own collected data that many of his customers travel from across the city and beyond to shop at Wallack’s, which he describes as “a destination store.”

He remains proud of Wallack’s reputation for offering expert customer service and the best value at the best price. 

“We’re the only one-stop shop for all things visual arts.”

His grandfather, Samuel Wallack, laid the foundation for the business in the 1930s, not far from where it stands today. An avid photographer, Samuel sought a better way to support his family, which included wife Sara, daughter Merle and son John. 

Consequently, he opened up his shop, selling photography and art supplies, along with managing a gallery and art framing services.

Samuel passed away in 1965. His son John then took over the business, moving to its current Bank Street location in the 1970s and adding stores in Ottawa and beyond. He worked from morning to night, said Michael, who described his father as a forward-thinking businessman with a strong work ethic and tremendous love of art. 

“If you get talking to him about art, you could be a while.”

In 2016, Michael was studying international business at the University of Ottawa when unexpected circumstances caused him to discontinue his studies and take on the responsibility of running Wallack’s. 

His father had decided to retire, largely due to health reasons. Michael, who had a business diploma from Algonquin College, held different jobs at Wallack’s while growing up. 

“I started working here as far back as I can remember,” he said.

His mother, Sherril, is still involved in the business as director of Wallack Galleries.

The Wallacks have a deep appreciation for the visual arts and the cultural richness and character that the arts add to cities and to people’s lives. Said Michael: “Artists throw the party, and everyone else shows up.”

Michael has been known to answer late-night calls from artists in a panic over some particular art supply that they desperately need, and to walk the eight minutes it takes to get from his home to his store to personally assist them.

Wallack said he “lives and breathes” being part of the creative journey. 

“I love it most when I don’t feel I’m just selling material goods but that I’m part of the artistic process.”

– caroline@obj.ca

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