By Angie Landsverk
A Place Where Business Is Always Personal
At a small gallery in New Jersey, Nell Thorston stays behind the counter and lets those who enter simply wander.
“The counter faces the front door,” she said. “I always greet them as they come in.” If it is someone she does not recognize, Nell explains how Ludlow Thorston Gallery includes her late husband’s original watercolors and prints, as well as gift items.
“I leave them alone. I just let them enjoy it,” she said of her customers. “If there’s more than 10 to 12 people in at one time, it’s crowded. People are always moving because they’re looking at the art.”
Curious by nature, Nell enjoys listening to visitors’ stories and learning from them. “Sometimes, if someone comes in and no one else is there, they may stay an hour,” she said.
The gallery is in Island Heights, a borough of about 1,600 people in Ocean County. Nell and Lud opened their business in 1979 and ran it together for four decades.
“It was just Lud and I. We never had any employees,” she said. Since his passing four years ago, she continues to run it, but with limited hours. “He was 92 when he passed, and he was painting right up until a couple months before he passed,” said Nell, who turned 92 in August. “We had such a wonderful life together.”
Backgrounds in the Arts
Lud was teaching, and Nell was working in display when they met. They shared common interests, including the arts.
A graduate of Newark School of Fine and Industrial Arts, Lud was trained as an illustrator. He served in the Korean War, stationed in Evansville, Indiana.
After the war, advertising changed from illustration to photography. He decided to seek a different career, attending New York University through the GI Bill and going on to teach high school art.
Nell studied ballet from the time she was 3 and later took painting classes. Her background is as a display artist — now called visual merchandising.
She worked on the second floor of a department store, where there were seven different spaces for furniture — and the wallpaper, drapes, and accessories to go with them. “Because of that, I was everywhere in the store to get the things placed in the room,” she said. “You had to balance what you liked and what the customer liked.”
When Nell and Lud married in 1973, it was a second marriage for both. At the time, Lud had his watercolors in many New England galleries.
A few years later, the couple decided to open their own gallery. When they did so in 1979, it was in Seaside Park, New Jersey.
The Early Years
They found a storefront to rent on a main street in the community. It needed some TLC and paint, and Lud and Nell drove there every weekend for months to work on the space.
When they opened the gallery that May, their plan was to be open until Labor Day, like most of the other businesses were. But their customers had something else in mind.
People kept asking if they were going to stay open until Christmas. As a result, Ludlow Thorston Gallery was open until Christmas in its first year.
“When we opened the gallery, he was still teaching,” Nell said. She was making craft items for their business.
Before Lud gave up his teaching job, they wanted to be sure their venture was secure and going to work. If it did not, their plan was for him to continue teaching and for her to return to working in visual merchandising. “We knew in the second year we were on the right track,” Nell said.
Lud kept his teaching job the first three years the gallery was open and then retired. After being in business a few years, a couple approached them and asked if they were interested in opening another gallery. “We worked it out. Lud supplied the art, and all four of us went to gift shows together,” Nell said.
That couple ran the gallery’s Bay Head location for 12 years. “It was remarkable how many approached us the first few years about opening another gallery elsewhere, and these people were all customers,” Nell said.
The Final Move
Lud and Nell continued running their Seaside Park location after the Bay Head gallery closed. When their rent doubled in Seaside Park, there were no other buildings available, so they stayed where they were.
They eventually moved their gallery to Island Heights, where they were living. They found a small, affordable building for sale and decided they would never rent again. It has been the gallery’s home for 36 years now.
Lud’s studio was in their home. That is where he painted and did the framing.
Nell has always taken care of the gallery. “I select everything,” she said of the items she chooses to complement his work. “Lud and I — before we had the gallery — went up to Maine and went to gift shops.” Those experiences later helped her choose items for their business.
The gallery is the only place where Lud’s original watercolors may be purchased. Those who visit also see his limited-edition prints, which may also be purchased on the gallery’s website and shipped to the customer. Nell’s daughter, Karen, takes care of the shipping.
Lud and Nell found their place owning a small gallery. She said the rewards were big but not of the monetary kind. “People come back years and years later and say, ‘I feel so good when I come in here,’” she said.
Their business was always very personal to them, with new people visiting the gallery each week. “We always wanted our business to be one that was affordable to everyone,” she said.
Prints are available at a reasonable price. Back when Lud handled the framing, people often told him he did not charge enough. “But Lud said, ‘I paint every day,” Nell said.
Art, Antiques, Gifts, and More
Lud’s original watercolors and limited-edition prints make up most of the business. “What sells the most are his prints,” she said. The gallery also has gifts, crafts, antique furniture, and quilts.
Nell likes to have items in the space that are fun or whimsical. In addition, she always tries to have little, inexpensive things in baskets around the gallery that young children can buy.
While Nell and Lud had the same tastes, he left the gifts area to her. And Nell does not sell anything she does not like herself.
“I carry Alice’s Cottage. I started buying from her when you could speak to Alice,” Nell said. “That was 40-some years ago.”
Another product line Nell carries is Maritime Tribes. “They do nautical maps. I started working with them a long time ago,” she said.
That company does custom work and Nell had them create tote bags for the gallery, with one featuring her work and the other Lud’s work.
Nell listens to what people ask for and loves discovering and working with local crafters. And when she finds something selling within reason, she then buys it in bulk.
Handmade quilts and custom toddler dresses can be found in the gallery, too. Nell is a quilter and used to teach hand quilting. “I had waiting lists for the classes. I felt someone had to keep the craft going,” she said.
In the past, she carried a lot of pottery and remembers when she ordered balsam products, which people loved to burn at Christmastime. “A lot of companies I worked with — I outlasted them,” Nell said.
She used to take day trips to New York or Atlantic City to attend gift shows and said Smart Retailer has also been a source for finding products. Nell searches for items that fit with Lud’s paintings of coastal and rural areas. The inspiration for his work came mostly from the ocean and Maine, she said.
Her thinking behind the gifts she chooses is to “have things to give and things to keep,” she said. “It’s all instinct and gut feeling for me.”
Of her product mix, she also said, “I try to make it so when people walk in, people don’t say, ‘Oh, it’s all seashore.’” Antiques not for sale are used for displays, and other antiques are integrated within the gallery to show customers how they can display them in their own homes, she said.
A Personal Touch
Some of Nell’s customers prefer a minimalist style. She tells them there is nothing wrong with having a simple home and recommends having a handmade piece of art in it. “I believe art will always be something people live with and love,” she said.
Lud’s prints have been well cared for and retail unframed or as seen on the wall framed.
She said, “My typical customer is between 30 and 70 and a lot of younger people who are in the arts themselves, and they just want to come in and look around. We want to welcome people to come and view everything.”
Nell often worked with those visiting the gallery to create groupings of art for them — with Lud’s smaller prints. She took all the artwork visitors liked and placed it on the floor. “Those kinds of things are what we did,” she said.
She used to have a guest book people could sign with their home address and email address, so she could send them things. “I stopped doing that about five years ago and now have an index box on the counter,” she said. Nell made that change, in case people thought they could take pictures of names and addresses in her guest book.
In addition to the mailings and emails, Nell writes personal notes to new customers. She thanks them for choosing Lud’s work.
With Island Heights being a vacation and retirement area, new people are always visiting the gallery. She sees the space as a place of interest and encourages people to bring their friends to visit and not just to purchase something. “People say, ‘It’s so nice of you to be so gracious to our friends,’” Nell said.
A Good Life
When Lud and Nell opened their gallery, their goal was not to “make a killing, retire early, and go to the Bahamas,” she said. They enjoyed their work.
Lud was already an established artist when they opened the gallery in Seaside Park. And once they had their own gallery, they never distributed his work again. After they moved the business to Island Heights, they had the best of both worlds — a place to live and have their gallery.
Every day, Lud painted. Some days went well for him, and others resulted in him tearing up his work. “Sometimes he said, ‘I just couldn’t get it to work today,’” Nell said. “I would say, ‘Let’s have a cup of coffee.’”
After sitting outside and talking about other things for a bit, Lud would return to his studio and create a work of art, she said. “He priced his work so it was affordable to everybody,” Nell said. “He wanted his artwork to be remembered.”
She said, “It worked for us. We weren’t looking at it from a money point of view. We wanted to make enough to live, have a house, food on the table.”
The gallery’s hours have changed over the years. In Seaside Park, the business was initially open from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. every day during the summer and then on weekends from September until right before Christmas.
After moving to Island Heights, it was open from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. six days a week and closed on Monday year-round. They never had any employees or a goal of getting bigger, wanting “just enough to have time for ourselves, be happy, and live modestly,” Nell said.
Since Lud’s passing, the gallery has been open from noon to 4 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. “But people can call. It’s working. I’m always open to emails from people starting a business, or wanting to know anything, or about Lud’s work. The only person who represents his work is me,” she said.
A few days after Lud passed, a woman visited the gallery. A professional framer, she told Nell she heard of his passing and said, “Whatever you need, I’m here.”
She picks work up from Nell, takes it to her own gallery to frame, and then brings it back. Nell said she has been unbelievable, and they have become friends. “Without her, I wouldn’t have been able to stay in business,” Nell said.
These days, Nell continues to bring pieces of Lud’s work into the gallery that people have never seen. Her memory is sharp. She can picture the location of most of his paintings and when he did them. She seeks to be knowledgeable about everything in the gallery.
She has wonderful memories of Lud and their 46-year marriage. “It was a good life. We never traveled much. I’ve never been out of the country other than Canada. We were happy where we were,” Nell said.
Something she has always thought was, “Is it worth it to give up time — giving up something you already like in order to do something that is work to do?”
Running the gallery makes her happy. “If you’re happy and doing what you love, you can bring it to other people,” Nell said.
She believes everyone should work as long as they are able to and said, “If I feel like it’s getting to be too much for me, then I’ll retire.”
Facts at a Glance
Business Name: Ludlow Thorston Gallery
Location: 10 Central Ave., Island Heights, NJ 08732
Phone: 732-929-1995 or 732-929-0811
Size: Less than 600 sq. ft.
Product Categories: Ludlow Thorston’s original watercolors and prints, antiques, quilts, crafts, and gifts