NOLA Bark Market is an unusual local business that serves multiple needs in the heart of Downtown New Orleans. Part art supply store, part pet supply store, part doggy day care and place to take art lessons, this shop recognized that many residents of the Bywater and Marigny areas are both artists and pet owners.
The phrase “Necessity is the mother of invention” comes to mind when you learn the interesting backstory of how NOLA Bark Market came to fruition.
“New Orleans Art Supply was originally part of the New Orleans Conservation Guild, which was my big company,” explained owner Blake Vonder Haar. “It was a division of that and then it separated at one point and then the pet supply store sort of grew out of the art supply store. One of the reasons why I opened the pet store is that I have several dogs myself and I was never able to find a good store that could provide what I needed.”
Vonder Haar said that, as someone who has always had large dogs, she wanted to carry specialty sizes and items that weren’t available in most stores locally.
“I think that you need to have a place to get things like extra-large and extra-extra-large coats and hoodies, stuff like that,” she said. “So we specialized in large dog stuff, but we cater to all sizes.”
Then, the unexpected happened, and Vonder Haar’s business had to be almost completely reinvented.
“In 2014, we had a catastrophic fire where the building burned to the ground. So I closed the New Orleans Conservation Guild,” she said. “We moved here after the fire and reopened this store and the pet supply and expanded both in inventory and our offerings.”
NOLA Bark Market, New Orleans Art Supply, and the New Orleans School of Art and Craft then opened in their current location in 2015. Located in the renovated, historic Wiltz Gymnasium on N. Rampart Street, the site features much of its original construction and details.
“It was built in 1916,” Vonder Haar tells me. “It belonged to the school district. Back then they would just have a shared facility. They wouldn’t have gyms at each individual school. This was the downtown gymnasium for schools. Then in the 1970s, it was a Boys and Girls Club. And then it remained vacant for a while. It was practically abandoned. For something like 10 years it wasn’t used. Then it was purchased and renovated in 2014. It won some historic renovation awards. The Normandy trusses in the ceiling were all scraped and sealed and that’s the original paint. And that’s the original paint [on the lower part of the walls] — not the original paint itself, obviously, but that was the original color, that blue.”
It all came together from there.
“We offer doggy day care and self-serve dog wash,” she said. “We have a vet clinic here which is separate, but [on premises.] We do dog training. And then we still have the art supply store and then the New Orleans School of Art and Craft, which we [originally] opened in 2001, which is an art school.”
The front door dings a few times. “This is the dog that I need to scan for a chip,” she tells me. We pause the interview.
A woman comes in with a lost dog that wandered into her house a few days prior. Vonder Haar scans the dog for a microchip. The dog is well-socialized and looks well cared for, despite not being neutered, which may have contributed to him wandering away from his previous owners. Unfortunately, no microchip shows up. She talks to the woman about some resources available to her and gets her some samples of dog food. It’s a great example of how Vonder Haar’s business is really a part of the community.
On the other side of the market, I talk to Robert Stainback, who heads the New Orleans Art Supply Store and the New Orleans School of Art and Craft. He’s been with the company since 2011. He’s noticed shoppers’ habits have changed a bit since the pandemic started.
“Unfortunately, a lot of our [original] regulars have kind of disappeared, because there’s no tourists to sell art to, so they don’t really need the [same] supplies anymore,” Stainback said. “Some of them have probably moved on to other places. Some of them have switched online so you see them from time to time, but they’re doing different products now,” he told me.
“But, to make up for that, we’ve also had a lot of people who went into quarantine and got bored and needed something to do. A lot of people have taken up new endeavors, so we get a lot of people coming in looking for kits and things to start up something they’ve never done before. So, a lot of new faces. Which is nice.”
Vonder Haar adds, “We specialize in professional artist’s supplies, but we do also carry craft supplies. It’s one of the things when we expanded and we had more room, we started carrying more things for crafting, things for Mardi Gras, professional-grade face paint, a lot of hot glue guns.”
What’s coming up next at the NOLA Bark Market?
“We’ll have our full spring semester (from January through the end of May) list of classes available online as of Dec. 1,” says Vonder Haar.
“Currently the only ones that are going on now are metalsmithing, oil painting and calligraphy,” Stainbeck of potential art class offerings said. “We also offer drawing, acrylic, watercolor. We have offered printmaking in the past. We’ve also offered digital photography classes. As long as we have a teacher available for it, we’ll offer pretty much anything other than ceramics.”
Pet services are back up in full swing, too.
“We started dog training classes again,” Vonder Haar said. “That is going on now, and we have a new cycle every month. There’s one starting the first week in December. We have a great veterinarian here who really is a great addition to the neighborhood. It’s Dr. Scott Griffith.”
Stainback said many of their customers come in to shop both sides of the market. “We always tell people, it’s a weird combination, but it’s a combination that works, because people who love one, [usually] love the other.”
Says Vonder Haar of people stumbling upon the NOLA Bark Market for the first time:
“We get a lot of people that walk in here, and they go, ‘Oh! My two favorite things! Dogs and art! I may never leave!’ It’s a real positive response.”
In addition to dog supplies, NOLA Bark Market has products and toys for cats, chickens, rats, and other small animals.