People - April 2005

He followed course of a different color
By Kathy Brown

Joe Miller was born outside the front door of a drugstore. He found fame and fortune inside between the aspirin and laxatives. A pharmacist by training and artist by inclination, he parlayed his desire for art supplies into a retail business that last year grossed about $20 million. So, no, the proprietor of Cheap Joe’s Art Stuff Inc. doesn’t care at all if you call him cheap.

Miller, 66, started his career switch in 1984 when he began selling his surplus art supplies in his Boone drugstore. “I stuck a few brushes between the Ex-Lax and aspirin,” he says. He hung a sign above that read, “Cheap Joe’s Art Stuff.” It has grown into a 70-employee business that sells, among other things, brushes, paints and smocks. Most sales are by Internet and telephone, although there is also an outlet store in Boone. Cheap Joe’s also holds workshops on topics such as drawing and watercolor painting. Aspiring artists from across the country attend.

Miller was born in a car in front of Boone Drug because his mother didn’t make it to the doctor’s office upstairs. He grew up on a small farm outside town but returned to work at Boone Drug during high school as “soda jerk, janitor and general gofer.” A hunter and fisherman, he went to college at the University of Iowa to study taxidermy but got homesick and quit after a year. The two brothers who owned Boone Drug, Wayne and O.K. Richardson, told him that if he got a pharmacy degree from UNC Chapel Hill, they’d sell him a third of the business. He graduated in 1962 and worked there 30 years dispensing drugs.

A friend gave him four lessons with Noyes Capehart Long, an Appalachian State University art professor who now has a gallery in Blowing Rock, and it was through those sessions that Miller’s talent, particularly with watercolors, began to develop. But Long told Miller he needed proper supplies.

He drove to Charlotte and spent $600, including $300 on a single brush. He decided to sell some of the items at the drugstore. His initial inventory — Rembrandt paint and Arches paper — lingered on the shelf until he painted a promotional flier, photocopied it and mailed it to the 300 members of the Watercolor Society of North Carolina. “Within weeks, I sold everything on the shelf,” Miller says. He restocked, and a year later, Cheap Joe’s was filling 10 to 15 orders a day.

By 1995, Miller had to choose between remaining a pharmacist and selling art supplies. He sold his share in the drugstore and bought a 20,000-square-foot building in an industrial park to house Cheap Joe’s operations. Within two years, the company had outgrown that space. It now occupies 50,000 square feet in Boone, though its reach extends much farther. Cheap Joe’s supply catalog goes out to 250,000 artists around the world. Miller’s two sons, Joseph, who is vice president, and David, help run the business.

Miller still paints daily — mostly mountain scenes — and prides himself on encouraging beginning artists. Another sign — this one from a friend — hangs in his office. It reads: “With so many artists turning to drugs, it’s refreshing to see a druggist turn to art.”