The Sanford & Son building was a big party destination for gallerygoers, but free wine did not sell art.

The Broadway antique store Sanford & SonAntiques and Auctions, co-owned by Alan and Cheryl Gorsuch, has seen a lot of history in the past few years (and yes, those old enough to remember the Redd Foxx television show will be reminded of the sign outside Sanford and Son Salvage, “We buy and sell junk,” since some of these antiques resemble junk).

Alan and Cheryl are resourceful when it comes to marketing and moneymaking, but it hasn’t been easy. In 2006, with auctions and antique sales slowing, the two decided to create a Pike Place/ European market approach to the middle level of their building, splitting it up into separate spaces, offering low rents to prospective tenants.

Illustration by Chris Bivins for City Arts

From the bottom level of the building, an elaborate stairwell leads up to a labyrinth of hallways and shop spaces, ending at a commons-type area where another stairwell leads to a garage-like auction space. It seemed like the perfect place to try their market experiment.

One tenant, Gretchen Bailey, opened up a massage studio, called it Zinnia, and called in some artists and friends to help paint the walls. They also contributed merchandise. Bailey approached Sanford & Son with an idea to display the works of artists in an empty space, and brought in people like Mindy Barker, who showed early works, and photographer Jennifer Adams, who displayed photos of spooky, tea-stained baby clothes.

As spaces filled, the art and artists moved to the hallway. Third Thursdays — then coordinated with Wine Walks — bustled with energy. Wine flowed along with the crowds moving through the spaces. Bailey helped bring out new artists who might be unlikely to promote themselves — like the shy UWT technician Tim Kapler, whose spattered paintings sold swiftly. Soft-spoken Zana Lee showed pieces that presented her conflicted Asian/Middle Eastern cultural ethnicity, while rising star Jeff Olson showed his organic-meets-tag style.

Then, toward the spring of 2007, it seemed the shops, like the party they hosted, hit critical mass. The place hummed with action: there were two studios — Paul Uhl’s est Studios and Cheryl Williams Dolan’s Crowe Studio and Gallery — and a de facto house band in the person of Deborah Page, whose star was on the rise. But was the venture making money?

Not really.

Bailey remembers that on the busiest nights, art sales were slowest. Williams Dolan also notes that sales were slow even if the parties were fast, and she worried how to make ends meet. Within months of the heyday of the Wine Walk, Williams Dolan left the space. Zinnia shut down as a one-woman entity and reopened as a collaborative called The Lark. Still, there were stalwarts: Paul Uhl opened up the Delight Gallery, a showcase of his photographic work focusing on specific projects like Naked — a show of super-enlarged photographs of body parts.

Yet Uhl had other distractions. He is half of the Deborah Page band, and he closed his gallery last summer to devote more time to a growing tour schedule. Talking about leaving Sanford & Son’s building, he remarked that the sometimes minimal payoff of a gallery venture didn’t add up. It turned out the costs of process and display, food and drinks were rarely offset in sales income.

Bailey, upon closing The Lark, echoed his sentiments: “It’s too hard,” she said.

Which all comes around to the arts in Tacoma, and how to keep these kinds of idealistic ventures alive. The answer: we can’t only go to the parties, we need to buy the art, too. Maybe the rise and fall of the creative heyday of the Middle Floor Merchants can be seen as a lesson: appreciate what you’ve got, or it might go away. •