Animation Art Gallery: Russell Singler
Russell Singler turned his passion for cartoons into a business that's anything but two-dimensional
In many ways, Russell Singler has extended his childhood years into his working life. A lifelong fan of animation, Singler admits to still getting a thrill each day dealing in his two-dimensional products at the Animation Art Gallery.
“My sister gets very upset with me, she says that only I could watch cartoons 24 hours a day and make a business out of it!” he says. “I’ve always been into animation and I collected for many years. One of the hardest things is for it to be your hobby and your business, but I still enjoy it.”
Singler was first hooked by animation at the age of 13 when his parents gave him an animation cell of the Jungle Book’s Baloo. His personal collection of cartoon scenes is now worth over £150,000.
After leaving school at 16, Singler landed a dream job at the Disney Store, an experience he credits for forming his instinct for customer service. It was then, a decade ago, that the seeds of the Animation Art Gallery were sown.
“I went to buy a Simpson’s cell at a gallery and I got talking to one of the partners of the business and he was looking for someone,” he explains. “We spoke for about five hours, and by the end of it, he said, ‘Well, when can you start?’
“We worked for about 10 months, but there were a lot of things that weren’t possible in that business that I felt should’ve been possible, so that was the motivation to for it.
“I could do it, I know about it, I love it and there was a lot missing from the industry from seeing what went on in America, where people weren’t treated like individuals, more like a meal ticket for the dealers.”
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Singler claims that poor customer service has blighted many dealers in niche products and stresses that giving buyers the best possible treatment is the cornerstone of the Animation Art Gallery, which offers cells of films ranging from Snow White to Wallace and Gromit. He cites his former boss, the owner of a delicatessen, as his inspiration – “a real people’s person – that’s formed what I am today.”
However, in the early days, Singler needed more than good intentions – funding and awareness of the business needed to be gained.
After a fruitless attempt to gain finance from the bank, Singler was further blighted by a lack of understanding of the animation industry from potential investors.
“But we had a few sales and a couple of investors who put money up so we really worked the budget,” he says. “We needed around £32,000 to fit the place up, but we did it for £17,000, so it was a real scrimp and save – we didn’t make any money for six or seven months after we opened.
“We now have such a great word of mouth situation, which is different from the early days when people would come in and say ‘good luck’ because they couldn’t believe the prices of the artwork.
“To be honest, looking back, I’m not sure how we did it, I really don’t.”
Despite the initial struggles, the Animation Art Gallery has grown into a well-established business, with customers such as Jonathan Ross, Phil Jupitus and Danny Baker taking advantage of Singler’s unique services.
Having bought out both of his business partners last year (“It got to the point where I was doing everything”) Singler has introduced a raft of new improvements to the business, such as publishing his own artwork under license, such as Mr Men, Shrek and Thomas the Tank Engine.
The business now as seven staff and tie-ins with Warner Brothers and Hanna Barbera. Singler bolsters the core business with DVD promotions, competitions, special appearances by animations and voice talents and artwork launches at the gallery.
But it’s the love of animation that continues to motivate Singler.
“There are plenty of things that you can expect to get in your way – doing the things you love only takes up 10 or 20 per cent of your working life,” he explains. “The important thing is, if you love what you do, you’re passionate about it and you’ve got pride in yourself, you should never give up.
“I’ve had plenty of tough days and weeks, but I’ve never got out of bed thinking ‘Oh no, I don’t want to start the day’. I absolutely love it – that’s the thing that’s got me through the darkest times.”
So who is Singler’s favourite cartoon character?
“That the hardest question of them all!” he protests. “But I have to say I’m a huge Superman fan.”