The Closing of Pearl Paint and the End of an Era

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New York City-based artists past and present suffered a shock recently with the sudden and unexpected closing of Pearl Paint, the landmark art supply store, which was as integral to every facet of commercial and fine art in New York as was any museum, gallery, studio, or agency in the city. Dating back to 1933, the iconic store was housed in an equally iconic six-floor structure with a trademark red-and-white facade, and was located on the bustling Canal street in the somewhat sketchy Chinatown district.

In the world of art supply stores, Pearl Paint was the equivalent of Macy’s meets the local hardware store. Pearl Paint didn’t glisten; it was raw, worn, and rustic. Packed to the gills with every last art supply imaginable, it simply said “buy this stuff, and go create”. Frequented by everybody from students, crafters, and novices, to top professional artists, designers, and even celebrities, anybody whom stepped foot into the front door became something of an artist, and artists stepping into the store became kings and queens of the art world.

Shopping at Pearl Paint was an ordeal, though. To explore all six floors, you had to climb the imposing, steep, long, and somewhat slanted stairs between floors. You had to pay for each item before you left a particular floor, so if you purchased your airbrush on the fifth floor, went down the third floor for sketchbooks, and then to the second floor for paint brushes, then realized you totally forgot to pick up rapidographs on the sixth floor, well then, too bad. You built legs of steel shopping at Pearl Paint, even if you came out with lungs full of oil paint vapors and design marker fumes.

I shopped at Pearl Paint extensively as a student and as a professional. I also worked there, in the fine writing and fountain pen department. I worked with artists, illustrators, designers, painters, sculpters, crafters, cartoonists, dreamers, wanderers, punks, hippies, skaters, musicians, missionaries, and relatively normal and abnormal people alike, but at Pearl Paint, we all fit in and belonged. We were coworkers in front of the customers, and community in between them.

Sadly, like many iconic landmarks in New York City, change was inevitable. Just as the legendary music venue CBGB’s – the birthplace of punk rock – is now a John Varvatos luxury shoe store, so too came Pearl’s day to fade into NYC’s history books. Art students shop at the Apple store instead of art supply stores nowadays. Much of the analog work gaining notice is done with Pigma Micron pens into Moleskine sketchbooks instead of epic oil paintings on large canvases. Online shopping eliminates the time and much of the expense of obtaining new art supplies. In this digital age, Pearl Paint increasingly became a dinosaur, but in its day, it was a wonderful place where anybody could become part of the creative world.

There’s no moral to this story, just memories of a truly great place. I would advise artists of all stripes, though, to take some time to appreciate their local art supply stores. Here in Washington, DC, there’s Plaza Artist Supplies on K Street, where, upon entering the store, I leave behind the world of DC’s high-pressure political battlefield, and enter the inviting world of art and artists, and get lost in the shelves and aisles of pens, pencils, sketchbooks, brushes, paints, markers, colors, and all of those wonderful and fascinating supplies that allow us to do what we love to do: make art!

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9 thoughts on “The Closing of Pearl Paint and the End of an Era”

  1. Quite a few stories floating around about the demise of Pearl Paint. According to what I read on the internet (never bet the bank about what you read on the internet…) is that Pearl’s way of doing business was somewhat shady, and if such was the case, I wouldn’t be all that surprised. Another angle is that Pearl eventually became a union shop, and the new union employees weren’t up to the same standards as the older employees. Regardless of the reasons, Pearl did indeed have better days prior to their closing, and to customers and older employees, it still was a (cue cheesy choice of words) very magical place for artists.

  2. Ominous news, as I currently work in a small art shop that’s been around for 30 years, and it feels as though we are going the same way. In our case, the original owner (who wasn’t an artist, but he knew his art materials) sold out a couple of years ago, and accountants own it, now. When I first came to Darwin, this shop had the most amazing things—good quality art materials as well as strange, hard to find things, all packed into what used to be someone’s house, with all the inner walls knocked down. Now we seem to be downgrading to crappy materials from China, and whittling the arts down to just the most basic painting, drawing, pastels. Even in these fields, we’ve only got a few brands, and you won’t see the very best brands because they cost too much and don’t move fast enough. Too often, these days, we not only don’t have what customers want, we can’t even get those things in for them. They leave in a huff and shop online. I feel the end coming.
    On the brighter side, I am buying my own art materials like crazy, availing of staff discount and making sure that when the place does vanish, I’ve got enough to last me a good long while.
    And where the old art shops are closing down, sometimes a new one, with more market savvy but the same high standards, comes up…at least I know of a few in Sydney that are both beautiful and well-stocked. Not that anything in Sydney does me much good. 🙂

  3. I used to go to Pearl a few times a year, but find that I can shop online from JerrysArtarama.com and get better deals. Tried the specials on some of the paint and canvas brands a while back. Performed very well. I am working to get on their Artist Spotlight program to have my work featured.

    1. For commercial purposes, I’ve ordered from several online retailers while I was a studio manager for a design firm, but for my own work, there’s a certain affinity I have for art supply stores, especially those with creaky wooden floors, the scent of linseed oil in the air, and aisles of sketchbooks, pencils, and pens. However, for items like Pantone wands or the Graphic Artist Guild handbook, I usually just get those from Amazon.

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