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!