I wasn’t born with a silver spoon in my mouth, I was born with a crayon in my hand. By the time I was 5-years-old, I was drawing all sorts of things on cheap yellow paper my dad bought by the ream. The crayon was replaced with ballpoint pen, magic markers, colored pencils, pastels, paint brushes, sculpting tools, and by age 12, darkroom equipment. Going to art supply and camera stores as a kid was nearly as glorious as walking up the street to the corner store to buy my favorite candy. That’s right, for many artists and/or photographers, a visit to an art supply or camera shop is like unleashing an overzealous kid in a candy store!
Nowadays, it’s hard to find old school art supply and camera stores – many have closed. In Chicagoland, you can buy art supplies at Dick Blick, Hobby Lobby, Michaels, JOANN Fabric and Craft, and a handful of small shops. Of course, you can always buy art supplies online, but it’s not the same experience.
I first encountered Utrecht in NYC and later shopped at the store on South Michigan Avenue. Utrecht is now partnering with Dick Blick, although they are still doing business online independently. My favorite Chicago-area store is Artist & Craftsman Supply, an employee-owned shop in the old school model – while there are stores across the U.S., the Chicago location at 828 S Wabash reminds me of defunct stores of my youth. Good’s of Evanston is an independent store that has been in business for more than 100 years. It’s more renowned for its framing services and has a certain slick look these days that is the antithesis of old school.
Thank heavens for Central Camera, a truly iconic old school store in the South Loop that has been in business since 1899. Alpine Camera, a longtime presence in downtown Des Plaines is also old school, but their website says they are moving to the southeast corner of Golf and Elmhurst Roads some time in January 2019. We’ll have to wait and see if that impacts the character of this store.
Tribute to Defunct Art Supply and Camera Shops
Favor, Ruhl & Co. at 14 S. Wabash Avenue was the art store I associate most with taking classes at the School of the Art Institute in the summer of 1972, after I graduated from junior high school. I remember shopping there in later years as well, until it went out of business. I think they may have moved a few doors south at the end of their run. At the time, I didn’t realize they once had stores in Boston and NYC, nor that they had been in business for so long. A June 1938 Popular Mechanic ad indicates that were once at 425 S. Wabash Avenue, as does this incredibly cool catalog, circa 1910.
Occasionally, my mom would take me to Brudno Art Supply in the gorgeous Tree Studios Building at 601 N. State Street during the late 1960s-1970s and I would go there as a young adult in the 1980s. I knew they were forced out of that building in the early 2000s, but didn’t know they moved to the South Loop. On Yelp, there are two defunct listings for them at 700 S. Wabash and 29 E. Balbo. The sign on the latter said Brudno Art & Drafting Supplies.
Darkroom Aids at 3449 N Lincoln Avenue was wonderful shop with all sorts of gadgets and a great display of antique cameras. I discovered this place in the early 1980s and was sad when it closed.
If you’re a Chicago-area artist that uses Japanese rice and art papers in your work, you likely knew about Aiko’s Art Materials. Aiko Nakane was a student at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in the early 1950s. Her friends appreciated her gifts of Japanese art supplies and papers so much, she decided to open Aiko’s Art Materials Import, Inc. in 1957. This business was in a tiny third-floor space on the corner of Wabash and Huron. They moved to a much larger space at 3347 N. Clark Street in 1989. Specializing in Washi, handmade Japanese paper, Aiko’s carried more than five hundred types of paper as well as a lovely assortment of calligraphy supplies and brushes. Nakane passed away in 2004 at the age of 95 – of course by then, the store was owned and operated by Chuck Iziui and sadly it closed in 2008.
I have not been able to find this type of paper at any art supply stores, although I did run across a stationery/paper store in NYC with some. I found a few online retailers but they were expensive and the shipping cost for small pieces (11x 14 inches and less) at the more reasonable site was prohibitive. If I had known it was so hard to come by, I would have taken all of my mom’s rice papers when she moved, instead of just a few. I use them in my collages for texture.
In the late 1980s to mid-2000s, I shopped at Genesis Art Supply, a tiny store at 2417 N. Western, but only a handful of times. Genesis and ArtSupply.com were founded by Richard Goldman in 1986, whose father Sheldon owned Sheldon’s Art and Drafting Supplies. I think the latter was originally near the old Museum of Contemporary Art on Ontario. There were times I couldn’t find parking on Western so I gave up. Genesis moved to much bigger digs at 2525 N. Elston Avenue in 2014 and rebranded the store ArtSupply.com. The company over expanded and filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy not too long thereafter.
I vaguely remember an art supply store called Robert’s at Kensington and Dryden in Arlington Heights. It was in the plaza across from where Mariano’s is now and seemed quite disorganized, with bins of close-out items. I think I discovered it in the early 1990s when I worked at an agency in the old Arlington Heights Senior Center (which was housed in the old South Middle School).
More recently, I shopped at Fletcher-Lee Art Supply Outlet. Originally, they had a huge warehouse in Elk Grove Village. After the warehouse closed, they had a retail store that bounced around Arlington Heights. Before they closed forever, they were located in the same plaza as Pet Supplies Plus on the southeast corner of Golf and Arlington Heights Road. I bought many discounted supplies there over the years, including a large artist’s portfolio, tons of brushes, fast-dry oil paint, watercolors, etc. The owner Lloyd told me his parents once owned an art supply store in downtown Chicago on South Wabash – I certainly don’t remember shopping there.
In 1960, Skokie Camera was located at 8002 Lincoln Avenue. In my day, it was further South on Lincoln, across from the Skokie Theater. In addition to getting film developed at LaSalle Photo downtown, we brought film into Skokie Camera and bought some of our darkroom supplies there.
Naturally, I shopped at the RISD Store, but I was enchanted by Oakes on The Hill, an independent art supply store jam-packed with goodies, located on Thomas Street. It was near the Providence Art Club where I was a waitress. Apparently, Oakes went out of business around 1986 and was taken over by Bryan’s. Due to space issues and rent costs, Bryan moved his store next to Fain’s on North Main Street, before going out of business around 1993. One of the things that made Oakes so charming was that it was in a historic building, and being on a steep hill, the shelves on the inside reflected that. I wish I could find pictures, but searches have turned up nothing.
Although I was not a photography major, I was constantly taking pictures and spent a lot of time at Adler Photo in downtown Providence. The old school store was founded by Walter Adler and rebuilt twice after being destroyed by hurricanes in 1938 and 1954. His son Carl Adler, who ran it during my time in Providence, sold the business in 1996 and passed away in 2013.
New York City
I vaguely recall walking to New York Central Art Supply during a visit to NYC in my RISD years. More recently, I went to the store in 2013 and found it charming, but expensive. Located at 62 Third Avenue, the store was founded in 1905 and went out of business in 2016. Jerry’s absorbed the business and operates at 111 4th Avenue as Jerry’s New York Central. Currently, a brick and mortar location of Jerry’s does not exist in Illinois, but I have bought from them online.
I’m saving the best and most melancholy for last because it represents more than the loss of an iconic art store, founded in 1953. The closing of Pearl Paint on Canal Street felt like a punch in the gut for personal reasons. I remember going into that store for the first time when I visited my sister in NYC, in the fall of 1976 as a RISD freshman. I was overwhelmed by the vast supply of brushes, in particular. In fact, until a year ago, I still used a Robert Simmons acrylic paint brush I bought at Pearl Paint on that very visit. Heck, I have paint brushes that don’t even last a year and that workhorse lasted more than 40 years!
Robert Perlmutter, the owner of Pearl Paint, received a $75,000 fine and a three-year prison sentence for tax fraud in 2000 after cutting a plea deal. According to his son Darren, that signaled the beginning of the end for the chain, which at one time had 24 stores. I shopped now and then at the store on Chicago Avenue, a stone’s throw away from Chicago’s River North gallery district. The company declared Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 2009, the NYC location closed in May 2014, and the last standing store in Fort Lauderdale closed the following August.
For me, Pearl Paint’s NYC demise is one more thing in NYC that reflects the passage of time and loss of my youth. It is also one more sign of gentrification that has nearly destroyed the character of NYC, the city I fell in love with and photographed as a young art student. Pearls Paint’s former store on Canal Street is home to four expensive rental apartments that ranged from $16,000 to $18,000 a month in 2017! At least they kept the cool sign in the lobby as an homage to the iconic store.