Lament for an Art Store



Pearl Paint in Cambridge is no more.

I read yesterday that 8 of the 16 Pearl stores across the country were closing, but the article did not mention what would happen in Cambridge, the chain's only store in the Boston area. Since I was in the neighborhood late this afternoon, I decided to stop by. Today was it's final day, and the doors closed at 6:30.

I arrived at 6:33, and was turned away.

As you can probably tell, I view this with sadness. I try not to get overly attached to any commercial enterprise that's not my own, but this particular store and ones like it meant a lot to me, and I suspect to many other artists as well.

A dozen years ago when I was just beginning to take up painting as a hobby, I bought some of my first supplies in this store. Over the years I would spend many, many hours wandering the aisles, deeply investigating the range of materials available. Sometimes the staff would be incredibly helpful. I remember a 45 minute conversation with one guy about additives that might give the gesso I was using for my panels a slightly greater tooth. And it was information from his own direct experience. All of this in an atmosphere that was shabby and bohemian, and at the same time serious and dedicated. Wonderful. As I moved progressively farther into deep suburbia, I got to Pearl less and less often, but it was still a very pleasurable stop whenever I was in Central Square.

Unfortunately the last few years have seen a number of these individual and smaller chain stores go under, at least in the Boston area. Obviously they simply couldn't compete with the online retailers and the large chain supply houses. The logic and numbers are irrefutable; there simply isn't much room or need for this kind of place anymore. I find that a minor tragedy.

Online stores are obviously great, and I use them often enough, usually for obscure supplies and products I can't get locally. But I also think it's extraordinarily important for artists - particularly beginning artists - to develop a real tactile relationship with their materials. I'm one of those artists who falls deeply in love with materials, and I think there's no replacement for the physical experience of opening the tube to actually see the color, hefting the palette to sense its balance, flexing the brush against your thumb to feel its strength and resilience.

I have nothing against Dick Blick or Utrecht. The available products are usually adequate. The staff generally are friendly and helpful enough. The stores themselves are clean, well-lit, and easy to navigate. And they're also very, very sterile.

For me, there was an undeniable romance in art supply stores housed in 19th century brick buildings with dirty skylights, narrow twisting aisles, dark piles and stacks of wonderfully intriguing things, and a subtle waft of linseed and turpentine on the air. There was always a palpable sense of magic, possibility, and exploration about those places. I'm not sure in exactly what way, but I believe that what I experienced in those old art stores as a raw beginner was actually quite important to me; it played some small and mysterious, but nevertheless real part in me becoming an artist. I'm not sure those particular experiences are available when an art supply store feels just like a Best Buy.

Everything changes.

Meanwhile, please support your small local art supply dealer when possible.