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Monday, May 19, 2014

Now Max’s to Become Part of Westport’s Arts History

By James Lomuscio and Dave Matlow

Nina Royce lifted the trap door to the basement, opening up a flood of memories about Max’s Art Supplies where she’s worked since August 1969.

WestportNow.com Image
Max’s Art Supplies on Post Road East, a Westport mainstay since 1956, will close Sept. 1. (CLICK TO ENLARGE) Dave Matlow for WestportNow.com

There was a time years back, Royce recalled today, when a young Christopher Blossom, a stock boy who would go on to become a world renowned maritime artist, kept busy going up and down the timeworn, wooden steps.

He would regularly haul up new inventory to keep the main floor well stocked with drafting and drawing tables, easels, brushes, paints, canvases and frames, she said.

Those were the days when Max’s, which opened in 1956 at 68 Post Road Post Road East originally as Fine Arts Stationers next to the Fine Arts Theatre, eventually became Grand Central for the town’s legendary artists’ community. Max Kaplan, then 42, and his wife, Shirley, then 28, were the proprietors.

It was a time when pen and ink and charcoal and paint—not computers—were the stock-in-trade of the creative process.

Now Max’s is scheduled to become part of the town’s art history, too. Having to subsidize a business that has not only yielded to computer aided art, but Internet purchases as well, Shirley Mellor, Max’s widow who took the name of her late second husband, Gordon Mellor, plans to shut down the business Sept. 1.

“It can all be blamed on the computer,” said Mellor, who has no computer in the store. “The computer came along and changed everything, what they bought and didn’t buy and how they bought it.”

“Students buy it all from Amazon,” she added. “The ad agencies used to buy things here, but the computer not only ended that. The computer eliminated the need for the things they bought, illustration boards, Pantone, drawing boards and tables.”

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Shirley Mellor at the store today flanked by Jay Cimbak and Nina Royce. (CLICK TO ENLARGE) Dave Matlow for WestportNow.com

Royce pointed to the few easels and drawing boards looking more like artifacts than inventory.

“We’re a museum of what was used at that time,” she said.

“The hard part is not just having to leave this wonderful job, but not seeing the people I have seen for years,” Royce added. “They become your family.”

Longtime Westporter Rita Ross Englebardt, who has worked at Max’s for 12 years, noted that Mellor, who owns her building with two partners, could not afford to keep the business going.

“She’s been losing money even though she is part owner,” Englebardt said. “Online buying plays an increasing role in retail.”

She said that an interior design or furniture store are the most likely candidates for the space located along a stretch that includes Restoration Hardware, which took over the Fine Arts Theatre space when it closed in 1999.

Max’s was quiet today, except for a few old timers who called or stopped in to offer condolences or to reminisce. In addition, Jay Cimbak, a framer who has done the lion’s share of sales in recent years, was busy helping a woman pick out a frame for a college degree.

Fine artist Sheri Wolfgang, 52, was one one of those who phoned, saying, “this is the saddest news in a long time.”

WestportNow.com Image
Artist Leonard Everett Fisher (l) stopped by today and chatted with Jay Cimbak and Nina Royce. (CLICK TO ENLARGE) Dave Matlow for WestportNow.com

“When I was 12 years old my father brought me to Max’s to buy my first sketch pad,” she said. “I became an illustrator for my whole career before becoming a painter. It started at Max’s. I’m in tears.

“Max’s is my connection with Westport. I always met the other artists at Max’s ...Westport became expensive, artists died, but Max’s kept us together.”

“As an illustrator I used to spend $4,000-$5,000 a year here,” she added. “Computers changed things. My needs are less than $1,000 a year.”

Awash in sunlight from the two old fashioned skylights above the pressed-tin ceiling, the shop still fascinates first timers, even young people who come into browse, Royce said.

She pointed to a large photo of scores of longtime artists who had gathered in front of the store in 2006 for its 50th anniversary.

Some of the artists, cartoonists and illustrators are still going strong: Miggs Burroughs, Ann Chernow, Howard Munce, Dick Hodgins and Chris Hart. They also look considerably younger in a 1981 photo tucked in the rear of the store. It was taken for the store’s 25th anniversary.

In a note of melancholy underscored by the shop’s closing, Royce pointed out in the photos others who have since died: Mollie Donovan, Bernie Fuchs, Eric Von Schmidt, Mel Casson, Dick Browne, Tracy Sugarman, Don Klotz, John Prentice and Stan Drake.

WestportNow.com Image
The Fine Arts Theatres closed in 1999, leaving downtown Westport without a movie theater and reducing foot traffic to next door Max’s. (CLICK TO ENLARGE) WestportNow.com photo ©2014 WestportNow

Like he has for more than half a century, Leonard Everett Fisher came into the store today to buy.

“I was the first customer on the first day,” he told Royce. “Max always got into philosophical discussions about whatever seemed to be on the front page of the paper—mostly political. He became a self-appointed art critic, too. He was the authority on everything.”

Royce recalled how Kaplan, sporting his signature suit and tie, would read the newspaper while seated in an old-fashioned ice cream parlor chair kept in the store.

Royce noted the irony of it all. The artists helped make the town popular, increasing real estate values and rents, ultimately pricing other artists out.

Fisher looked around the store. Like its namesake, he also waxed philosophical.

“Nothing lasts forever, not even us,” he said.


Posted 05/19/14 at 11:07 PM  Permalink


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I’m so sorry to hear about Max’s coming closing. Max’s supplied my grandfather, Harold von Schmidt, and my father, Eric von Schmidt for decades. When my husband and I lived in Westport from 2004 - 2007 taking care of Eric, we did his Max’s shopping for him and were always treated warmly. I remember going in myself as a kid in the ‘60s and ‘70s - what a wonderland of all things art it was (and is). Max’s will leave a gaping hole in the heart of Westport when it goes.

Posted by Caitlin von Schmidt on May 20, 2014 at 11:47 AM | #