All Sales Final: The Last Days of Pearl Paint, a Tribeca Institution

End of an era. The store closes on April 17 and Pearl Paint's last customers leave, loaded with bargains. Photo: Carl Glassman/Tribeca Trib

Apr. 19, 2014

"It's like you're going through your dying grandmother's house," Brooklyn artist Peter Bornstein, 61, said glumly as he walked out of Pearl Paint for the last time. "This is heartbreaking."

It was April 15, two days before the red gates would shut for good on the legendary art supply store at 308 Canal Street. Like hundreds of others who had come to stock up during the store's heavily discounted, truly final sale that week, Bornstein was there to roam the store for bargains. But also to say goodbye.

"Pearl Paint was part of my life for many years. I don't remember never coming here," said the artist, who had snapped photos of the place during his visit. "It was a member of the family."

The now-shuttered building, at 308 Canal, is up for sale, ending the store's 50-year presence on the street and more than 80 years in the neighborhood. (Pearl Paint opened on Church Street in 1933, selling house paint.) For the last few years, regulars said, the shelves had not been well-stocked and the lines of customers no longer snaked around the aisles waiting to pay. 

"They were a very successful business and then to have them close like this, that's unbelievable," said Otto Neal, a sculptor, painter and printmaker who had been shopping at Pearl for "at least" 30 years. "Most all the artists I know shopped here."

But as one longtime store worker put it, "So many things have changed in the world. Computers, the neighborhood, Amazon." (A call to the Pearl headquarters in Oakland Park, Fla., was not returned.)

For all its extraordinary variety of materials for visual expression—from the gamut of supplies for serious painters and printmakers to the beads and bells, clothes pins and crayons for craft hobbyists and kids—Pearl's six floors stood as a fortress against the digital age. Protractors, T-squares, letter stencils, indeed even paper, pens and erasers, had taken on a quaint charm.

Unchanging, too, were many of those who had worked at the store for years and now found themselves without jobs, or community.

"It's devastating," said a veteran salesman who did not want to be identified for fear of losing an employment reference. "They just broke up a whole family unit here. People I've been working with for years. Like the people running this place don't even understand its history and the artists who shopped here?"

The salesman wiped away a tear. "You going to let that all go?"

Pearl's long-time staff (four workers had been there for more than 20 years), were sought out for their expertise on the application of materials and the fine differences  among products. Painter Janusz Gilewicz's relationship with salesman Ken Colman on the second floor went back 16 years. Colman, who is 61, started on the second floor 29 years ago.

"He's absolutely the authority on this floor," said Gilewicz, standing with the salesman on his last day. "He knows everything about the brushes, he knows everything about the paints, and he knows where it is located."

Colman recalled the celebrities he has helped: Gene Wilder, Tony Bennett, Anthony Quinn, to name few, and the pride he takes in his work. "My job is to get my customers good quality at good prices and that's what I did. And that's why a lot of them keep coming back to me."

Laura Lee, 27, a professional digital artist who also draws and paints "to stay sane," stopped by the second floor and greeted Colman like an old friend. She had brought beer to the store and was passing it out among the longtime workers whom she —and her artist mother Paula Lee before her—had come to know and rely on.

"They've actually taught me more than some of my art teachers," Lee said.

As 7 p.m., the store's closing time, drew near, the lines grew longer at the registers. Long lines, the way it used to be at Pearl. But here, on the second floor, among the paint sets, pastels and tubes of acrylics, the hubbub seemed far away as Lee and Colman said goodbye.

"You've helped me so much," the young woman said with feeling. "Can I give you a hug?"

"Sure, I'd be very happy," Colman replied, and the two embraced.

"That's the first customer hug I've had today," the salesman said with a smile.

When the hour of closing arrived, more than 30 shoppers were waiting in line for the first-floor cashier. And at the entrance, a store employee began turning away latecomers.

"Closed," she shouted to them through a half-opened door. "We're closed!"