One More Local Loss: Max’s Art Supplies To Close

In mid-September the Westport Y leaves downtown, for new digs at Mahackeno.

A few days earlier, another longtime Post Road anchor will also go.

Max’s — a legendary art supply store (and, just as important, social hub for painters, illustrators and cartoonists) — closes on September 1.

Max's Art Supplies -- a long and familiar Post Road store.

Max’s Art Supplies — a long and familiar Post Road store.

For 59 years Max’s has occupied prime real estate, directly opposite the Y. But the end of Westport as an “artists’ colony,” coupled with the increasing role of technology in both art and commerce, spelled the end.

Owner Shirley Mellor has held on longer than any other merchant would. It’s been years since she’s made any money. But — as much as she loves her employees, her town and her dwindling customer base — she can’t lose money forever.

Max’s dates back to 1956, when Max Kaplan bought Fine Arts Stationers. He replaced paper and candy with pens, sketch pads, paints, brushes and canvases.

Part of a shelf at Max's, last Friday.

Part of a shelf at Max’s, last Friday.

Shirley was Max’s wife. He died in 1983. The next year she married artist Gordon Mellor, a widower. He died in 2001.

“We played a huge role in the art life of Westport,” Shirley says proudly. “All the artists knew us. And they were a sizable number.”

They came to Max’s for supplies, and stayed to socialize. Whitney Darrow Jr., Stevan Dohanos, Bernie Fuchs, Mel Casson, Dik Browne, Mort Walker, Stan Drake, Leonard Starr, Eric von Schmidt, Constance Kiermaier, Tom Funk, Gill Fox, Naiad and Walter Einsel, Ward Brackett, Neil Hardy, Miggs Burroughs — the names roll off Shirley’s tongue, like the old friends they were.

She points to a photo from 1981. It was Max’s 25th anniversary. A hundred artists posed on the sidewalk outside.

The famous 1981 photo. Another was taken in 2006, for Max's 50th anniversary.

The famous 1981 photo. Another was taken in 2006, for Max’s 50th anniversary.

Today, at least half are dead. That’s one reason Max’s is closing.

Another is the new nature of the art industry. The advent of computers changed the way illustrators worked. The rise of e-commerce changed the way they bought supplies.

Through the 1980s too, Westport was known as a marketing mecca. Industrial designers and marketing corporations were steady customers. When they moved out, Max lost more business.

For longer than she cares to recount, the store has not made money. At age 70 — well over a decade ago — Shirley took herself off the payroll.

Shirley Mellor at her desk, surrounded by original art from grateful customers.

Shirley Mellor at her desk, surrounded by original art from grateful customers.

Then she started subsidizing Max’s, out of her own pocket. She’s lucky, she says — she owns half of the building, as well as those that house neighboring Fig (formerly Schaefer’s Sporting Goods) and Dovecote (the old smoke shop, Quick Copy and beauty salon). “It was a good investment,” she says.

But it does not make up for the money that Max’s has been losing for so long.

Things were different, back in the day. The Fine Arts Theaters (now Restoration Hardware and Matsu Sushi) brought people downtown. So did the popular Ships Restaurant (now Tiffany).

“People were around. Now they’re not,” says Nina Royce.

Nina Royce, with plenty of "stuff" still left at Max's.

Nina Royce, with plenty of “stuff” still left at Max’s.

Nina has worked at Max’s since 1969. In 1975, she created the first window display of Westport artists. Since then — every month — Nina has made that spot an ever-changing, always-intriguing exhibition of local creativity.

New York Times art critic Hilton Kramer — a former Westporter — once wrote of a New York City gallery, “I’ve seen better shows at Max’s than this one.”

Nina — whose husband David died last month — does not know what she’ll do now. Neither does 10-year employee Rita Ross Englebardt (whose husband died just a few days before Nina’s).

Talented framer Jay Cimbak is lucky. He will work on his own, once he finds a spot.

“We just can’t do it any more,” Shirley says wistfully. “We absolutely can’t make a living here. It’s a whole different world. We hung on as long as possible. Every day I lose money. Kids still come in with school projects. But we can’t make money on crayons.”

When the Fine Arts Theaters closed in 1999, Max's next door felt the effects. (Photo/ Miggs Burroughs)

When the Fine Arts Theaters closed in 1999, Max’s next door felt the effects. (Photo/ Miggs Burroughs)

So there is no longer a place for an art supply store in downtown Westport. But what does that mean?

“You’ll lose the personal touch, the interactions,” Nina says. “Our customers are familiar to us. We’ve watched them grow. You don’t get that in a chain store, or on the internet.”

“It’s a different Main Street now,” Shirley adds. “There’s no hardware store, drugstore, grocery store or gas station. That’s where you get the personal attention.”

She says — trying to smile — “We’re heartbroken. We’ve been so happy to be here. We want to thank our customers. We will sure miss them. Hopefully, they’ll miss us.”

Shirley looks at the wall full of art — gifts from grateful cartoonists and illustrators — hanging above her desk. She hopes to donate it to the Westport Historical Society.

It’s a history of Westport art, over the past 6 decades. It’s great, and all original.

But nowhere near as great, or original, as Shirley, Nina and Max’s Art Supplies have been to us.

If your browser does not take you directly to the Westport Historical Society’s oral history interview of Shirley Mellor, click here.

(Discounted prices begin June 1. Everything will be for sale, including racks and fixtures.)

39 responses to “One More Local Loss: Max’s Art Supplies To Close

  1. Kerstin Warner Rao

    As a 15 year Westporter, and as an artist, I have appreciated the creative presence and personal service at Max’s. As I visited to pick up brushes, calligraphy pens, handmade paper, crafting tools, and sketch journals, Shirley and Nina always took a bit of extra time to ask about my projects and suggest interesting materials and approaches. I will greatly miss the feeling of community they created, and wish all the staff at Max’s all the best.

  2. Abby Peterson

    Broken heart…doesn’t begin to describe it. Living in Westport for 55 years…so sad to hear this news. Max’s has been a town icon. Best wishes to all…

  3. Nancy Powers Conklin

    So sad. Another one bites the dust, but not for lack of trying:(

  4. Tom Feeley

    “And then there were none!” :-(

  5. How very sad. As a child in Michigan, I knew of Westport, Connecituct not because of my Geography classes, but because of the Famous Artist School. We moved here years later from California, intrigued by its New England vibe and “artists’ colony” reputation…I wonder what its rep is now?

  6. Karen Huppi Vail

    So sad to hear this, but not surprised. Thank you Max’s for hanging in there so long for the love of the business and your customers. My late father, Gordon Huppi, was a customer (and felt part of the Max’s ‘gang’), and would often go down to just hang out & chat as well as to buy his supplies. Our family now is the beneficiary of his many paintings, painted with Max’s supplies, and his only grandchild, my daughter is now a professional artist. Some things go away, and we mourn them, some are passed on…

  7. Estelle Margolis

    This news is enough to break my heart! I have been here for 49 years and seen all the changes you mention. The complete conversion of what was a wonderful Main Street with all the basic stores we needed and now …. I can no longer shop there. Shirley, Nina, Rita, and Jay are like dear old friends.
    I stop in there if I am any where near the store just to see their welcoming faces and chat a minute and wave goodbye. It just feels so good!

    To say they will be missed is a monster understatement!
    You are all so dearly loved!
    Estelle

  8. Scott E. Brodie

    Max’s (then known as Fine Arts, I think) even played an important role in the life of most every student of math and science coming of age in Westport in the 1960s — new arrivals at Staples soon found themselves in the VII building, face-to-face with Charles Lawrence, perennial teacher of Introductory Chemistry. Before memorizing the valences of the ions, one was tasked with learning to use a slide rule — there was no time for long-division, and 3-digit accuracy was sufficient. Affordable pocket calculators were a decade away. Instead, one went down to Fine Arts, usually with his/her father, and purchased a slide rule. (They were considered “drafting accessories,” and thus were to be found in an “art-supply” store.) This was a major investment, perhaps three or four weeks’ allowance. I chose a Pickett N3-ES, in high-visibility yellow. It still sits in my desk drawer over four decades later, as good as new. (My first “scientific” pocket calculator, purchased in 1974, did not last 5 years!). Thank you, Max’s, for 46.9 years of 3-digit precision!

  9. Bummer. I can say I got my start at Max’s. My first paycheck for art, around 1975 (?) was for designing the logo for the Leavitt Pavilion with paper, pens and ink from Max’s. I spent that money on my first drawing board from Max’s, the drawing board that I still use today with its 40+ years’ patina of paint and ink from Max’s still visible. If it wasn’t for those original supplies and the inspiration from the art and artists that I was exposed to at Max’s…who knows…

  10. Don Willmott

    My father (who appears in the 1981 photo) was a 50-year customer of Max and Shirley’s, so on his behalf, let me thank Shirley for hanging on with such goodwill and pride. Look at the bright side, at least it wasn’t a greedy landlord kicking her out!

  11. Cathy Jones

    I spent hours in there as a teenager, wishing I could afford to buy everything I needed. Collected paintbrushes one at a time, rice paper for watercolors… When I got my very first paycheck I headed straight down there and spent most of it.
    Although I left 35 years ago I am still so sad to hear this, but thanks Shirley for hanging in there so long.

  12. David Schaffer

    Max’s was a summer employer for me my first two years in college (79 & 80). I was never a regular customer and didn’t have the same attachment to the place the local artists did, but I remember it fondly. It was a job that was relatively pleasant, compared to some of the others I had during my college summers. A fond farewell and best wishes to those who have made Max’s.

  13. cheryl McKenna Kritzer

    I knew of Westport while I was a child in Exeter NH ..so when I married Harry Kritzer and came to Westport in 1976 I was thrilled to shop at Max’s and believe I was with the local artists and still today I buy my silver -copper and gold leaf for encausteic paintings. I am so sad to see my friends Rita and Nina have to find another place to work..:>(

  14. Damn shame that our heritage is slipping through our fingers..Max’s was the go to place for many of the New York Ad Agencies creative interns such as Ogilvy and Mather, CBCC among others in the 50′s, 60, and 70′s.

  15. Tom Kashetta

    This is why the residents of Westport should use the businesses that pay taxes to the town of Westport. Don’t go to the mall. Shop in town. If you need a trades person, hire one that is from Westport.

  16. Nancy Hunter Wilson

    Wish I was there to buy it all, from pastel to pencil, papers of all kinds, even the shop itself.
    I wonder if Shirley Mellor knew Bernice Logan, who taught me a lot about watercolours.

  17. This is my first post to your blog ( which I enjoy!)…those who know me will recognize I am far from artistically creative…but the welcome I always received over these 30 years at Max’s even for the likes of me was remarkable…the folks there always took the time to listen to what I was trying to achieve, no judgement other than encouragement, and always good suggestions…just what you hope your family provides.

    We still have the posterboard in just the right shade of blue from Katie’s (SHS, 2003)Titanic project from CMS…along with many others…I am thrilled to hear you were savvy enough to buy the real estate….which I hope means that you will have a worry free retirement.

    All the best to all for the future,
    Clare Clark

  18. Touching memories. Thanks Dan.

  19. robin scarella

    Beyond sad, the last of Westport as I knew it when I moved here and my neighbors brought over a bundt cake!!! I did not shop at Max’s nearly enough but loved everytime I did. Will miss seeing Shirley and Nina and what it represents to those of us who have been here a long time.

  20. Very sad! Thank you, Shirley, Nina and all for so many wonderful memories. My late father bought all of his supplies there, and for me as a kid, accompanying him on a trip to Max’s was lots of fun!

  21. Chris Browne

    Three generations of Browne family artists have shopped at Max’s. We loved Max, Shirley, Nina and all the various other wonderful Max folk. Sad to see this great place go!

  22. Georgia Rojas

    Such a loss. Max’s was a big part of my childhood since my dad was a cartoonist. I loved going there and have brought my own children there for school projects. Westport is not the same – still love it here but not the same.

  23. Mark Bunger

    My dad, Hilary Bunger, was a local “commercial” artist, his studio was at the end of Main St. I went to work for him full time in 1972 and made many trips to Max’s. I remember the leisurely stroll through town or sometimes the desperate dash to find that one particular Letraset sheet or Pantone color to complete a job on time. Dad used to meet Max for lunch every other week or so and sort out the problems of the world near and far, they would alternate paying. I remember when dad heard that Max had passed, he sat quietly then remarked, “it was his turn to buy lunch next!”

    My dad is gone too now. I am still in the graphics business in Westport, we now use bits and bytes on our Macs, instead of brushes and pens on illustration board to do the work, so I only see the inside of Max’s a couple of times a year. But I will miss Nina and Shirley, and all of the friendly faces that have worked at Max’s over the years. I will never be able to pass that spot without remembering Max, my dad and all the characters that frequented Max’s art store.

  24. Shirley, Nina, and Jay have had more positive impact on artists’ careers than they could ever know. Intensely rich and textured as an art supply store can be (I still remember what was on each shelf and each drawer), the value beyond price was their support of community and kind words that were freely given. They represented a generation of community that can’t be replaced.

  25. Jocelyn Barandiaran

    In the 10 years that we’ve lived in Westport, Max’s has always been one of my daughter’s (and my) favorite shops. Tho my daughter was only 3-1/2 yrs old when we moved here, throughout the years the staff at Max’s, but especially Nina, has always warmly welcomed her, listened seriously to her inquiries, and treated her like the creative artiste that she is, and has always been able to offer just the right supply to fit every project or interest. We’re going to miss our neighborhood art store! Sadly, this is a trend that extends beyond Westport. I was shocked this Spring to find that the amazing Pearl Fine Art Supply store on Canal Street in Manhattan just closed, too (in April).

  26. Suzanne Lemieux Wilson

    The End of an Era! To most of us who frequented his emporium, Max’s WAS Westport…no one involved in the arts could have managed without it. It was the “centre d’animation” of the art scene and the place to go not just for the art supplies but for the ambiance and latest news. Maybe that’s why some of us ended up with a half dozen mat knives–it was much more fun to run down to Max’s than to hunt one down in your studio! It was a treat to talk with Max, Nina and Shirley–and you never knew what famous artist would walk in the door.

    I’m sorry I couldn’t stay around to contribute to the prosperity of this Westport landmark. When I left around 1982 one thing I said was “Max is never going to run out of artists to put in his window!” It was The Best Show in Town!

    I’m in the photo, third row down from top, third from left in row with Chuck Saxon (?) on the end waving. I’m next to Burt Chernow (I think?) and Rowland B. Wilson is diagonally in back of me toward the left. I’m one of the of the half that’s not dead, nor half-dead!

    Thank you, Shirley, for continuing the tradition so long and making such a great contribution to the town lore.

  27. I am saddened but not surprised. The Westport Music Center is now a member of a shrinking group of Westport stores from the good ‘ol days. Not many of us left.

  28. Suzanne Lemieux Wilson

    Let us all meet at the Bridge Grille, or the Ship’s Lantern or Chez Pierre for a final toast to the art colony that was Westport.

  29. David Squires

    Wow, pass the tissues… and plenty of ‘em. Max’s, one of the last remaining downtown stores from my youth, will live on in the local history book, as well as in my mind forever! Shirley, as pretty, helpful & reliable as they come, will be greatly missed, for sure! She has a million stories to tell and share, and was married to one of my all time Heros, Gordon (who had 2 million stories to tell)! Best Wishes to You & the Crew for the future. Thank You for being a valuable part of our town for so long. ~~~~> ART RULES
    (i had the honor to be in the 2nd of the two group photos)

  30. As a graphic designer, fresh out of college in 1975, we moved here and immediately felt at home at Max’s Art Supply for press-type every week and other design-specific necessities. We will miss you all, but we cherish the memories of living in an artists’ town.

  31. How sad,
    When we first came to spend the summer in Morrise Wagners’ wonderful barn in 1969,I needed watercolor paper and I found Max’s.Then every summer started for me when I went to Max’s. When we moved here I bought my grandchildren “Westport pens” and then I bought them for my classes.I was thrilled to be part of Max’s world and I thank you all very much
    for it.

  32. Mike Kulich

    Is there anything Westport left in town besides the Coffee and donut shop?

  33. Westport Music Center est. 1965

  34. Holly Wheeler

    Thanks Shirley, Nina and Rita. Goodbye Max’s.

  35. Amelie Babkie

    Oh My, this is one of the most heart-breaking notices of all for me. Especially because I have moved away from my beloved Westport. Didn’t have a choice. But, this is just heart-breaking. I remember when I needed to put my College Portfolio together after High School. My art teacher – Mr Miller, from Wilton High School – called Max and arranged to have him open on a SUNDAY! Just for me! I had some college visits to do and Mr Miller wanted me to dress-up my portfolio. I will never forget Max’s cheerful welcome on that Sunday – back in the days when stores NEVER opened on Sundays. Since those days, I’ve had one of the most wonderful careers anyone could ever wish for. And I will always remember Max’s and Shirley with such love and welcoming Joy as a haven, a place to go and be greeted as an artist, a designer, a friend. That’s what Max’s has been to me all of my artistic life – a dear, dear friend. I will miss you so much Max’s, and you dear Shirley, I will miss you very, very much. And Nina! And Jay! I wish you all much love and happiness in your lives. Mmmmmmmmmmoi!
    Amelie JOY Babkie

  36. Susan Huppi

    I’m glad that Max’s stayed as long as they could. When they leave an important part of Westport’s legacy will be missing. I remember shopping with my father Gordon Huppi and with my sisters and it was such a joy to actually see and touch paintbrushes and mingle with everyone at the store.We all still have art supplies from Max’s as well as artwork created during those Westport years. You’ll be missed!