Shirley Mellor — the beloved former owner of the almost-as-beloved Max’s Art Supplies — died yesterday. She was 92 years old.
Three years ago in March, over 100 people — from across town and across the country, and from Westport’s artistic present and past — paid tribute, on her 90th birthday.
Though she closed Max’s 7 years ago, she still did yoga 3 times a week, nearly until her death. She told wonderful stories, and dispensed excellent advice.
Among the attendees at her birthday celebration were longtime Max’s employees Nina Royce, Rita Engelbardt and Jay Cimbak. Miggs Burroughs called Max’s — one of the anchors of Post Road East, next to the former Restoration Hardware — “Westport’s town square for artists.” Much of that was because of Shirley’s care and concern for our town’s artists. Professional or amateur, she loved — and helped — them all.
In May of 2014, I wrote about Max’s closing. It’s a fitting epitaph for a remarkable, much-admired woman.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.”
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. Hat tips: Betsy Pollak and Miggs Burroughs.