Spending part of a Saturday afternoon last week at the Art Cellar, the art materials store located at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design, I was reminded of an essay I read on Salon.com last year by Scott Timberg. Entitled “The clerk, RIP,” it eulogized the golden age of the independent retail clerk, a cultural archetype quickly vanishing from the scene in today’s increasingly automated, low-wage economy.
These are the men and women working behind the counter at record, book or video stores, and serving as a combination adviser/consultant/scholar-in-residence for the creative communities they serve. Timberg mentions Jonathan Lethem’s formative stint as a bookseller at Pegasus & Pendragon Books in Berkeley, Calif. (“my university,” he called it), and rattles off the names of a few other notable artists who worked formative stints ringing up sales and making recommendations to customers from behind a cash register: author Mary Gaitskill (The Strand Book Store in New York), musicians Colin Meloy (Fact and Fiction Bookstore in Missoula, Mont.), Patti Smith (The Strand again), Jim James (ear X-tacy in Louisville, Ky.), and Peter Buck (Wuxtry Records in Athens, Ga.), and perhaps most famously, onetime clerk at Manhattan Beach, Calif.’s Video Archives and future filmmaker Quentin Tarantino.
All of them were independent store clerks at one time whose experiences informed their later work, and who had the opportunity to work in environments that valued their ingenuity, independence and initiative.
I found this essay quite poignant, because I was among this number myself: From 1999 to 2004, I worked as a clerk at Preston Arts Center, an independent mom-and-pop art materials shop in Louisville, Ky. Like our comrades in record, book and video stores, we, the art-supply-store clerks, served a creative community by providing access to the raw materials they needed to make their work. Not only that, but we lent both solicited and unsolicited expertise on how these materials could be used to their best advantage. And as if these things were not enough, we also provided valuable intelligence on a need-to-know basis to the community about who was dating whom, which new shows were brilliant or terrible, and whose purchases were funded by wealthy parents or paramours – a little light class warfare in a healthy art scene goes a long way.
Of course, I also gained a lot personally. All the lettering you see in the maps I make for this column, for example: I learned every bit of it hand-making signage for the sales floor at Preston’s, copying typefaces out of a Dover paperback edition of J. Albert Cavanaugh’s “Lettering and Alphabets,” which we sold for $2.50. The owners didn’t require uniform signage for the easels and paints and pen on our shelves. If you could hand-letter a price list legibly with a paint marker on a piece of matboard, you were more than welcome to throw in any supplemental illustrations, visual jokes or typographical flourishes you desired. You want typeset, uniform in-store signage? Go to Michael’s.
There are still havens for this sort of graphic independence and one-on-one experience in the art materials retail sector. The Twin Cities is home to a number of great independent art materials stores, full of smart employees with considered opinions on a full range of professional topics – Wet Paint in St. Paul is excellent, and Penco and Northwest Graphic Supply in Minneapolis both come to mind, as well. Among these is the Art Cellar, located inside the Morrison Building at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design.
Because it’s located on campus, one often gets the sense the store is for MCAD students only. That’s not the case. It’s open to the public, seven days a week, and carries the full complement of art materials for professional, student or amateur.
The clerks at the Art Cellar are keeping the art of handmade signage alive and well. The narrow aisles are crammed full of colorful collages, drawings, paintings, calligraphy, scribblings, and mixed media pieces, all in the service of presenting prices and selling points for the store’s inventory. Other than a generalized good-naturedly smart-ass quality, there’s no unifying aesthetic to the store’s signs. Each one is like a little zine, with its own style of lettering and level of craftsmanship. Most of them are made in the pre-desktop publishing style of X-acto-blades-and-rubber-cement, with photocopies or magazine clippings pasted across neon backgrounds, and held together with clear packing tape.
You can find depictions of Elvis Presley, Wicket Warwik the Ewok, Count Chocula, Francis Bacon, Kevin Bacon, rabbits, nuns, nude models, Duran Duran, Aquaman, and anyone else that could be copied, cut out, or otherwise appropriated from the annals of material culture. If you’re noting a somewhat retro vibe with the pop cultural references, you’re not wrong; the aesthetic, whether willfully or not, harks back to the 1980s and ‘90s, the heyday of both the cut-and-paste zine and the retail clerk as cultural arbiter. (This isn’t to say there aren’t lots of contemporary references to be found: The signage in the binders section contains a number of references to, yep, Mitt Romney’s “binders full of women” quip.)
The staff is collectively responsible for the signage, so no one is individually credited. Jarad Jensen and Robyn Hendrix, the two artists on staff when I visited, explained the process: Making a sign is a privilege, not a right, and it’s only after some time on the job that the new employee is invited to contribute. Robyn, a watercolor artist who has shown work at the Women’s Art Registry of Minnesota and The Soap Factory (and, in the interest of disclosure, does some work with Springboard for the Arts, where I also work), recently made her first contribution to the bunch after a few weeks on the job with the aforementioned “binders full of women” piece. Manager Allyson Harper was touched by her enthusiasm, she noted.
The Art Cellar’s blog maintains a list of current and former employees, whose handiwork is still out on the floor. There are some familiar names on the list, such as Jerome fellow Lindsay Smith and furniture designer Christopher Dela Pole.
What I like most about this sort of signage is that it’s the sort of material culture that doesn’t usually get anthologized or put into retrospectives; it’s too utilitarian, too hastily made, too ephemeral. It’s work made by practicing artists, but it’s generally just an amusing sideline to their regular practice, made while they’re on the clock, between recommending acrylic brushes to customers.
But these handmade signs, in their own small way, tell you a great deal about the place you find them, and about the people that made them. They value spontaneity, humor and independence over order, stodginess and faceless efficiency. They tell you the sort of person working behind the counter isn’t a recommendation algorithim, but an individual that cares about their work and the materials they sell. It’s something they take seriously and, paradoxically, that seriousness is best expressed with magazine cutouts, double entendres, and pink permanent markers.