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Monday, April 23 News

Art of the personal touch drew Westport's arts community to Max's

Shirley Mellor sits in a corner of the store she opened with her late husband, Max Kaplan, in 1956. Her desk is pushed against one wall that's covered with the mementoes of the many artists who frequented their arts supply business in a prime downtown location over the years.

The store isn't as bustling as it was in its heyday when dozens of artists would come through the doors of the Post Road East shop. Most came to pick up supplies, others to hang out with others in the town's renowned artist community.

But those days are gone, and soon, Max's Art Supplies also will be gone. The store will close for good in September, Mellor said.

"There were dozens of cartoonists and artists and illustrators who came in all the time," said Mellor. "My husband had a terrific rapport with all of them."

The peak, she said was in the early 1980s. In fact, a large photograph -- taken in 1981 and featuring about a hundred local artists -- hangs on a wall across from Mellor's desk. "There was always activity here, always people here," she said, gesturing toward the photo. "It was an exciting time."

Max's didn't begin as an arts supply store, she'll tell you.

"It was actually just a stationery shop with just a few art supplies for sale when my husband bought it," she said. "I guess you can say it evolved."

And evolve it did, becoming not only a place to purchase supplies, but also a local hangout for the up-and-coming artists.

In fact, she said, in the beginning most of their clientele consisted of cartoonists, including the likes of Mort Walker of "Beetle Bailey" and "Hi & Lois" fame; Dik Browne, who drew the "Hagar the Horrible" cartoon, and Whitney Darrow, who did hundreds of cartoons for The New Yorker magazine.

Illustrators and others who were involved in marketing and advertising lived in town and would commute to work in New York City, she added.

"They were here in Westport and they did come in," she said. At one point, the store employed as its stock boy Christopher Blossom, who went on to become a well-known painter of nautical art. Mellor said Blossom came from a talented family -- "His father was an artist, too," she said.

The ranks of local artists, such as Miggs Burroughs and Ann Chernow, were also loyal customers, she said.

Burroughs said he has vivid memories of accompanying his father, an illustrator, to the store in the mid-1950s -- when he was 8 or 9 -- when it was known as Fine Arts Stationery.

"Max Kaplan was a very imposing figure to me and looked like a movie villain," Burroughs said. "So when he used to bark gruffly `What do you want Burroughs?' (to his father) I was terrified."

Burroughs said it wasn't until he became an artist himself that he began to understand Kaplan's humor and his special connection with artists. "He was a lovable curmudgeon," he said.

Burroughs said Mellor and Nina Royce, who has worked there since 1969, have that connection now. "They make anyone who walks into the shop -- artist or not -- feel very welcome and comfortable asking advice on any aspect of materials or techniques," he added.

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In 1975, Royce began showcasing Westport artists' work at the shop display windows, changing them monthly. "By giving up their valuable front windows to display a different artist's work each month, probably qualifies them as the longest-running gallery in town," Burroughs said.

"I am very sad to see them go," said Burroughs. "It's the end of a beloved era where art and commerce met in the most hospitable store in town."

Chernow agreed. "It signals a further demise of the real arts in Westport," she said. "And it's extremely sad for the artists who bought their supplies there," Chernow added, saying she would shop at Max's at least once or twice a week. "You could get anything you needed and the staff was always pleasant. It was like home."

Chernow said the town is "changing mightily and that's not good ... If see another women's clothing store open downtown, I'll go crazy."

As the types of stores downtown changed over the years, so did the artist community the town had fostered, Mellor said. "It's less of an arts community today," she said.

But that's not what was the death-knell for her business.

"Blame it on the computer," she said. Illustrators and others can do their work on computers them and artists can buy supplies via the Internet, she said, adding that, like a number of other businesses, the digital age has nearly eliminated the need for brick and mortar and, in particular, the small mom-and-pop stores.

"Now they come into this store only for odds and ends," she said.

That's led to Mellor's decision, a difficult one, to close the doors to Max's.

No "Going Out of Business" sale is planned, she said, since all merchandise remaining in the store is currently marked down for sale.

Mellor wasn't certain about her plans when the store is closed for good. But, she said, "It's been wonderful here and I'll miss it.

"And I'll miss all the people who have been customers over the years."