For 65 years, Lee’s Art Shop has been selling paint brushes, easels, pens, and frames at 220 West 57th Street, across from the Art Students League of New York, where aspiring painters learn their craft. But like many small businesses across New York City, its days are numbered. The sign on the window says it all: Closing this summer.
David Steinberg, the CEO of Lee’s Art Shop, explains that “We’re closing because the building is being sold.”
Steinberg’s father Gilbert and mother Ruth ran Lee’s Art Shop for years on 57th Street and moved it across the street to its current location in 1975. He runs the business with his sister, Jill Isaacs. Their parents acquired the building in 1975, but sold it in 2013 to real estate investor Joseph Safdieh of Safka Holdings.
Perhaps the timing is right to pull the plug on the store. Amazon and online sites are eroding sales. Margins are tight, costs are up, and competition is everywhere.
But it’s more than a business to Steinberg, who started working in the store when he was just 5 years old. He’s now 56, and has spent the last 51 years, in one form or another, connected to Lee’s Art Shop.
“My mother gave me a colored pencil and asked me to replenish some displays,” he said wistfully. “I feel as if I’ve been involved prenatally,” he quipped, trying to find humor in a deadpan kind of way.
The customers were as varied as anyone who uses art supplies. Many were from the neighborhood, and many were tourists. And Tony Bennett, the singer, who also paints, was a regular customer.
“We had many corporate accounts. And we’d be jammed selling Mother’s Day gifts,” Steinberg said.
What started as an art supply business morphed into multi-faceted specialty shop. As the store expanded, it kept introducing new products onto its four floors of commerce.
It expanded into custom-framing. Then it added lighting fixtures, followed by children’s furniture and educational toys, then office supplies and gift items.
And it sells pens galore, such as Coptic markers, which artists favor, and Uniball pens, which many writers prefer.
So, why didn’t Lee’s Art Supply develop its own online site and compete against Amazon? “It’s not that easy,” Steinberg replies. “The cost of running an online site is very difficult. Amazon undercuts the market,” he added, and Lee’s wouldn’t be able to match its prices.
Lee’s Art Shop strived to compete. It started a delivery service to anywhere in Manhattan. Frames and easels delivered directly to your door, but that wasn’t enough to generate the needed revenue to compete.
Brick-and-mortar stores are finding it hard to survive. “It’s difficult. At the end of the day, we can charge for convenience and service, but it’s still tough,” Steinberg admitted.
Why couldn’t Steinberg find a different location and move? Lee’s Art Shop is an established brand. “Given the competitive environment, it’s unlikely,” he replied. Look at Pearl Paint’s, the downtown store that served artists for more than 50 years until it shut down in 2014, he offered by comparison. “They had several thousand employees and 28 shops and they were forced to close,” he said.
“People stop in all the time when they read the sign to tell us how sad they are that we’re closing,” Steinberg admitted. One loyal customer told him, “It’s the end of an era, the end of the world,” she lamented.
One Yelp customer sang the praises of Lee’s Art Shop. She wrote, “There’s something magical about this store though I can’t quite pinpoint what it is. It’s a great spot for parents and educators. You come here because you care about small business. It’s hard to remember that stores like this are the reason New York thrives.”
Steinberg is crestfallen. Closing Lee’s Art Shop is like losing a good friend. “It’s heart breaking, very depressing,” he admitted.
And what will he do next? “After 51 years working here, I’ll have to reinvent myself,” he replied.
Gary M. Stern is a New York-based business journalist and author.