At a moment when any change in the urban landscape feels like a crisis, FLAX art & design, the art supply store, has announced plans to relocate its flagship Market Street location to Oakland as early as Feb. 16. The move comes as no surprise for those following Flax's story over the past year -- in May 2014, loyal customers learned that a nine-story, 160-unit condo building would eventually replace the 20,000-square-foot building.
But Flax's move speaks to demographic changes in San Francisco (a recent survey showed that 70 percent of the city's artists have been displaced from their workplace or home) as much as it reflects the ballooning real estate market, a collision of present realities with a family-owned business that's been around for nearly 100 years.
Not the first, nor the last Flax
The Flax family’s involvement in peddling paper, paint and brushes to aspiring artists started in 1918, when Sam Flax opened an eponymous art supply store in New York City. Over the years, various family members opened variously-named and independently-run Flax stores in Atlanta, Orlando, Los Angeles, Chicago, Phoenix and San Francisco.
The first Flax shop in San Francisco opened in 1938 at 437 Kearny Street, moving a few blocks down the street in 1951. It wasn’t until 1981 that FLAX art & design settled into its current space. When Flax became aware of the property developer's plans for condos and told their lease would run its course, expiring at the end of 2015, the hunt for a new location began.
In Aug. 2015, Howard Flax, the third-generation owner of his family’s business, happily announced to the San Francisco Chronicle he would soon open a 5,000-square-foot store at Fort Mason Center, and was entertaining the possibility of opening two additional San Francisco stores.
When those San Francisco locations fell through, a 14,000-square-foot space in Oakland emerged, further sweetened by the city's offer of a $99,000 grant for interior renovations. The grand opening of the new store, located at the corner of Martin Luther King Jr. Way and 15th Street, will take place in early March, Flax estimates. That leaves the Fort Mason Center shop, which opened in Nov. 2015, soon to be its only San Francisco location. And what will come of the Market Street store’s trademark exterior -- with its custom lettering and gigantic artist’s mannequins? Rest assured: Flax is in conversation with Back to the Drawing Board, the company that originally designed the signage in the ’80s, about transferring the entire building's facade to Oakland.
Struggling to stay open
Justine Kessler, a native San Franciscan, illustrator and “small time taxidermist” who works as assistant manager of San Francisco's Artist & Craftsman Supply, says she’ll miss the Market Street location, but she’s happy the business plans to remain family owned and in the Bay Area. “There's just so many factors [to staying open],” Kessler says.
While Flax's shift to Oakland is a bellwether moment for the San Francisco arts community, the paint tubes haven’t dried up everywhere in the city. For many artists, Flax will never be the most affordable shopping destination, especially compared to the deals offered at Blick, the big-box chain on mid-Market that opened shortly after the city’s branch of Pearl Paint Co. closed in 2010.
But for those who prefer to patronize the independently-owned small businesses of San Francisco, there are still options, however few. Art supply store ARCH weathered their 2014 eviction by opening two nearby locations -- a space inside the California College of Arts San Francisco campus specifically catering to students’ needs, and a pop-up shop on Third Street in the Dogpatch.
Caryn Oka, an ARCH employee working in the Third Street location, confirms plans to move into a larger space in the American Industrial Center and expand to something more closely resembling their original shop in the near future.
Mendel’s still operates as a family-owned arts and crafts supply store on Haight Street, where it opened in the 1960s as a house paint and linoleum shop. Mendel's isn't going anywhere, owner Naomi Silverman says; thankfully, her grandfather had the foresight to purchase the building.
The last ones standing
For Silverman, Flax’s move isn't just about the niche business of art supplies. “It’s more and more difficult to run independent retail of any sort in San Francisco,” she says.
Arty Cordisco, owner and operator of Douglass & Sturgess, a mostly sculptural art supply store on Howard Street, hadn’t yet heard of Flax’s move when we spoke on the phone. “It’s not good news,” he says, echoing Silvermen’s sentiment about the changing retail landscape.
When prompted, Cordisco is able to name more art supply stores that have closed than those still open. At this he pauses, and asks, semi-seriously: “Am I the last man standing?”