Commentary: A blue hue surrounds Laurel Art Center's closing

If you were to paint the collective mood of those in the checkout line Saturday at the Laurel Art Center, the brush could have been dipped in the deepest of blues.

The Main Street landmark, which closed in February but reopened April 28 and 29 for a two-day sale, was peeling off its inventory, offering 75 percent off everything. The owners — Leo Emery and his wife, Joyce — decided it was time to close the business that had stood in place since the mid-1970s. Its legacy is sketched in the hearts and minds of a devoted fan base that cherished how the store helped them summon that uncharted sweet, sweet spot in their creative souls.

Gloria Hynes, struggling to put an oversized cardboard box into the back seat of her Cadillac parked outside, rhapsodized about the store. "I knew the man who owned it," said the fine art photographer, who lives in Montpelier. "He would come around and want somebody to talk to about Old Town Laurel and Main Street. It was like going to the neighborhood grocery store versus going to the Giant."

Inside, customers jammed the cramped, musty aisles, greeting friends and neighbors while clutching treasures such as pen and ink drawings of Laurel's historic sites. All of them lamented the passing of a once-iconic business, agreeing that big chains like Home Goods or Michael's won't fill the gap.

John Ahlquist recalled when the store was a "five and dime" called Polan's. He isn't much of an artist, he said, "but I'm going to miss the place. It's part of Laurel's tradition."

Ahlquist and his wife were there to browse through the leftover array of oil paintings for their newly redecorated living room. "Main Street is ... kind of struggling," he said.

Frustrated, his wife chimed in: "Sorry we didn't get here earlier."

Tamara Early, who worked at the shop for nearly five years, had a poster of Sean Cassidy, a 1970's pop music idol, which she insisted wasn't for her.

Early was also there to snap up a piece that she had "been admiring" for a long time: a sequined, triple-matted image of a donkey with museum glass. During her working days there, it was priced at around $300. Now, taking advantage of the 75 percent discount, it was a steal.

"I'm really saddened," said Early, a West Laurel resident who owns a daycare. "The thing I'm going to miss is the community feel. I'm a Girl Scout leader. I brought my troop down here for two different tours in two years. You don't find that in D.C."

The leftover merchandise amounted to an eclectic offering: posters with Marilyn Monroe on a motorcycle; posters from the 1988 World Series, and posters of the Taj Mahal and salmon. Prints of familiar local spots like the First United Methodist Church, the old Phelps Center and American Legion Post 60 were going fast.

Another section of the store took you back to the days before Dell, Apple and Microsoft were household words. The room bulged with typing paper, While You Were Out pads, chalk and dusty postcards. One postcard featured a landscape of Manhattan — including the World Trade Center.

Somewhere in the fray stood Blair Diggs. It was the first — and last — trip there for the Howard University architecture student and fine artist from Silver Spring. It wasn't hard to figure out that it could have been the start of a lasting relationship.

"This is like a real retro place," he declared, surveying the DaVinci brand tubes of paint and gloss varnish. "I haven't seen a store like this in years. I really hate to see it leave. Places like this are really necessary."

Patty Hagen, another former employee, wore a cheery front, like a deep shade of lemon yellow. "A lot of customers," she reported, "said they had tears this morning."

Matt Emery, a son of the owners, spent the weekend knee-deep in customers.

"It was so crazy busy," he said Monday. "Those two days were just a blur. It took me to today to reflect on what the store's closing meant. We basically sold out of art supplies. We still have a fair amount of frames."

In order to clear the remaining inventory, Emery said the family is planning a follow-up sale in about six weeks. He also has taken some of the matting boards and moldings to the Gallery at 344 Main St., a custom-framing shop owned by his brother, Randy.

Matt Emery owns Rehoboth Art and Framing in Rehoboth Beach, Del. He said if he could, he would also move some of the leftovers down there, where he caters to many visitors and retirees from Laurel.

"But it's just much smaller" than the Laurel shop, he said.

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