Spotlight: Philip Williams Posters

Philip Williams Posters1 by Claudine WilliamsBecause this site focuses on news, wonderful businesses that have been around awhile—and that go a long way toward making this neighborhood special—don’t always get the coverage they should. So here’s the start of a new series, Spotlight. The photographs are by Claudine Williams (no relation), who specializes in head shots for actors, business professionals, or anyone looking to be photographed. She also dabbles in street photography for fun. Originally from Philadelphia, she has made NYC her home for the past seven years with her husband and son.

“This is the largest collection of posters for sale in the world, and the widest range in subject matter,” says Philip Williams of his namesake shop/gallery at 122 Chambers (and also 52 Warren). He didn’t set out to be the dominant player in posters. Back in 1971, he was working in construction, but wanting to get into art—when he finally decided he had had enough. He took on an antique shop as one last client, bartering for a tiny nook in the shop, and he started selling paintings. “But I needed a week to find a good painting,” he says. “Then, one day, someone came in with a big stack of posters. And I started going after posters in a big way.” Now he has more than half a million.

Philip Williams Posters7 by Claudine WilliamsWhen did you open this store? Why here?
I’ve been here for 10 years. Before that I was in a L-shaped store—it had entrances on Chambers and on W. Broadway—in the bank building where the Smyth is now. I still have around 300 safe deposit boxes from there. (They’re $20 each and they come in four sizes.) Before that, I was on Grand Street, and before that, I was on Columbus Avenue. Gentrification kept pushing me further downtown. I’ve been in Manhattan for 44 years.

What was Tribeca like when you opened here?
Chambers was all dollar stores and inexpensive food—Jamaican food, chicken wings, things like that. Warren was really quiet, not retail at all. It was all industrial or residential.

Philip Williams Posters6 by Claudine WilliamsHow has your business changed?
It’s slower! [Laughs.] People are buying online. And tastes have changed. I think that’s it, really. I don’t know what young people are buying anymore. I don’t know what they’re spending their money on. Restaurants? Concerts? Clothing? I don’t think they’re exposed to this, or that they have the education to appreciate it. I do think that, more and more, retail has to be an experience, not just a transaction.

What’s the most satisfying part of what you do?
Opening up people’s eyes to this form of art. And seeing that they’re happy with what they buy. They come by weeks, months, even years later and say so.

Most popular poster subject?
Food and drink. Something for the dining room or kitchen. And whatever fits the space on the wall that they’re looking to fill.

Least expensive item?
I have these little reproduction posters for $15. I call it crack art, because it gets people started and they’ll come back and spend hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Philip Williams Posters9 by Claudine WilliamsMost expensive?
The one of the girl with the cat—it’s $25,000. I’ve had more expensive ones though. I’ve sold things for $250,000. [The average price is $600 to $800.]

Your very favorite item (right now, anyway)?
I have four cyanotypes by Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns, from when they were together and working under the pseudonym Matson Jones. They were made for the windows at Bonwit Teller. I’ve had them for 40 years. At one point, two guys who owned a seafood restaurant in the south wanted to buy them, but when they said they planned to cut them to fit on their wall, I rescinded the sale. [Read more about the cyanotypes—and how Andy Warhol was planning on buying them before he died—on Philip’s blog.]

Philip Williams Posters10 by Claudine WilliamsTribeca has obviously changed a lot. Any changes that have surprised you?
How many children. How many strollers. How many young children. How many pregnant people.

What percentage of your business is local?
Probably 55 to 60 percent, if local means from below 14th Street.

Tell me a crazy customer story.
The other day, these two English ladies came in and one asked, in a very proper accent, if this is a recycling center. I said that, yes, in fact, it is. She was so proud for having guessed correctly!

Where do you eat/drink/shop around here?
Stores that I like a lot are Korin, Fountain Pen Hospital, and the Mysterious Bookshop. I eat lunch at Mariachi’s a fair bit, and of course the Odeon.

Philip Williams Posters5 by Claudine WilliamsWhat does the future hold?
We have our new website up and it’s going well. There are 2,800 posters online.

What didn’t I ask?
We have a lot of folk art—although I hate to call it that. The Met just bought a bunch of works by southern American painters, and I have works from most of those 50-plus artists. And we do conservation framing—we have the best framers!—downstairs.

When you stop by, be sure to ask Philip about his role—along with Madeline Lanciani of Duane Park Patisserie—in starting the Greenwich Village Halloween Parade….

Philip Williams Posters4 by Claudine Williams

8 Comments

  1. This is a terrific idea for a new series! What a delightful read.

  2. loved this!

  3. very cool. enjoyed.

  4. Erik, thank you for this! I walk by the shop all the time, and never realized what a gem it is! Love their website, and in can’t wait to visit in person.

  5. Philip is a great guy! Go visit him!

  6. Great addition to the column. Thanks

  7. This is such a great store and we are fortunate to have this “museum” like business in our neighborhood. Stop in and have a look around. Mr. Williams is very gracious.

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