“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. (If you have a subject in mind, you may want to search the online database before dropping in.)
When 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.
How 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.
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.
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.]
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!
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.
Photographs by Claudine Williams (no relation), who specializes in head shots for actors, business professionals, or anyone looking to be photographed.