Catskill Art Supply has been a hangout on Woodstock’s Mill Hill Road to several generations of artists. Its Uptown Kingston branch helped build the Ulster County seat’s reputation as an arts center for the region, while simultaneously nudging that neighborhood’s gentrified rebirth. The Kington CAS recently moved from Wall Street to the nearby Kingston Plaza.
Not as visible as Catskill Art Supply’s arts profile was the business’ bedrock work as the location of an office supply business for years.
Now, CAS owner and founder Paul Solis-Cohen is consolidating his art supplies businesses, looking to not only survive the challenges of this year but also to find a way of deepening what he’s been doing for 42 years now while simultaneously making Catskill Art Supply sustainable.
He’s now looking to retire.
Solis-Cohen tells how it all began. He had moved to Kingston to teach English and theater at the Ulster Academy. The school folded. He’d become friends with Don and Elise Twine of what was, in the 1970s, Woodstock’s book store, the Catskill Book & Record Shop. They asked whether he wanted to buy their shop, which also sold art supplies.
“I was burnt out on books and saw the calling for an art store in town,” he recalled. “I’d never owned a business, sold things, or had much to do with art supplies, but the old-time artists around me were enthusiastic and rallied around my effort, did everything they could to support me.”
Building an inventory
Early on, Solis-Cohen sold off the Twines’ book stock to Barry Samuels and Ellen Shapiro as they started up The Golden Notebook up the street a couple of blocks.
“The stuff they didn’t take, including the records, I sold to Todd Rundgren, who was furnishing his new house up Mink Hollow,” he added. “With the cash I got I was able to build an inventory driving down each morning to the City at 6 a.m., where I’d load up my Jeep and drive back in time to open the store at 10.”
At first, Catskill Art Supply stuck with the sort of basics that many Woodstock artists had been driving to New York themselves to purchase. Or to Manny’s, which opened in the early 1960s in New Paltz. The inventory grew, as Solis-Cohen started working with the classic artists in his chosen home town, picking up what they wanted on his daily trips.
“We became a club for those artists. Ed Chavez, Dmitri Petrov, Bob Angeloch and Reggie Wilson would hang out and talk shop,” the store’s long-time owner added. “Later, when the copy shop in Bradley Meadows went out of business I bought his equipment and started doing that.”
Sha Wu, brought to town to start Woodstock’s first Chinese restaurant by impresario Albert Grossman, came into Catskill Art Supply once to ask Solis-Cohen whether he could frame some Sunni prints he had on rice paper.
“I said, Sure, then asked Manny’s nephew down in New Paltz to teach me how, Solis-Cohen said. “For the longest time I’d take the framing jobs home with me to Shady and work on them each night.”
Albert Grossman was a supporter of the busy business, buying out Catskill Art Supply’s Mont Blanc pens as gifts, and bringing in his own framing work.
“These small-town businesses only work if the community rallies around them,” Solis-Cohen said, “It was the Eighties when we really started to take off, and Woodstock had a very active art scene. Everyone got together a lot. The Arts Students League was becoming the Woodstock School of Art, and there was a lot of good energy everywhere.”
Expanding to Kingston
By 1983, Solis-Cohen decided to expand to Uptown Kingston, where he started renting a space on the corner of North Front and Wall streets until he was offered the former home of Anaconda Sports, right on Wall.
“Everyone told me it was a bad location for retail, but I stayed on for 30 years,” he said. “I started doing office supply, and that was a monster. It was hard getting trucks in there, but we had a loyal customer base.”
The 2006 sale of the office supply business – which had grown to 30,000 square feet of warehouse storage for inventory and a dozen delivery trucks – was key. At that point he had the cash to keep the art-supply stores running, as much from love as anything.
Now, he’s really building inventory, which means a bigger space, easier parking, more variety, and a more concentrated staff. His new location in Kingston Plaza is focusing on supplies. “I need to put the business in a position where the new owner who buys it will do really well,” Solis-Cohen explained. “I’m looking to retire, truth be told.”
To make a successful business now means a strong website, a deep inventory, and an ability to make deliveries. Solis-Cohen promises that Catskill Art Supply will deliver to anyone who wants it, especially in Woodstock.
“We’re not looking to handicap anyone,” he said. “Nobody will be denied.”
Solis-Cohen is keeping the building in Woodstock, letting his framing people and the graphics/copy business continue there as long as it can. The rest of the place will serve as a warehouse for materials, many of which he’s been schlepping over to Kingston on a daily basis, just like in the old days.
Paul Solis-Cohen speaks about how he started off, many years earlier, even before literature and theater, wanting to paint. Which he now does whenever he’s down in Mexico, where he keeps a studio and second home.
“There’s a bittersweet element in all this,” he added. “But to tell the truth, I’ve been in a Catskill Art Supply bubble all these years,” he answered. “Look, everything is yin-yang. Right now I’m just hoping that Woodstock will forgive us for the move, but also celebrate the new store.”
Sales went up 30 percent as soon as he shifted the Kingston store from Wall Street down to its present spot.
“For me, what we started in Woodstock was a perfect fit,” Solis-Cohen added. “But I’m no longer looking back, I’m looking forward.