I’ve long been inclined to read stores the way I read texts. The nature and display of merchandise, the style of salesmanship, even the pricing are all signifiers in what, at its best, is an esthetic as well as a commercial spectacle. Some stores create a kind of embrace that is both familiar and strange — rather like a good poem.
In recent weeks, I find myself returning to a store called the Painted Cottage. It’s a furniture store that sells armoires, vanities, ottomans, and armchairs. The pieces are not expensive — rarely does even a large piece exceed $1,000. This is because all the furniture is secondhand, found in junkyards or purchased from estates, then refurbished by the store’s staff. Despite the humble origins of the pieces, the results are delightful: Nails, whitewash, and hand-painted flowers transform a broken-down dresser into a Country French chiffarobe; chintz upholstery turns a lumpy recliner (the sort you see on the curb waiting for the garbage truck) into a Pierre Deux armchair.
I am a sucker for “pretty,” one of those people who wore Laura Ashley clothes much longer than I should have and who strove valiantly (though my daughter refused) to wear mother-daughter matching print dresses. I like cabbage roses, ribbons, and the color pink. The Painted Cottage is my esthetic.
But the charm of the store lies not just in the merchandise but its context and history. It stands in the middle of the main street of Collingswood, New Jersey. Up until a few years ago, Collingswood was a grim, empty town whose proximity to Camden, one of the most crime-ridden cities in the country, did nothing to recommend it. Then some good things happened. The town elected a visionary mayor and an energetic town council. The taxes in Philadelphia skyrocketed, sending upwardly mobile young professionals looking for affordable housing. A smattering of gays, who found New Hope across the Delaware River too scrubbed and shiny for their more real-world tastes, set down roots.
Collingswood had rundown Victorian homes, cheap open space for condos, access to the High Speed Line into Philadelphia, and a comfortable if dilapidated main street. In five years, the town blossomed into a destination, at least by South Jersey standards.
Nowadays, new restaurants and shops are interspersed with the hardware stores, luncheonettes, and secondhand clothing shops that have always been there. Old-timers wait for the train at Collingswood station alongside spiffier types with Louis Vuitton briefcases. On Saturday nights the town is bustling with people browsing through the shops and entering and exiting the small restaurants with flasks and wine bottles (Collingswood continues to be a dry town). During the holiday season, there are lights tracing “Season’s Greetings” across the main street, and Christmas trees being sold briskly near the curb. Carolers in capes and top hats serenade passersby. It feels like a Frank Capra movie, and you half-expect Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed to step out of one of the popular restaurants.
The Painted Cottage, at seven years old, is one of the first businesses in Collingswood’s new wave. It is actually two stores. One, located on the east side of Collingswood’s main street, is the retail store and features the more elaborate pieces. Diagonally across the street, down a small alley, is a warehouse space where the furniture renovation takes place and where other pieces are for sale at cheaper prices.
A few weeks ago, I ventured into the main store and then into the workshop in search of some furnishings for an attic room that I wanted to convert into a “boudoir.” I know this sounds ridiculous, but I live in a very old house with shallow closets and miniscule bathrooms. I’d been entertaining the idea of turning the third floor storage room into a dressing room (i.e. “boudoir”) for years, and stumbling on the Painted Cottage made it possible to realize this girly-girl fantasy.
In a series of visits to the store I bought a low wicker armchair with chintz and striped cushions for $120, a small table with a lacquer finish for $40, and a small chair to match the vanity table I’d bought at a consignment shop (the Painted Cottage covered the seat with pretty fabric, painted the chair to match the vanity, and added a hand-painted rose on the back) for $130. I also found a white hat rack with a filigree base for $30 and a footstool for the wicker chair, custom reupholstered in chintz and stripes, for $120. I am considering a whitewashed bookcase for my study downstairs which Valerie, the store’s owner, says she can paint a dark brown and cut down to fit the space. Total cost: $110.
What appeals to me so much about the Painted Cottage? Beyond the fact that I can afford it, that I like chintz and white paint, and that I’m drawn to secondhand things (see my earlier piece about thrift shops), there is the allure of a quirky, intimate operation — not a chain or a franchise or even a place owned by one person and operated by someone else. Here the owner herself wields a paintbrush and is personally on hand to give advice and adjust pricing. The entire establishment feels more like a genial workshop than a conventional commercial establishment.
William Morris, the painter and designer who founded the Victorian Arts and Crafts Movement, pioneered an ideal that I think many of us subliminally yearn for: We don’t just want to own beautiful objects; we want objects that speak to us about their craftsmanship and which promise a lifestyle, even a way of seeing the world. The philosopher and art historian John Ruskin, who was a great influence on Morris, wrote a famous essay about the horrors of mass production. The glass beads worn by young girls of the time were, he argued, emblems of the slave trade because they were produced in airless factories by people with no connection to what they were doing. Things made that way were by definition ugly. By the same token, Ruskin was also concerned that beautiful things be available to people from all walks of life — that not just the rich be able to afford the handmade and esthetically pleasing. Morris’s artistic collective was founded on this idea of beauty, craftsmanship, and affordability.
The Bloomsbury Group was inspired, in part, by the principles of the Arts and Crafts Movement. Virginia and Leonard Woolf started their own publishing house, Hogarth Press, with the idea that books worth reading ought to be published with care and attention. Woolf’s sister, Vanessa Bell, along with other members of Bloomsbury, Roger Fry, and Duncan Grant, founded the Omega Workshops, a design collective like Morris’ that collaborated in making furniture, painting murals and screens, and designing linen, rugs, and even clothing. In Bell’s home in Sussex, every surface — walls, furniture, floors — was painted by hand. Her descendants still live there. I have seen a picture, and the place is a riot of color and design, the beauty distilled and personalized to an uncanny degree.
The Painted Cottage is in this tradition. So is Collingswood. The charm of the town is genuine, not Disneyfied. The present is in real connection to the past, and there is a sense of shared community. Housing and necessities, and even some luxuries, are affordable. The town is, in short, a workshop for living, creating civic-minded, genial citizens the way the Painted Cottage creates useful, pretty things. • 2 January 2008