POST BY PADDY JOHNSON
The shelves of Pearl Paint. Photo: Anne Johnson
Editor’s note: I don’t normally publish personal stories on AFC, but every once and a while a news item such as Pearl Paint’s recent store closures prompts a bit of dirty laundry appropriate for the blog. The names in this story have been changed to protect the anonymity of those involved.
In 1999 I wasn’t much of a student. Grad school at Rutgers intimidated me, and I lived in a rough neighborhood. One day, I came home to discover my neighbor shot his wife and kid before blowing his own head off. Another, I witnessed a large crowd of thugs with weapons, walking swiftly in the direction of a nearby graveyard. I assume some sort of gang fight took place. I had nightmares every night for the first three months I lived in New Brunswick, New Jersey, and missed my home in Canada more than I admitted to myself. Oddly, I was too much of an optimist to understand I was unhappy.
But there were signs. For one, I would occasionally steal a few items from the Pearl Paint store in New Jersey when I became disproportionately enraged by its poor management. The store was the closest approximation to hell I’d ever encountered. Two floors of art supplies, and somehow Pearl never had what you needed. They also never had staff that knew enough to help you find it. Lines of people as far as the eye could see ran through the store; likely because they placed an unnaturally happy young woman with a metal hook for a hand at the cash register. “Did you find everything you need?” she’d ask, stumbling to put the few items I’d decided to pay for in the bag. She was probably the only one who cared about the shop, but I hated her anyway.
I wasn’t the only one who had problems with the store. My friend Tanya took to stealing regularly from the outfit in addition to a few other chains in the neighborhood, rationalizing the act as a means of making up for an otherwise straight-laced youth. This went on for about three months, before she finally got caught stealing a pair of scissors from Pearl’s flagship store in New York. An employee had seen her pocket the item and followed her out of the store. “You’re very good at this,” said the man, demanding to see the contents of her bag. There were no charges, but the store took a Polaroid of Tanya and mounted it on the shoplifter wall of shame. The image was placed adjacent to that of a Hassid also caught for theft.
“We faxed your image to all the stores in the country,” the employee told Tanya. “You are not welcome in any of our stores.” This was less than good news. While there are many art supply shops in New York, there was only one anywhere near Rutgers. Tanya’s ban also represented a significant problem for me, as I had no car and it was only through catching rides with her that I did any art supply shopping at all.
Unrelated to this, about a week later, Tanya and I decided to attend a John Waters lecture. At the time, I had not yet seen any of his films, so I worried I wouldn’t be able to keep up. It wasn’t an issue. Waters spent the bulk of the lecture talking about his work rehabilitating prisoners.
I could have cared less, but Tanya recognized an opportunity when she saw it. “I’ve been banned for life from Pearl Paint for shoplifting, and I can’t complete my graduate degree without access to the store,” she explained breathlessly to Waters after the lecture. A long line of students waiting to get his signature behind her already seemed impatient. “Can you write me a letter explaining that I’m rehabilitated?” A slight pause…”Are you going to do it again?” asked Waters. “No,” she replied. “Sure.” He shrugged his shoulders and wrote his letter on the program press release.
Interestingly, even after sending John Waters' letter of recommendation, Pearl Paint did not respond. Finally, Tanya called the New York office. “We got the letter, yes,” the employee told her, sounding a little exasperated. “Listen, we don’t actually fax your image to every store. We just say that to keep people from stealing at other locations. You can shop in New Jersey, just don’t do it here.”
Whether or not John Waters had any influence on Pearl Paint is up for debate, but thanks to that employee, Tanya was able to shop without the anxiety of being shamed at the New Jersey location just outside New Brunswick. We both graduated the following year.