On a muggy Wednesday evening in the San Fernando Valley, Continental Art Supplies' best customers pack the Reseda Boulevard shop for an invite-only event, filling baskets to the brim. For decades, Continental has been keeping students and professionals stocked with pencils, paper, oils, pastels, watercolors and brushes. Now, just weeks before its 57th anniversary, the venerable Valley institution is preparing to close its doors so second-generation owner Steve Aufhauser can retire from the family business.
The event is part sale, part retirement party. Guests mingle and swap memories about the store, which Aufhauser's parents opened in 1960. Many of them frequented Continental as schoolchildren and remained loyal customers once they became creative professionals. A former employee recalls the old days, when the space was half the size it is today. Frequent shoppers say they could find other places to patronize, but there's no location convenient for residents of West Valley neighborhoods such as Reseda, Northridge and Granada Hills. Maybe you could order online but, as one customer told me, you don't always know what you're getting and it's not convenient when there are time constraints.
“Right now, I'm stocking up,” says Kevin Larson, an Encino-based artist who's been shopping at the store for 35 years.
Continental is the sort of shop that can spark an urge to make art even if you can't draw a straight line. Downstairs, the aisles are named for artists — Warhol, Escher, Bosch — and the variety of supplies is overwhelming. Fortunately, there are homemade signs on the walls to help fledgling artists get started. Sculpted figures stuck to black boards show what can be done with different brands of clay. A black-and-white brush-pen drawing advises that Pentel pens work for comics. Upstairs, paper abounds. Looking for something in a Thai lace pattern? Italian Florentine? It's here. But the stock is only part of the draw. There's also Aufhauser, who grew up in the store and has been running it since the early 1980s.
“Steve has been an unbelievable supporter of Reseda,” customer Steve Taylor says. “This store has probably survived because he's been such a fantastic guy and everybody wants to support him.”
In the midst of the crowd, Aufhauser, a bearded man in his early 60s whose short-sleeved shirt reveals the colorful tattoos on his arms, greets and hugs the guests.
“We have a rule: We shake your hand the first time you come in here,” Aufhauser says by phone the following evening. “After that, you give us a hug. That's how it is.”
Aufhauser has finished up the first official sale day when we catch up by phone. He says it's been a day full of lines; some customers waited longer than an hour in the Valley heat to get into the store. He estimates that 375 customers stopped by Continental. They gave away loads of water. And while the store's stock is now depleting, Aufhauser's personal art collection is growing. “I've received more art in the last three days than I have in the last two years,” he says.
Many of Continental Art Supplies' employees are artists themselves, but Aufhauser is not. He says that has resulted in some awkward moments, like when people have walked out of one of his lectures on supplies after finding out that he doesn't paint. Still, the longtime shop owner knows the tools. His job isn't to make it art, it's to help the customers do it.
Aufhauser's father, Robert, wasn't an artist either. He was a banker, following in the family tradition despite a lack of passion for the profession. Aufhauser's mother, Greta, was a painter. Robert, originally from Germany, and Greta, from Holland, immigrated to the United States not long after World War II ended. Robert found work in banking. Greta painted and taught classes. Eventually, though, Robert needed to do something else. Greta suggested an art supply store.
Aufhauser was 4½ when Continental Art Supplies opened on Sept. 9, 1960. He remembers going to the grand opening with his brothers, all dressed up in ties. The kids were raised in the store. “It was the daycare center,” Aufhauser recalls. They changed price tags, cleaned out ashtrays, swept the floor and the parking lot. Sometimes, shoppers would ask the children if they worked at the store. They would shrug and help the customers find what they needed.
Visual art wasn't Aufhauser's calling, though. He was more interested in music and learned how to play various woodwind instruments. Aufhauser and his twin brother went on to work other jobs. When his older brother died in a scuba diving accident, Aufhauser, then 26, quit his job and came back to the store to help his parents until they were ready to discuss the future of Continental. Six months later, Aufhauser was the new manager and preparation for a major store renovation got underway.
Continental Art Supplies has withstood a lot of changes. In the old days, it was a commercial art supplier with a 29-person strong staff, including two people who took calls from businesses and got their hefty orders onto the store's two delivery trucks. That era ended when computers were able to handle so many tasks that had been done manually. Eventually, automation shrunk Continental's staff inside the store, too. Now, as the store prepares to close, the staff comprises just 11 people (including Aufhauser), which is still quite big considering that Continental started out as, literally, a mom-and-pop store.
Local schools have long been supporters of Continental Art Supplies. Students have come here from institutions including Sherman Oaks CES, Birmingham and Cleveland high schools, Pierce College and Cal State Northridge. Aufhauser has worked with educators to help prepare their class supply lists. But Continental also counts fine artists among its clients. Several were in attendance on Wednesday, along with a few toy industry artists getting odds and ends for work. Animation artists come here and leave behind work to hang in the store. “It has to constantly be replaced because people rip it off all the time,” Aufhauser says.
The business has embraced street artists, too; three murals by local artists adorn its façade. That's been Aufhauser's way of curbing tags on the building while opening up people's minds to public art. “I also wanted to send a message to people that there was a way of having urban art done on a large scale and not get in trouble for it,” he says. “I've had lots of conversations with young men and women who come into my store about how they should approach property owners to do stuff like what's on the back of my building.”
Two of Continental's murals are the work of Levi Ponce, who is renowned for his pieces lining the streets of the Valley. Ponce started coming here when he was a student at Cleveland High School in Reseda. “He paid for the paint. He provided all the art supplies that I needed,” Ponce said by phone. “He pretty much said, 'Have at it at my store.'” Later, he returned to paint Rembrandt “with a cubist twist” on the front wall. Both murals still exist.
“Continental had become more than just a store,” Ponce says. “It was a family. I knew all the workers there by name. Steve had not only curated the supplies but he curated the people who worked there. They were good people, not just good artists. A lot of them are my friends. I talk to them. I text them. We show each other our art.”
The store's closure is bittersweet, but it's going out on top. Aufhauser says that he wanted to retire while he still liked working, and that's what's he's doing. “I love coming to work,” he says.
Aufhauser may not be an artist himself, and he didn't intend to take over the family business, but it's been a good fit for decades. “I've always just dug what I've done,” he says. “I've always really, really enjoyed what I could learn about this and what I could bring to my customers and what I could give back to the industry.”
Continental Art Supplies will remain open at 7041 Reseda Blvd., Mon.-Sat., until its stock is sold out.