What They Bought
Art in the Age

When Philadelphia adman Steven Grasse talks about his 20 years at the helm of Gyro Worldwide, the successful agency he shuttered in 2008, his assessment is as blunt as you might expect from the man who invented Bikini Bandits, a video series about strippers, guns, and hot rods: “I was the asshole who did the Camel ads,” he says. “At Gyro, we had this ‘I’ll fuck anything that moves’ philosophy.” That all changed in 2008, when he sold Sailor Jerry — the rum brand he created before going on to help develop Hendrick’s Gin — to William Grant & Sons for “more money than I ever made in advertising,” he says. Grasse quickly changed the name of his agency to Quaker City Mercantile, and transformed its mission completely. “Now we only work on brands that we create and own or with clients I truly like personally,” he says.

The most personal of those projects is Art in the Age, the Old City store and liquor brand Grasse began working on the day he sold Sailor Jerry. You could call it a modern-day general store, or “Pottery Barn for hipsters,” as many have before, but it’s a space unlike any other in Philly. It sells a mix of local fashion brands, private-label staples, graphic-art books, and high-end housewares, but its most defining characteristic is that it’s almost never the same place twice: it doubles as a gallery space for local artists, with monthly exhibitions, and hosts regular lectures and workshops on everything from worm composting to beer-making.

The shop’s somewhat whimsical calendar stems in part from Grasse’s genuine desire to be a cultural omnivore. But being a businessman first, there’s a capitalistic impulse at work, too. In the past year, Art in the Age has launched two liquor brands: The first, Root, is based on a Pennsylvania Dutch recipe for root beer from the days before Prohibition, when root beer actually contained alcohol. The second, Snap, which launched last month, is made with blackstrap molasses and based on a Mennonite recipe for ginger snaps Grasse remembers from his childhood. Because the store isn’t a licensed liquor purveyor, the events double as tastings as well as opportunities for Grasse to snag email addresses and build his burgeoning spirits empire.

Speaking of burgeoning empires, Grasse in no way intends to keep the Art in the Age brand within Philadelphia’s confines. Eighteen months ago, he purchased a 200-year-old, 72-acre farm in Tamworth, New Hampshire, its 1913 bowling alley still intact. He’s spent the past year renovating the buildings and converting the fields to organic — the better to farm grains and fruits for distilling and preserving. He also purchased the town’s general store, which he intends to turn into a lyceum of sorts. “We’ll have lectures and things, an apartment upstairs for artists-in-residence, a print studio — we’re basically trying to single-handedly revive the American transcendental movement,” says Grasse. A five-acre plot across from the store also belongs to Grasse; there, he intends to build a distillery that uses only grains and produce grown within a 10-mile radius. “It would be nice to create a market where farmers get the money they’re owed.”

Earlier this year, we visited Art in the Age’s current digs and got the chance to speak with Grasse about the shop, its buying ethos, and its plans for the future.

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Art in the Age opened in a former machinist’s workshop in Philadelphia’s Old City in November 2008. Grasse and his wife Sonia, a Tyler School of Art grad who does most of the buying, came up with the shop’s look and feel, then hired the Philadelphia firm Rissay — who are now busy renovating the farm in New Hampshire — to carry it out. Unlike his previous ventures, Grasse sees the shop as a full reflection of his own values. “I always say that if you create something with yourself in mind, there are bound to be other people out there like you.”

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The shop takes its name from German cultural theorist Walter Benjamin’s 1936 essay "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” After Grasse read the essay — which laments the depreciation of a work’s authenticity as it’s replicated — he realized the idea was just as applicable to retail. “Kind of like every time you buy a piece of cheap crap from China, you lose a piece of your aura,” he says.

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The shop sells a mix of private-label merchandise, local and like-minded brands, and found objects sourced from eBay or Pennsylvania antique markets. Some objects are for sale, while others, like this 1974 commemorative decanter, are simply for decoration.

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“There’s an ethos to the buying,” Grasse says. “I have a theory that things should be more expensive and that people should get paid for what they do. Things in the store are expensive, but it’s because they’re not mass-produced. That’s been surprisingly well received. It’s the new luxury: Knowing where stuff came from and feeling good about buying it.”

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Root, for example, costs $32 a bottle. “It’s just as expensive as Grey Goose, but people are willing to pay because it’s organic and because there’s authenticity in the story,” says Grasse.

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Dreamcatchers made by the Philadelphia-based artist Reverend Michael Alan, who also created the botanical illustrations that decorate Root and Snap’s back labels. In February, the Reverend hosted a D.I.Y. dreamcatcher workshop at the store, and he can also be found offering recipes and tips for using the spirits on Art in the Age’s blog.

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In the background are quilts made by Grasse’s mother, Norma. “My family comes from a Mennonite town about 30 miles north of Philly called Souderton,” Grasse explains. “My dad makes Shaker furniture and my mom makes quilts with the Variable Star quilters. She was just up at the farm and spent the whole time hunting down vintage fabrics.” The satchels in front are by Billykirk, the New York–based leather-making brothers whose collections are fabricated by workers in Pennsylvania’s Amish country.

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Another relic from Grasse’s childhood: Mrs. Benner’s Slap Jack Candy, a kind of Pennsylvania Dutch pull taffy that’s been made by the same family in Grasse’s hometown for 50 years. Like Snap, the candy’s primary ingredient is molasses. “It’s funny because back in the day, only poor people used molasses, and that’s how you got things like funny cake and shoofly pie,” he says. “Rich people used sugar. But molasses has all the nutrients in it. It’s sort of like the difference between brown rice and white rice.”

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Private-label soaps made by Maggie Hanus, proprietor of A Wild Soap Bar, an all-natural soap-maker outside of Austin, Texas. The Root soap is made from the same herbs once used to distill root tea. “Now you can drink it and bathe in it,” says Grasse.

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Because Art in the Age isn’t a licensed liquor store, you can’t actually buy Root on-site. (Most sales come from the internet.) Grasse’s work-around? To sample the spirit at private events — several per month — and to bake it into goodies for sale at the shop and local farmer’s markets. Artisan chocolatiers John & Kira batch these anise-tinged squares at their nearby factory.

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Art in the Age collaborates with Greensgrow, an urban farm in Philadelphia, to create canned goods and preserves like Apple Butter and the Corn Relish shown here. But as Grasse points out, once the New Hampshire farm’s fields have been converted back to organic, many of the goods will begin production there.

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As much as possible, Art in the Age tries to carry goods with a message. These vegetable-tanned, organic, made-in-the-USA carryalls — by New York designers Shira Entis and Alex Bell of Fleabags — were meant to replace all the plastic bags flea-market addicts gather up during their weekly jaunts.

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The store is also big on heritage brands: These heirloom seeds are from Pennsylvania-based D. Landreth, the oldest seed house in America. On the left is a Korbo galvanized steel basket, made by hand in Gothenberg, Sweden since 1922.

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The shop produces its own line of T-shirts, designed by local and national artists who often show other work at the store. On the left is a design by Providence-based artist Jung-il Hong and on the right is one by Rebecca Suss.

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Art in the Age also functions as a rotating gallery space, with a new exhibition each month. When we visited this spring, the show on view was The Farm, which featured photographs and salvaged objects from the plot in Tamworth as well as anecdotes and letterpress prints by farm manager and exhibition designer Robin McDowell.

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Wood-block letter-press prints by McDowell and raspberry jams and berry vinegars from the farm. In front are hand-dyed leather keychains by New York designer Eugene Tsai.

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More farm ephemera.

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A map of the Tamworth area and vintage gardening books.

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An antique chair, thrifted from a nearby antique mart, destined for the floor. "A lot of brands have been contacting us lately to collaborate," says Grasse. "Jack Spade, Opening Ceremony. But we want to see what these brands can bring to us. We don’t want to have what everyone else has."