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.
At Fair Folks & a Goat, a new retail gallery and tea salon hybrid on New York’s Upper East Side, everything inside the gracious late 19th-century studio apartment is for sale. Well, almost everything — a small candy dish that reads “When I count my blessings, I count you twice” was a gift from co-owner Anthony Mazzei’s mother and “it’s a million dollars,” he jokes, while the vintage paperbacks lining a wall of shelves constitute an actual lending library. Here, the props and merch blend into a seamless backdrop for a new kind of social gathering. “We wanted to create a space for young people to have a home away from home, where instead of alcohol and loud music it would be more like a physical incarnation of a magazine, with design, art, fashion, and culture,” says Mazzei.
One recent March morning, I found myself in the Mexican town of Ojinaga sipping micheladas with Michelle Teague, owner of Marfa’s effortlessly cool ranchwear and housewares shop JM Dry Goods, and her business partner, glass- and soap-maker Ginger Griffice. Every six weeks or so, Teague and Griffice travel to OJ on buying trips. Teague scouts the small array of stores, filled with both the everyday and the bizarre, for items to boost JM Dry Goods’s border-town flavor. Griffice buys empty bottles of Topo Chico, a popular Mexican sparkling mineral water, at OJ’s Coca-Cola bottling plant, and they become the bases for the drinking glasses she sells at the store. By now, their trips follow an established pattern. Morning micheladas are an important part of the ritual.
Even non-New Yorkers know Soho, the swath of land below Houston Street in Manhattan, colonized by artists in the '60s and now the domain of the rich and the retail-obsessed. Noho, on the other hand, still flirts with obscurity, despite having been home to some of the city's most legendary artists — Robert Mapplethorpe, Frank Stella, and Chuck Close, to name a few — as well as its first Herzog and de Meuron building. Sure, as an emerging neighborhood with several hotels on the rise, its streets are often crisscrossed with ungainly spiderwebs of scaffolding, but beneath that lies a creative energy so strong we at Sight Unseen figured it would be the perfect place to create a new satellite destination during New York design week: the Noho Design District. All of the elements were already there.