The people of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction took Walter Benjamin’s theory and ran with it.
The German critic penned an essay of the same name in 1936 suggesting art was ever-evolving and, in order to evolve with it, artists must welcome its growth and develop new techniques.
Situated at 116 N. 3rd St. in Old City, the store owner, Steve Grasse, chose its form of art: organic spirits.
“Our spirits are distributed nationwide,” said Bob Myaing, the store manager. “They’re all natural, organic-made liquor. They’re a little different from what you would find in other aisles at the liquor store.”
Art in the Age distributes four types of spirits, all of which are set at 80 proof and have ties to historic Philadelphia recipes: Root (“Root tea” was said to first sell at the 1876 Centennial Exposition), Snap (ginger snaps were invented by Germans who later fled to Philadelphia seeking religious freesom), Rhubarb (said to be a favorite of Ben Franklin and John Bartram) and Sage (inspired from the botanicals Thomas Jefferson grew in his garden).
Although state law prevents them from selling the alcohol in-store, Myaing is permitted to give customers just a taste, free of charge.
“We can do tastings over the counter,” Myaing said. “We can’t accept money. You can come by on every first Friday or every Thursday we do an in-store happy hour. We usually just give away one cocktail per customer.”
The spirits are available for purchase at just about every liquor store in the Philadelphia region and are also featured on cocktail menus in several Philadelphia restaurants.
Ethan Blades, a part-time sales associate at Art in the Age, said their spirits have become a hit in Philadelphia restaurants and bars. Tourists or passers-by often stop in due to word of mouth or mere curiosity, he said.
“I think the people in the restaurant business are pretty familiar with us at this point,” Blades said. “I think we get some newer restaurant people that come in and try it for the first time [in the store]. But I think we’re mostly appealing to people that are in town. Old City has some historical attractions. People then come in and try the spirits and it’s a little bit new for them.”
The spirits are distilled in downtown Los Angeles at the Greenbar Distillery. They are all classified as “cordials” in Pennsylvania state liquor stores, and are typically consumed in cocktail-form.
“Root is the one that most people would drink straight or over ice,” Blades said. “Other than that, I think our Sage, Rhubarb and Snap mix better.”
Aside from the liquor bottles lying around, Art in the Age also features men’s and women’s apparel, as well as other odds and ends ranging from books to shaving cream. The object of the gallery is to stock as many American-made items as possible.
“We source our vendors from various shows and friends we’ve had a relationship for awhile with,” Myaing said.
Despite this, the gallery takes up a tiny portion of the store and many customers shop at Art in the Age for another purpose. Considering the state law, they aren’t stopping by to get a buzz on, either.
Instead, the majority of in-store sales comes from its Warby Parker collection, an internet-based prescription glasses company which has its headquarters in New York.
It is quickly becoming a household name in the eyewear industry, to the point where Myaing said at least 50 percent of Art in the Age’s sales comes from its Warby Parker showcase. Aside from Philadelphia, the only other Warby Parker locations on the East Coast are New York City, Boston and Richmond.
Geoff KixMiller, a Warby Parker employee who works at the showcase in Art of the Age, said the popularity surrounding the company stems from many elements.
“I think there are a lot of reasons Warby Parker has really grown in popularity the last few years,” KixMiller said. “One of them is obviously that they work real hard in making sure their model is affordable for everyone. Another really great element is we have a real social emphasis where we actually help to distribute frames around the world to countries that don’t have access to quality prescription eyewear. We also have a real commitment to making innovative styles that are really wearable.”
Founded just six years ago, Art in the Age has surely made its mark on not only Old City, but on all of Philadelphia’s restaurants, bars and trendy glassware bargain hunters alike.
In fact, plans to expand and share its Philadelphia-based spirits – certainly the heart and soul of Art in the Age – with other parts of the country have already begun.
“We have a sister store in New Hampshire called Tamworth Lyceum,” Myaing said. “They sell local groceries, beer and wine. And we’re building a distillery right next door, so we’ll be producing small-batch Arts in the Age spirits there, as well as some other whiskeys and vodkas.”
– Text, images and video by Tyler Sablich