The defiant one

The Brooklyn Paper
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Simon Liu has made a name for himself by producing high-end stretchers — the wood frames upon which painting canvases are stretched — for world-renowned painters.

This week he expanded the scope of his business, which he has operated out of a warehouse at 645 Dean St. for 20 years, and opened it to the public as an artist’s supply store as well.

“I started thinking about doing an art store two years ago,” Liu said at the opening party Saturday, as he saw an increasing number of working artists settling in the largely warehouse- and industrial-end of Prospect Heights, where his company is situated.

Liu busily shook hands and greeted longtime customers while shoppers, new and old, milled around eyeing the wares and the new space.

Some artists filled paper bags with carefully selected oil paints, blenders and brushes, while others eyed the discounted prices on pre-made stretchers that were neatly piled on risers in the center of another room, a veritable art display of their own.

And while Liu did his best to poke his head around the room, whether he was nearby or not, discussions among locals often turned toward one particular topic — whether or not Liu’s store would even be standing two years from now, and if it was, who would be left to shop there.

When developer Bruce Ratner presented designs last year for his Atlantic Yards arena-housing-office complex, Liu’s two-story warehouse and office building between Vanderbuilt and Carlton avenues was nowhere in the design. The shop that’s been his 20-year livelihood, along with all of the north side of Dean Street, had been replaced with housing on Ratner’s canvas.

So Liu’s expansion this week gave the artisan the air of a maverick.

Peter Krashes, a painter who lives across Dean Street from the shop, called Liu’s choice to expand anyway a good one.

“I think he just made a decision to keep his life moving,” said Krashes, who recently started a Dean Street Block Association to create a collective voice for speaking out about Ratner’s plans.

“On this block alone I would guess there are 30 artists, so this street alone is a great location for an art supply store. He’s right in the center of a growing community of working artists,” he said.

Krashes thinks most artists probably do their supply shopping in Manhattan, as he does, because while there are some supply shops in Williamsburg, “there are none in this part of Brooklyn that I know of. It’s a great location in Brooklyn,” he said, pointing out the nearby subway stations at Atlantic Avenue.

And with the heavily discounted art supply prices — Liu’s bread and butter will always be his high-end stretchers — Krashes thinks Manhattan artists would even think it a worthwhile trip to come and buy in Brooklyn.

Jo Watanabe and his wife, Sachi Cho, over brie and burgundy at the opening party, discussed how they learned via e-mail last week that their absentee landlord, who lives in Arizona, sold the building at 644 Pacific St. where their print shop and home is located, to Ratner right out from under them.

“I have a feeling that the sports arena will never happen,” said Watanabe, who has lived in the area for almost 14 years, and owned his printmaking shop for 10. He offered his predictions to a conversing circle of local residents.

“Possibly condominiums, and yes, residential, but the sports arena? Never,” he prophesied.

Cho disagreed, saying the basketball arena will happen, even if just so the developer, who bought the New Jersey Nets basketball team over the summer, could maintain his pride.

“He will not make so much money himself,” she said, “but at least he would be saving face.”

Watanabe agreed, saying some people cared more about their ego than the money.

“See, my problem is, I don’t own any property in my life. This,” he said, cracking a smile, “this is my problem.”

Updated 4:00 pm, November 10, 2010
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