344-346 Commercial Street

 
Former Shop Therapy | Spank the Monkey

In January 2012, Shop Therapy and Spank the Monkey moved from this building to 286-288 Commercial Street. • Shop Therapy and the Spank the Monkey jewelry store are the latest of Ronald “Ronny” Hazel’s free-form, in-your-face retail enterprises. If it’s good taste you’re looking for … well, what the hell are you doing in Provincetown? While it’s true that the whole settlement sometimes seems on the verge of becoming a tasteful enclave, that’s only a contemporary phenomenon. Shop Therapy harkens to an older, endangered Ptown; sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll. There are certainly virtuous citizens who would say, “Good riddance,” but without Shop Therapy’s crude, rude vitality, Commercial Street might become too damn refined for its own good.

Not to say these two buildings haven’t had more discreet tenancies than they do now. In the 1920s, Myra Fisher operated the Tea Tray at No. 346.

Ed Wiener (±1918-1991), a celebrated silversmith and sculptor from New York, had a gallery in No. 344 from 1951 to 1965, where Spank the Monkey is now. His modernist polymorphs, starbursts and fish were certainly of their period. But they possessed “unusual clarity in contrast to the baroque exuberance and surrealistic fantasy of some of his contemporaries,” one art historian said. Louise Nevelson and Martha Graham were among his clients, and it’s easy to see the simple, bold forms of his jewelry complementing their striking affect. (“Ed Wiener, Designer Of Jewelry, Dies at 73,” The New York Times, 25 July 1991.) For a time around 1960, Wiener’s shop was part of a complex run by Nicky and Ray Wells known as Gallery Walk, which also included a painting gallery run by Eugene Gaynor and a gallery of portrait masks run by Lucille Mullaly.

In 1960, Molly Malone Cook (1925-2005) opened what would be a brief-lived but extraordinarily significant and groundbreaking artistic showcase at No. 344: VII Photographers Gallery. Which seven photographers? A who’s who of 20th century masters — Berenice Abbott, W. Eugene Smith, Eugène Atget and Arnold Newman, together with Nicholas Dean, Ken Heyman and Syl Labrot. They were soon joined by Harry Callahan, Minor White, Aaron Siskind, Edward Steichen and Ansel Adams, whose prints were selling for $35 at a 1964 exhibition here. Mary Oliver, Cook’s partner, described the VII Photographers Gallery in Our World:

Her ambition and her hope were great, as was her valor. At that time — almost 50 years ago now — photography was scarcely, or at best only by a few, regarded as an art. People bought paintings certainly but had not yet begun to purchase and cherish the photographs that now cost thousands of dollars, if one can find them.

She rallied her friends and made new friends among the photographers of those years. Edward Steichen said to her when she visited him to talk over her idea, “Are you crazy or rich?” to which she replied, “Well, I’m not rich.” Nevertheless he joined her enterprise. …

The Gallery’s final season was the summer of 1964. Many people had come to look and to admire, but not enough people bought photographs for the Gallery to be a viable way of life.

The next year, 1965, Ray Wells sold the property to Jay and Marilyn Starker. Five years later, the celebrated To Be Coffeehouse opened here. Raymond Elman shared the story of its early days with me in 2013:

The To Be Coffeehouse was located in one of the oldest houses in Provincetown. It was a beautiful little Tudor-style building, which eventually morphed into the hideous Shop Therapy.

The To Be was founded in 1970 by Conrad Malicoat and Ann Lord, Bill and Kyra Fitz, and Mike and Debbie Kahn, because there was nothing to do and nowhere to go in the winter. It was only open off-season — from early fall through late spring.

Raymond ElmanI expanded the menu and started running the To Be in 1972. I usually had around 80 volunteers at the beginning of the season, but by the end of the season there were a handful of people I could count on to help. The To Be was heated by a kerosene stove. One evening, a strong downdraft blew a fine film of greasy soot all over the entire restaurant. Rather than clean it, we closed the restaurant.

The To Be had tables and chairs, sofas, and a library. People were always making music and playing games. There were poetry readings and art exhibits. Needless to say, the To Be was crowded almost every night until 11:00 p.m., when people headed to Piggy’s to dance the rest of the night away.

We had periodic guest chefs on Sunday evenings, like Howard Mitchum (who once made a memorable osso buco) and Al Jaffee. I was the main chef (with a total lack of credentials). Entrees were 50 cents, soup was 25 cents, dessert was 15 cents, tea was a nickel and coffee was a dime.

Much of the kitchen equipment — like the gigantic sled-sized wok donated by Ciro Cozzi — went to the start-up of Café Edwige. The To Be was also an inspiration to Napi Van Derek, who was a frequent patron of the To Be. The To Be Coffeehouse Cookbook was serialized in The Provincetown Advocate, but never published as a book.

The property remained in the Starker family until 1977, when Philip Steven Saada purchased it. He soon turned around and sold it to Hazel (b 1948), a Brooklyn native who — according to his own brief autobiography on the Shop Therapy Web site — chose Viet Nam over jail time after a rumble on Kings Parkway. After leaving the service, the third-person account continues,

Ronny settled in P-town selling pouka shells by the seashore in an alley. The enterprise was named Adam’s Alley after his first son. By 1975 a roof had been built over the alley and it had become a full fledged store selling jewelry with free engraving. Ronny then expanded next door to become the Sunglass Center, selling sunglasses and scrimshaw. He had hit the big time.

In 1979, Ronny bought the building we know now as Shop Therapy. He then painted it purple and proceeded to shower it with glitter and called it Karisma and, later, the New Wave. Ronny travels the world over in search of truly unique and ultra-special objects to be collected and sold in the gallery of Shop Therapy.

He has created an atmosphere to stimulate the discerning shopper. To walk into any one of Ronny’s stores is to blanket yourself in pure shopping trauma. … The spectrum of merchandise ranges from bumper stickers and sunglasses, tye-die shirts galore, an extensive selection of jewelry crystals and artifacts — to the back room with its fine selection of pipes, water pipes and sex accessories.

The artist Robert “Bob” Gasoi was responsible for much of the facade of Shop Therapy, in which Hazel obviously delighted in thumbing his nose (that’s a polite way of putting it) at the Provincetown establishment. One of Gasoi’s panels from 1994, showing recognizable contemporary Provincetown figures on a life raft, is titled, “The Mecca of Scum Is Drowned in the Sea.” It’s interesting, however, to note that Gasoi’s imagining of the Queen of Hearts ordering the beheading of Alice, which appears on the east side of the building, is also the subject of a painting, “Off With Her Head,” that belongs to the town and hangs in the Public Library.

Joey Mars repainted the central bay of No. 346 in 2010. He was also responsible for the Shop Therapy Funkmobile Karaoke taxi in 2009. Pierre Riche, the sculptor of the two monumental figures in Hazel’s private outdoor gallery around his home at 4 Center Street, was responsible for the Spank the Monkey sign. I am less sure about the bona fides of the artist Ivan Tobitechakokoff, who was credited with the sign over the entryway that was replaced by the Joey Mars mural. For one thing, shouldn’t it be spelled Tobitechakokov? ¶ Updated 2013-12-30


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


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