Merwin’s Art Shop

Up in Frames

Merwin’s has a new frame, and it’s not one of the store’s customized specials.

It’s a chain link fence surrounding the construction site a few yards away from the famed local framing shop—a fortunately temporary distraction erected so workmen can remodel a couple of storefronts down the block to accommodate a new Panera Bread franchise.

Merwin’s is partly obscured by the work being done on the street, an ironic situation for a business that prides itself on clear and effective presentation. But, like its neighbors Ten Thousand Villages and Enson’s, the shop remains open, and unfazed. After nearly 80 years in business, it would take a lot to unnerve Merwin’s.

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Smilow Cancer Hospital at Yale-New Haven

The store was started in 1934 by Fred Merwin, who was later joined by his brother John. They ran the business for 30 years, selling it to Robert O. Muller in 1963. Robert’s son Rob took it over in ’82, and around five years ago Rob’s daughter Teah stepped up as manager. Teah’s dog, Holly, helps out, too.

A long, narrow, well-lit shop, if it weren’t for the work tables and samples of frame moldings all around the place, Merwin’s could be mistaken for a friendly community art gallery. Neighbors wander in to chat. Customers browse through the bins of prints and posters with care and appreciation for the beauty and rarity of the pieces. Merwin’s is cheery and accessible yet maintains seriously high aesthetic standards.

Merwin’s was a fixture on York Street for most of its existence, moving to its current Chapel Street location (formerly the home of Maxine’s Boutique, and before that Arnold’s Shoes) in 2006. “It took several months to get set up here,” Rob recalls. Now, the store is so comfortable you wouldn’t know it hadn’t always been here.

Many things about Merwin’s have remained steady for decades. The staff still writes out receipts by hand on paper forms, then files them in case they ever need to be referred to again. “Someone came in wanting to match a job we did for them in 2006,” Teah marvels, “and we just went to the 2006 file and found it.”

Their filing methods have not changed, and neither has Merwin’s mission: custom framing, plus an assortment of prints and other artworks which deserve such frames.

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Knights of Columbus Museum

The shop can be appreciated for its craftsmanship, and further admired for the distinctive art which hangs inside those well-made frames on its walls. Among the specialties of the Merwin’s collection: Japanese woodblock prints (a legacy of Rob’s father, whose own major collection of shin-hanga is now at the Smithsonian Institution), giant prints of the foreign edition of the Tintin graphic novels by Herge (and other wall-hangings ideal for children’s bedrooms), and what Rob Muller calls “unusual views of Yale and New Haven.” That proudly local category includes fascinating and colorful reproductions of neighborhood maps used by utility companies in the early 20th century, a wide variety of paintings and etchings depicting the city at various points in its 375-year history, and even the occasional photograph, though the Mullers’ hearts are more into pen and ink.

“We’re not a painting kind of place. Not a lot of photographs,” Rob Muller acknowledges. They’ll frame those things for you if you bring them in, of course, but the dedication to block prints, etchings and sketches gives the walls of Merwin’s an old-fashioned charm.

“A lot of people don’t realize we have amazing old prints of Yale,” Rob says. Many recent acquisitions came from the extensive collection of local history buff Richard Hegel, who died last year and was a longtime patron of Merwin’s. “This can be a real Yale history lesson.”

Rob and Teah (plus two part-time Merwin’s employees, plus Holly the dog) never know what might come in the door needing to be framed. They do know that whatever it is, they’ll be creating the frame expressly for that object. “Everything here is hand-done,” Teah says. “We cut all the frames. We keep tons of different moldings, and cut them ourselves. It’s a handcraft, really.”

Merwin’s doesn’t even offer prefabricated frames for sale. “Sometimes,” Teah continues, “a student might come in just wanting a cheap pre-made frame to hang something in their dorm room. We don’t carry those, but we’re happy to direct people to places that do.” When you walk into Merwin’s you quickly discover how deeply the Mullers care about the fine art of framing fine art.

Samia Elosta discovered Merwin’s shortly after moving to New Haven last August, and joined the shop’s staff in January. “It’s really a wonderful place to work,” she gushes. “And I love crafts. Is it fun here? Like you wouldn’t believe—music, joking…” Rob Muller says Merwin’s looks for employees with “a sense of color. We tend to hire people for their personalities. They need to be good with people.” Helping customers choose the proper frames for their cherished artworks is an important responsibility, which involves a number of smaller yet crucial decisions. You can see from the framed work on the shop walls that Merwin’s respects the framing needs of diverse works of art. For small, detailed prints, they’ve used mats (or even double-mats) to help center attention on the print. For large pop-art posters, they’ve eschewed mats and let the wild colorful pictures fill the frame.

“Right now,” Teah says, “I’m working on two ties from the Yale radio station.” The neckties have vintage WYBC insignia on them, and will be hinged with a bit of thread onto a silk mat board, then kept under glass. Merwin’s recently framed a signed Andy Warhol piece.

Merwin’s frames history.

Merwin’s Art Shop
1052 Chapel St, New Haven (map)
Mon-Fri 10am-6pm, Sat 10am-5pm
(203) 865-3721 |

Written and photographed by Christopher Arnott.

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