You are not lost
Chico newcomer opens out-of-the-way used bookstore and art gallery
The sign on the back wall reads: “You may be lost.”
There was a man in the center of the room, with paint cracked and dried on his hands, and a little dog named Robinson at my ankles barking over the noise of scratched vinyl playing in the background.
My eyes didn’t know where to land. They darted from the hundreds of books climbing the walls to the art scrawled onto cloth and piled high like forgotten laundry waiting to be folded.
It was intrigue over coffee that led me to the man with painted hands. Hours before this first encounter, during a meeting at that caffeine hub in a railroad car by the tracks, Empire Coffee, a friend casually mentioned that his friend Nick Lee was running a hole-in-the-wall store out in the west avenues with a knockout book collection called Under Western Eyes. Not only that, but Lee had also opened a crudely configured art house called the Half-Ass Gallery in the same Western-motifed complex. My interest turned to action, so we left the station for West Eighth Avenue to investigate these two somewhat off-the-grid stops.
In the midst of his vintage collection, Lee looked as if he was from a different time, clad in a modestly bent corduroy fedora adorned with remnants of a feather, covering his longish, dirty-blonde hair. Lee took his time with each of my questions, offering heartfelt responses: “You’re 22, you want to write novels, [that] sort of thing, so you know you also want to read everything there is to be read? So I started with a nice little collection of Henry Miller and the usual guys.”
Under Western Eyes isn’t so much about an entrepreneur starting a business, but rather about a man who is selling his possessions. Everything comes from Lee’s own thrift-store finds and other various purchases, starting with the books he has been collecting for years.
“They’re all hand-picked,” Lee explained as he pulled a random spine from a long, tight row of books, his palm spread flat against the cover.
It’s hard for Lee to let it go, and he carefully weighs whether something will be sold or become a piece of his collection. “To try to put some sort of monetary value is just impossible for me,” he said.
Instead of pursuing writing, Lee’s passion for books led him to another form of literary expression. Pulling diagrams and images from these old books, Lee screenprints them onto cloth—sometimes shirts, sometimes large pieces of material. They usually depict a vintage piece of classic American culture juxtaposed with bold, short statements.
“With writing there’s a good deal of competition, and I just felt like the stuff I was writing could sort of be manipulated onto cotton,” Lee said.
To make this a reality, Lee went out and bought the equipment from a screenprinting business.
“It sat in my garage for four months while I tried to figure out what I’d just done,” Lee laughed.
The 29-year-old spent much of his 20s bumming around the United States, everywhere from his home base of North Dakota to Hawaii. About a year ago, he heard rumor of a good-hearted valley town in Northern California, so he moved to Chico and opened his bookstore, and eventually his gallery.
The gallery is illuminated by a single fluorescent bar. Odds and ends litter the carpeted floor, and the crudely painted pastel walls are covered with Lee’s work—not just his prints, but also his paintings, a medium he took up for the first time last November. In three months, he’s already produced around 300 paintings. In fact, he’s already lined up his next 5,000, an ambitious series detailing vintage stamps.
Lee’s also been offering his screenprinted shirts for sale at Empire, and each month he opens the Half-Ass to Art First Saturday patrons. He also puts on live music performances at the bookstore.
It may seem like Lee is a man who thinks ahead, but in reality he improvises his eclectic life. In Chico, his even-paced investigating and openness have led him to his unique entrepreneurship and already endeared him to the local arts community.