The Sundance collection
Art created for the independent bookstore is moved, carefully, to its new home
Teddy Swecker still remembers when she wrote her name on the bathroom wall at Sundance Bookstore.
Swecker, who lives in Winnemucca, is a published author of children’s books (Ducks Ducks, Under Open Skies, The Trolls in the Tree). In the late 1990s, she was in Reno for a Sundance book signing with fellow children’s author Joyce Rossi (The Gullywasher, Winker, Buttercup and Blue). At some point, Rossi was in the bathroom.
“She yelled at me, ‘Teddy! Look!’ And I ran in,” Swecker said.
What excited Rossi was the walls of the bathroom. A wraparound mural had been painted on all four walls of the room. It depicted a long winding line of bookspines with dozens of titles on them, the line winding among paintings of several open books—Anne of Green Gables, Goodnight Moon, Green Eggs and Ham, Island of the Blue Dolphins, Little Prince. Swecker found two of her own titles and signed her name next to them. Rossi did the same. Authors Ann Herbert Scott (Someday Rider, Cowboy Country) and Virginia Castleman (Mommi Watta/Spirit of the River, illustrated by Swecker) have also signed the wall.
The bathroom walls are not the only art featured at Sundance. In the 26 years the store has been in Reno, its owners have encouraged employees to express themselves in the store with art. There is now a fair-sized collection of their works at the store—perhaps a dozen pieces. Most of them have been displayed between the top of book racks and the ceiling.
Sundance Bookstore is changing locations from West Fourth Street to the northwest corner of California Avenue and Sierra Street, in a building, the Levy Mansion, owned by the Nevada Museum of Art. The museum, which has no other plans to use the mansion that has previously been a law office and a day spa, approached Sundance about relocating. The move was made over Memorial Day weekend. It’s a rare instance of a merchant moving closer to downtown and should be heartening to city leaders.
To the other challenges of the move is added the task of coping with the art collection.
“We’re going to be losing a lot of our infrastructure here at the store,” said Sundance co-owner Dan Earl. “We’ve got a lot of paintings that our former employees have decorated our store with, including some of our displays and in the bathroom.”
Most of the pieces are easy enough to move by taking them down from the walls and packing them carefully. But some of the works were painted in place. For instance, two pieces—by Andy Dicus and Paul Mellender—were painted directly onto the wooden base of a large wooden display case. The case is too large for use at the new location.
“But we are making an effort for the ones that are on our displays to actually cut them out so that we’ll try to figure out some way of displaying them on our new digs,” Earl said.
The Dicus and Mellender paintings are on the west and north sides of the display case base, and they meet at the corner, so cutting up the base without damaging the two pieces will be tricky.
The store has lost track of artist Andy Dicus, but he typifies what some employees say is the family atmosphere in the store.
“I like to say—it’s not true—but I like to say we put him through school,” Earl said of Dicus. “He was going to school up here [at the University of Nevada, Reno] and working with us on weekends and evenings and so forth. And he has since graduated, has gotten, I believe, a doctorate from Chicago. And we have several other employees that have made amazing paintings for us and they are around the store.”
Mellender’s small mural that adjoins Dicus’ piece on the display base is what he calls “classical illustrative” and features a number of fantasy scenes reminiscent of Arabian Nights.
Mellender, who is now a graphics designer at International Games Technology, has vivid memories of his seven years at the store. Besides the fantasy mural, he once did a black and white drawing of all the then-members of the staff in classical style.
“They wanted to put some illustrations, decorations around the store,” he said. “You know, just some exemplary things to attract the eye … We were all pretty close in the store there, and so we kind of wanted a group—a group something. And so I suggested a group portrait, that we would kind of put ourselves in, like a classical literary setting, like a symposium of sorts. And so we stuck everybody in the picture there.”
He said that the Sundance workplace lent itself to these projects. Not many merchants would turn to their workers for interior design, much less let them do it during working hours, but it was typical of Sundance.
“That was actually one of the nice parts of the job,” he said. “It was a fantastic boon because it was kind of making working hours easier. On a number of occasions Christine [Kelly, store co-owner] set time aside for us to work on projects like that.”
He said he got the impression that Kelly and Earl saw the locally created art as a subtle way of bonding customers to the store.
“The idea was that visual things like that lent themselves to an identification that didn’t hit you over the head, almost a subtle form of advertising.”
Mellender called the workplace “extremely comfortable, fairly informal,” and as a result the owners were able to draw him into the project at a time in his career when he turned off on art.
“At that point I was kind of laying low,” he said. “I have been doing art since I was a kid, and I always hated the art world. Kind of a conundrum. So one of the reasons that Sundance was so good and comfortable was that Dan and Christine wanted to have these things around. They wanted to impart culture without being pretentious. For me, trying to avoid the pretension of the art world, right then it was a good way of doing things.”
He said Kelly actually bought a couple of pieces from him for her own collection.
One piece of art that will remain behind when the bookstore moves is that wraparound mural on the bathroom walls.
Swecker said she will happily provide a new signature if the new store provides another such forum at the new location.
“Of course,” she said. “I love that place. That’s my favorite bookstore and I would love to do that.”