It’s reckoning time for Seattle’s last, full-fledged poster shop.
For 44 years, Innervisions, with its wall-to-wall displays of everything from Richard Avedon’s psychedelic 1967 Beatles posters to a restored print of the 1891 map of Seattle, has been a stalwart on the Ave.
But Steve Delph is 72. His wife, Anne Delph, is 68. And the pandemic shut their store down for three months.
That’s on top of what’s upended pretty much all brick-and-mortar businesses. There is still joy for many in thumbing through merchandise for a true find, and seeing for yourself that it’s on high-quality paper stock and printing.
These days, though, lots settle for clicking through a website. Type “posters” in an Amazon search and it comes back with more than 100,000 hits.
“Looks like we’re not going to survive,” says Anne. They’re sitting on an inventory of 80,000 posters.
The couple just reopened the shop June 27, and must limit the number of customers inside to a handful.
The University of Washington students who would wander in are gone with the school shutdown.
The annual University District Streetfair in May was postponed until 2021. It used to bring a lot of customers.
Fearing vandalism because of recent protests, their sidewalk windows are boarded up.
They also do picture framing at the shop; its full name is Innervisions Posters & Framing.
Each night they take that work home with them in case of a break-in. Some material they frame isn’t anything collectible. But, says Anne, an old family photo is valuable to the person who brought it in.
If you attended the University of Washington, or were among the high school or college kids who over four decades made a trek to the Ave, you know Innervisions at 4548 University Way N. E.
This is where you bought that “2001: A Space Odyssey” poster (1968). Or the one showing Tupac and Snoop Dog in suits (1996). Or Farrah Fawcett in that swimsuit (1976, more than 12 million copies sold worldwide). Or the legendary Soundgarden and Pearl Jam poster for a show in Houston (1992).
Or more recently, Chance the Rapper, Beyonce and, of course, such perennial sellers as the “Rocky Horror Show” or Miles Davis’ “Bitches Brew.”
Warner Munro, of Portland, first stopped at the store in the mid-1990s when he drove up one night to watch a rock band playing at a club in the U District.
“I looked in their window and saw this Grateful Dead poster,” he says. “If you’re a collector, if you see an original, you know right away it’s not a $5 knockoff.”
Munro called Innervisions the next day and Steve answered.
“He was incredibly knowledgeable about posters. I had to come in and meet him. We became fast friends,” he says.
Over the years, Munro has bought posters at the shop to add to his collection of some 200. He’s had Innervisions do the framing on many of them.
“I have 50 of my favorite posters in my music room, invented before there was such a thing as a man cave room.” Munro looks pretty contented, posing for a photo inside it.
The shop opened in 1976. That was the year the Seattle Seahawks joined the NFL as an expansion team. The year the Ramones released their first album, and The Band played its classic “The Last Waltz.” And it was the year that Apple Computers, Inc., was founded.
“I’m old enough to remember that era, with stimulants and things. College kids took posters to their dorm rooms. They liked to look at pictures with intense visuals,” says Steve.
Ahh, intense visuals back then. So, uh, are you experienced? Have you ever been experienced?
Then and now, Steve says, high school and college kids turn to posters as a cheap way to decorate their rooms. Celebrities are always big, changing as the years change.
“Right now, it’s hip hop and rap,” he says. Although the 1971 “Andy Warhol’s Velvet Underground featuring Nico” album poster, with nine stacked red lips, is a perennial seller.
Steve says the college kids of yesteryear sometimes show up with their own teen kids. He takes pleasure in helping them find what they’re looking for.
“You’re happy to give it to them, they’re happy they got it,” he says.
Steve says he didn’t collect posters when he was a teenager. It was baseball cards, eventually morphing into collecting those old apple and orange crate labels, with their bold, sunny colors. He was fascinated by their striking visuals, a fascination with visuals that carries to this day.
Innervisions had a shaky start.
Before the poster shop, Steve was a founder in 1972 of the original Cellophane Square in the U District. It was the revered used-record store that, with its pinball machines, became a hangout. It’s now closed.
After a few years, Delph sold his share of Cellophane Square and started up the poster shop. On the the Ave, he found a funeral-home-turned-rental-space.
“I thought I could sell framed album covers. All through the ’70s, there were all these great album covers,” he remembers.
Customers thought otherwise.
That first year, his daily gross was $10. That’s $45 in today’s dollars, so not exactly a thriving business.
It didn’t help that the original shop was in the back of the building, out of view of passersby. Delph’s fortunes began changing when the landlord agreed to a display on the outside of the building.
Delph went with what sold: a poster of Fonzie, the leather-jacket-wearing Henry Winkler character in “Happy Days” that had a 10-year run beginning in 1974.
Steve met his future wife at the shop in 1978, when Anne stopped by to browse.
“I liked the way she looked. She looked cute,” he remembers. They began a long-term relationship, married and have a 32-year-old daughter.
Back when they met, Anne’s jobs had included being general manager of the famed Trattoria Mitchelli in Pioneer Square. By 1986, Anne was working at the shop full time.
Together, they’ve faced the internet. In the early 2000s, business began to drop off.
“We have people come into the store for a while, they look for the identifying code or something on the poster, and then hold their phone and order the poster online,” says Anne. “It’s not very pleasant.”
They had 11 employees in the 1980s. Now it’s just the two of them. Business is 25% less than in those peak years.
The couple has made adjustments. They are a third-party seller on Amazon, and they’re on eBay, but it’s the shop that carries the business.
Of their 80,000 posters, says Steve Delph, about half are originals that sell for $20 to $6,000. The reproductions go for $9 to $40. Some are kept in storage.
The Richard Avedon Beatles set is $4,000. The Delphs guess the total value of their poster stock at $1.5 million to $2 million.
Angelina Lippert, chief curator of the Poster House in New York City, the first museum dedicated to posters, says the shops that do well these days are the ones dealing in collectibles.
“Those dealing in vintage posters, their business is going through the roof,” she says. “They sell for hundreds of dollars if not thousands of dollars for a first run.”
A first run would be, for example, the first 100 printings. Number 101 doesn’t have so much value, she says.
Lippert says the history of posters is also the history of printing.
Before the 1860s, she says, “Everything was broadside,” a printing method that was text-based and drab.
“It required an audience to be literate, not something you could count on,” Lippert says.
That changed with the arrival of large-scale color lithography that allowed posters to be made cheaply and quickly.
“It was the color explosion. Suddenly, everywhere there was beautiful, printed color,” Lippert says. More technological advances in the next decades arrived, now with the common use of digital printing.
Reproductions of those early posters are still popular.
In a list of all-time best-sellers at the shop, the Delphs have Vincent van Gogh’s 1889 “Starry Night.” He painted it at the Saint-Paul asylum in southern France, where he convalesced.
Wrote van Gogh, “This morning I saw the countryside from my window a long time before sunrise, with nothing but the morning star, which looked very big.”
A seller with young college women is Le Baiser de l’Hotel de Ville (Kiss by the Town Hall), a black-and-white photo taken in Paris in 1950. It shows a young couple kissing in the street, described as one of history’s most romantic photographs. Take a hint, guys.
And so the Delphs have some decision making in the future.
They could liquidate the entire stock to somebody who’d presumably be interested. They could sell individual pieces on the web.
Or they could work with someone who’d take over the business.
“That’s a good question. I don’t know. They’d have to be like me, who loves the idea of visuals,” says Steve.
One possible plus of the business is that the Delphs say half of the income is from framing pictures. You wouldn’t need framing expertise, says Anne. In this economic climate, plenty of framers are looking for a job.
It’s going to be tough, says John Hanawalt, who with his wife, Amy Hanawalt, owns Old Seattle Paperwork in the Pike Place Market.
They reopened last week, and, says John, “Business is at 10 to 15% of what it would be normally.” He doesn’t know how long that can last.
His shop sells not only posters but vintage magazines, old newspapers and various paper collectibles.
“I sure sympathize with them,” he says.
Another shop that sells posters is Michael Maslan Vintage Posters and Photographs on University Street in downtown Seattle. Right now, he’s only open by appointment.
Maslan only deals in originals, and his inventory also includes photos and maps.
“It’s a tough game,” says Maslan. As for that younger type who’d want to take over a poster shop, “I don’t know how they’ll find someone,” he says.
If only that passionate individual would show up.
Says Anne Delph about the rewards, “We get this all the time: ‘We’re so happy you’re here.’ ”
44 years: Innervisions all-time best-selling posters
- Pink Floyd Back Catalog Music Album, 1997, includes a poster with six nude female models with the cover art of six Pink Floyd albums painted onto their backs. Their backs are shown as they sit at the edge of a pool.
- The Beatles’ “Abbey Road” poster, 1969, showing the group, with a barefoot Paul, walking single file on the street’s “zebra crossing.”
- Miles Davis’ 1970 surrealistic “Bitches Brew “album cover.
- Alphonse Mucha 1899 poster created for champagne producer Moet et Chandon. It shows a young woman wearing a dress and robe in the Byzantine style, holding a jeweled wine cup.
- Grateful Dead “Aoxomoxoa” poster for 1969 shows at the Avalon Ballroom in San Francisco. The meaningless title reads the same forward and backward.
- Le Baiser de l’Hotel de Ville (Kiss by the Town Hall), Paris, 1950, a black-and-white showing a young couple kissing in the street, described as “one of history’s most romantic photographs.”
- Vincent van Gogh’s 1889 “Starry Night.” He painted it at the Saint-Paul asylum in southern France, where he convalesced.
- Soundgarden and Pearl Jam poster for a 1992 show at The Unicorn in Houston.
- “2001: A Space Odyssey” 1968 movie poster.
- “Guernica,” the 1937 Picasso oil painting, showing in muted colors the barbarity and terror of war.
The opinions expressed in reader comments are those of the author only and do not reflect the opinions of The Seattle Times.