Her earliest memories of Mendelson’s Liquidation Outlet date back to childhood.
“I went with my dad, who loved to go down there to find parts,” remembers Carol Rogers, an art teacher at Belmont High School. “He worked on cars and engines, and he could always find the tiny little part he needed at Mendelson’s.”
But it wasn’t until she took a 1988 workshop with Dayton artist Willis “Bing” Davis that Rogers realized Mendelson’s was also a gold mine of art materials. “Bing utilized all those fabulous materials in beautiful ways,” she recalls. “All of a sudden, a bolt wasn’t just a bolt; it became an embellishment or part of a piece of artwork.”
Rogers has been heading to Mendelson’s ever since, often with students in tow. Among her finds were mannequins from Rike’s department store that have been used in still-life arrangements over the years. “We’ve made everything from exquisite jewelry pieces to huge objects, most recently a gorgeous angel with a wire halo,” she says.
Rogers is one of many in the arts community — in Dayton and beyond — who will miss Mendelson’s when it closes its doors in August. The 545,000 square-foot complex — an eight-story outlet building and an adjoining property on First Street — have been sold to a Columbus-based development company for a little over $7 million and will be transformed into a multi-use facility.
What’s in there?
For those who’ve never been inside the buildings, they’re hard to describe. The store’s tagline is an apt one: “The first place to look for every last thing.”
Inventory comes from manufacturers worldwide who are liquidating excess inventory, seconds and returns.
The never-ending aisles on the first floor are jam-packed with surplus goods ranging from clothing and glassware and to beauty items and store fixtures — display cases, shelving, displays. The third-floor inventory has roots in the original government electronics supply store founded in 1960 by Harry Mendelson. It’s a Hamvention favorite, stocked with electronics, components, computer gear, industrial tooling, wire, cable and an occasional robot.
“One man’s junk is another man’s gold,” says Sandy Mendelson, president of the family-owned business. The main building is on the National Register of Historic Places. Built by Charles Kettering at the turn of the century, it was one of the first General Motors parts plants.
Fun for artists
Artist Jerri Stanard, founder and executive director of K12 Gallery & TEJAS in downtown Dayton, has always loved the fact that Mendelson’s is a family-owned business and says she’s is happy for Sandy Mendelson and his wife, Bonnie, for their next chapter and is eager to see how the buildings will be used. “The dream of what that huge building will become is so much fun to think about,” she says.
But as an artist, Stanard admits she’s sad to see the closing of what she labels the “creme-de-la-creme of off-the-wall supplies and materials,” a place where she could always find various items at her fingertips — all sizes of plastic pallets, odd pieces of metal, glass, large quantities of tissue paper, disposable gloves, display cases.
Yellow Springs sculptor Richard Lapedes has scoured Mendelson’s from top to bottom many times and says he often goes there just to see what forms and colors are part of the industrial pieces. Many of the pieces you’ll find pictured on his website (Lapedes.com) incorporate parts from Mendelson’s. “Several of my pieces have round bases that started life as big industrial grinding wheels,” Lapedes explains. “One of the pieces is about post-anthropocene life and is meant to be an electronic plant. So it has faux electronic parts to ‘control’ it that I got from Mendelson’s.”
Lapedes says his studio work tabletops were originally bowling lane floors from Mendelson’s that had been cut into ten-foot sections.
Other artists, including Barb Johnson of Lenoir City, Tenn., have found inspiration in Mendelson’s interior. “People always ask where my images come from,” says Johnson, who has created paintings from photos she’s taken at Mendelson’s.
Diane Fitch, professor emeritus of Painting and Drawing at Wright State University, now lives and paints in Vermont and says Mendelson’s is one of the most visually interesting places she has ever encountered. “The random juxtaposition of industrial machinery — their forms like chunky sculptures, huge spools of wire, furniture, and shelves of random machine parts — suggest compositions unique and dynamic,” she says. “The lighting on the upper floors is evocative: dark and grungy with overhead lights here-and-there, bringing to life machines of yellow, turquoise or red.”
Fitch says the Mendelson family generously allowed her to paint on the premises; you’ll see the result on her website (dianefitch.com, under “Earlier Series”). She was also encouraged to bring her Wright State art students there to paint and draw. “It was instructive for them to tackle organizing visually such complex situations,” she notes, adding that she will also miss Mendelson’s on a practical level: their supply of used plate glass has provided her and her students with painting palettes for years.”Such a sad day when Mendelson’s closes.”
A lifelong friendship
The friendship between Sandy Mendelson and Bing Davis dates back to the 1960s when Mendelson was a student at Colonel White High School, where Davis taught art. Years later, they became Linden Avenue neighbors when Mendelson’s was located next door to the Dayton Public School’s Living Arts Center, where Davis was art director.
“I gave him the idea of taking all this junk and making art out of it,” Mendelson remembers. “Bing could always think outside-the-box; he is a three-dimensional guy who could see the potential right away. He’s a genius!”
Davis says his friend has been a strong, silent supporter of art and artists for many years. He’s been given carte blanche at the store for decades and has also been underwritten by Mendelson for many teacher-and-student workshops abroad. “Almost any of the materials, equipment and supplies at Mendelson’s can be creatively used to make art,” says Davis, who has packed up boxes of Mendelson goodies for adornment jewelry-making workshops in Ghana, West Africa and Bermuda.
His favorite materials include electrical resistors, capacitors, nuts and bolts, coated and uncoated wire in various gauges, small and large motors for kinetic art, boxes of various sizes, sanding disks and metal rods.
“Once you start looking at an object via the principles and elements of art — line, shape, texture pattern — everything has potential beyond its original use,” insists Davis. “A shape used repeatedly becomes surface pattern and movement. The very activity of using recycled materials enhances the ability to ‘see’ beyond just looking. For example, a fishing line becomes hair.”
Mendelson says he wants to encourage young people to put aside screens, learn to work with their hands and let their minds wander. “Old is in right now,” he observes, “Young artists are scouting things that look dirty and old!”
A family business
K12’s Stanard says what she’ll miss most is the family business model that Sandy and his children have demonstrated over the years: lessons of loyalty, forgiveness, integrity. “There’s a lot to be said for all that,” she adds. “Sandy always had a lot of great ideas and, if you were a dreamer with him, you could see his ideas come to fruition.”
One of those dreams was to see downtown Dayton flourishing once more and to see his beloved buildings bursting with new life and energy. Looks like that one is on its way to becoming a reality.