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Candy Store for the Creative

Walking through an art store brings back memories of my hometown's sweets shop, with tubs of ice cream in a kaleidoscope of colors and large glass jars of candy stretching in a rainbow along the shelves. As I roam through the range of writing implements, paints, and papers, I want to touch and try everything in the store. San Francisco doesn't lack for places to satisfy these creative cravings, but Flax art & design is one of the best places to indulge your artistic appetite.

Though better known for its catalog, Flax has a retail location on the corner of Market and Valencia streets. It's hard not to miss Flax art & design, with its mammoth hardwood art mannequins that climb out of the store walls, ready to make their creative mark upon the city. Within this store's spacious surroundings, you'll be able to locate what you need among the over 45,000 items, from acrylic paints to sheets of patterned paper inspired by zebra fur.

You'd be surprised to find that despite its immense size, Flax is still a mom and pop store. Independently owned and operated by the Flax family since 1938, they moved the store to its Market Street location in 1981. Second-generation owner Philip Flax continues to travel all over the world to procure one-of-a-kind items that you won't discover in any other art store.

If you're not sure what you are looking for, the staff at the information booth found directly near the front door can point you in the right direction. Conveniently, the sections of the store, such as paper, pads, markers, etc., are marked clearly with metal signposts. Each section is staffed by polite and experienced employees, available to answer any questions you may have.

The front room contains high-quality pens, portfolios, markers, charcoals and journals in all colors and sizes. For example, you can pick up a sassy softcover notebook in flavorful hues such as "mandarine" or "blaubeere" for $11.95, a beaded and shell-covered book in lime green for $9.95, or my personal favorite, the classic black moleskin favored by writers and artists of the past century for $18.95.

If you're looking for a bargain, there's a clearance room in a hidden nook near the journals, full of discontinued and slightly worn inventory. For the classically trained artist, there's a fine arts room, stocked with paints, clay, brushes, and more.

As you walk into the back room on the right, the ceiling opens up to reveal large skylights and metal support beams, with walls of exposed concrete, and cashier stations paneled with corrugated metal. Situated here is a children's art station, where you can encourage your youngster's craftiness with kid-friendly products, including a spray art airbrush pen for $10.95 and a learn-to-knit kit for $26.00. There's also a play table with toys and art supplies for the children to test out and keep them occupied while their parents browse.

Immediately after the kid's area, you'll come across their stationary section. Flax has an in-house printing service for invitations, announcements, programs, etc. Paper is sold by the pound, as are envelopes. There are also boxes of note cards, like the little sweet box of eight gift cards with bees on the front I found near the cashier for $10.50. You'll also discover unique envelopes for truly special occasions such as the elegant white rose covered fabric one for $2.64.

Flax has a spot where you can frame your two-dimensional artwork. In addition to their framing service, there is an array of frames and matting to choose from. Check out the Bedford Downing Frame for $42.80, where your photo will appear to float within the glass mounting.

My favorite room is the paper room. The range of textures and colors will blow your mind. Flax carries basics such as double-sided acid free paper, perfect for pastels for $1.80 a sheet, to the imaginative, thinly sliced cork for $12.95, or embroidered flowers on paper for $10.00. A great deal is the Flax paper pack, containing squares of mixed paper suitable for origami, decoupage, collage, or whatever you can think of for $7.95 a pack.

In addition to various supplies, Flax also holds classes, free arts and crafts demonstrations, exhibits and sales events. Ask at the information booth or check online for details. An unlikely bonus and rarity in this city is that there is actually free parking right in front of the store, with additional parking in the back.

It would be hard not to feel creatively inspired walking through Flax; every aisle sparks an impulse to express yourself artistically. If it doesn't, I don't know what would.