Mountain Character: George Sells and the art of the deal

Rick Carroll
The Aspen Times
Omnibus Gallery owner George Sells is closing his store in April after a three decade-plus run in Aspen.

When George Sells closes a deal on a vintage poster from his Omnibus Gallery, it’s like he’s bidding farewell to a longtime companion.

Sure, the money can be good. But as the purveyor of Omnibus Gallery, one of the last retailers of rare poster art, Sells has spent decades collecting and connecting emotionally with his relics.

“I get goose bumps when I sell a piece,” he said from his desk at the Hyman Avenue mall gallery. Next to him was a piece featuring Josephine Baker done by renowned French poster artist Paul Colin, whose work provided a springboard for the vocalist’s career. Sells said the piece could fetch anywhere between $150,000 and $200,000.

For sure, Omnibus Gallery isn’t for the shallow-pocketed or, as Sells said, “It’s not a poor man’s gallery.”

But, Sells said, “Money is not a criteria of good taste, but most people really have good taste. This stuff is all in the collective unconsciousness. This stuff has been around. You’ve digested it. You’ve chewed on it. You’ve sucked on it. You unconsciously know that it’s great s—.”

A self-described hedonist, Sells was a 1960s hippie and activist, opening one of the country’s first head shops in Chicago. But life in the Windy City became unsettling for him, so he moved to Aspen in 1969.

In April, Sells plans to close Omnibus after running it in several Aspen locations, his first being near the former Aspen Art Museum on the Roaring Fork River. There, he paid $1.76 a square foot.

His gallery overflows with rare posters dating back to the 19th century. Some of Sells’ most prized works hail from the 1880s to 1930s during the golden age of stone lithography. And on the top floor, you’re likely to encounter poster art featuring “James Bond,” “Star Wars” or “Jaws.” None are reproductions.

Sells claims that Omnibus “is the greatest graphic-arts gallery in the history of the world. And a lot of people in this town don’t know that. They don’t have a clue that this is the mother lode, and when this is done, the party is over. I don’t mean that as an ego trip. Someone who has written books on graphic arts said, ‘You have the best collection in the world.’ I looked at him in amazement. It took me awhile to accept that this is the mother lode.”

One of Aspen’s first acupuncturists, Sells’ wry sense of humor hits visitors before they even enter his gallery. The windows at its entrance have the “sale” signs that are ubiquitous in Aspen’s pedestrian malls. But they are accompanied by such witticisms as “35 years of anything is enough (including my ex-wife)” and “Retiring, buy-bye.”

He doesn’t keep normal retail hours, either, sometimes staying open until past 11 p.m.

“The idiocy of these places closing at 6 or 7 o’clock,” Sells said. “Closing at 6 is really nuts. People go to dinner, and after dinner their shopping again.”

Some of Sells’ clients are household names, ones he doesn’t want publicly divulged. He asks that all guests don’t touch the inventory, and he’ll chide the ones who do.

“The people who come in tend to be really nice,” he said. “The X Games kids are classy and very respectful. They read the signs, and they don’t start grabbing the stuff like the adults. It’s just bad manners. This place doesn’t have to be a morgue, and I can throw people out. And they don’t have to get my sense of humor.”

Sells, who opened Takah Sushi in 1981 with his then-wife Casey Coffman, said his looming retirement is chiefly because “I just don’t want to go to work anymore.” Ever since he put up his retirement sign in February, business has escalated, he said.

“I make good money, and I decided to put up the retirement sign and my business doubled,” he said.

When Omnibus does close, Sells will be left with piles of poster art, something he said “I’ll have to figure out. I’m not much for planning; I’m a collector.”

Sells, who has traveled the world in search of rare, vintage poster art, added, “I overbought. I’m just a poster junkie. I’m a collector by definition. Women shop; men collect. I’ve always been a collector. It’s in the DNA.”

Sells is building a house in Thailand but said the Aspen area remains an unrivaled place for him to live.

“There’s no better place on Earth,” he said, though noting the town’s edgy factor has deteriorated.

“The fun people have moved downvalley,” he said. “There isn’t the craziness there used to be. There were three or five bars every night filled with music, and the streets were filled with people.”