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Hanging on: St. Louis frame stores bustle during pandemic

Hanging on: St. Louis frame stores bustle during pandemic

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When David Mason of Ladue started working from home during the pandemic, all the projects he had shelved through the years were suddenly gnawing at him. There were family photographs that needed updating, travel souvenirs gathering dust and sports memorabilia just waiting to be admired by fellow fans.

“I had the opportunity to explore my own home and storage space,” said Mason, an architect. “You just have time to notice stuff you haven’t gotten done.”

Then he found a solution to the clutter: Frame it.

The custom frame business has seen an uptick in business, with people bringing in several pieces of their craftwork to frame. Video by Hillary Levin

Customers like Mason flocked to framing stores after last spring’s shutdown, with arms full of long-neglected artwork, old photos and freshly finished needlepoints and puzzles. The same stay-at-home malaise that fueled a surge in house remodeling and backyard makeovers also propped up framing stores, which had endured declining sales since the Great Recession.

The initial rush slowed only somewhat last fall. Money that wasn’t spent on vacations could go toward ornate frames for exhibiting collections of rock ‘n’ roll posters or modernist prints. New work clothes were no longer necessary. Instead, backdrops of framed degrees and certifications transformed guest bedrooms into more respectable home offices for Zoom meetings.

It was a welcome boost for local framers. Amazon, chain hobby stores like Michaels, and the preference for social-media albums over printed-and-framed photographs have decimated independent framing stores. In 2008, there were about 35,000 small frame shops in the United States. Last year, there were a little more than 5,000.

Millennials don’t frame as much as their parents, said Kim Good, owner of The Artery Custom Framing in Olivette, who helped Mason pick frames for his mementos. “They hang the stuff they buy at Target. The wall stickers are really popular that say things like ‘Live, Laugh, Love.’”

But since the beginning of the pandemic, sentimental and handmade keepsakes have been pouring into the Artery. Good, who started framing in college for “beer money,” has owned her shop since 1993. She saw a similar boost after Sept. 11. People were hunkering down at home. The fourth quarter of 2001 was her busiest ever.

Last June and July broke into her top five in monthly sales. She set up an appointment system for her shop, so the small space wouldn’t become overcrowded, and installed a remote-control light to let people know when to come in from the parking lot.

Good was cutting frames, mats and glass as fast as she could measure them. Customers who used to bring one or two treasures to be framed started lugging in eight or nine at a time: collages, graduation programs, seashells brought back from the beach, and piles and piles of embroideries and cross-stitch.

“People were cranking out needle art,” Good said.

Linda Sher of Creve Coeur is an avid stitcher. She usually finishes 10 canvases a year, but almost tripled her output in 2020. Each piece represents dozens of hours of intricate effort; her favorites garner a place of honor above the couch.

“You can’t get them framed with just a regular frame,” Sher said. “Kim does a great job. I really trust her with my needlepoint.”

Julie Campbell, owner of Webster Art and Picture Framing, has carved out a niche preserving archival work since she opened in Webster Groves in 1999. The former art major was tapped by the New Masonic Temple in St. Louis to build frames for their antique murals.

“You frame things to keep them around a long time,” said Campbell.

But during the pandemic, she’s seen everything. Blues jerseys commemorating the team’s Stanley Cup win. Bobblehead collections. Paint-by-numbers.

“Everything that people bring in with them is very important to them,” Campbell said.

Most of her sales come from repeat customers — one woman reframed all the pictures in her house in brushed nickel after she moved — but now Campbell meets new clients every day. Her business has doubled.

“It’s the customer service people want,” she said. “Amazon cannot offer that kind of attention.”

Matt Pruyn repainted his Shrewsbury home during the pandemic. That spurred him to finally get around to hanging some artwork, a 3D-style painting and a geometric print, to play off the slate gray and soft tangerine walls in his living room. Campbell helped him pick mats and frames.

“It’s helpful to have some perspective,” Pruyn said. “She says, ‘Let’s try it like this and see if you like it.’”

The influx in demand for framing has been accompanied by a tangled supply chain. Some overseas wholesalers are six months behind on orders. At one point, Campbell rented a van and drove to Kansas City herself to pick up glass.

“I had to get really creative with my materials,” she said.

Ty Norton, co-owner of Norton’s Fine Art and Framing in Maplewood, has always gotten what he orders — eventually. His turnaround time, normally about two weeks, is now closer to a month.

Business was crazy after the quarantine ended, then settled down, and got crazy again before the holidays, he said. “I’m hoping this year has fewer peaks and valleys.”

Norton has been working at the shop, opened by his grandparents in 1949, for a quarter century. His favorite part is hearing his customer’s stories and playing a role in preserving what they love.

Besides artwork, items with historical or emotional significance often come through his doors. He has framed land deeds from the mid-18th century, prayer flags from Japan, even a bullet extracted from a Civil War veteran, which was displayed with details of the deadly battle.

The pieces that Bob Kaley took to Norton’s were more orthodox. He’s been collecting Charley Harper prints of birds and nature scenes for years but had run out of room for them in his west St. Louis County house.

After he had to cancel his vacation plans last year, Kaley bought a second home at Innsbrook. It came with an unexpected side benefit.

“I got a few more walls to decorate,” he said.

NEIGHBORHOOD ANCHORS: The small businesses along America's Main Streets are vital to their neighborhoods, and St. Louis regional leaders hope to help those firms recover from the pandemic. David Nicklaus and Jim Gallagher are hopeful that the effort will succeed, but say it will require some funding.

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