Emily Russell

Owner, The Frame Shop

The Frame Shop has been in business for many years. How has the business evolved, particularly since you took it over from your mother?

The Frame Shop has been in business in the same location in Ithaca since 1956. My mother was the fourth owner, taking over in 1988.

My mom made a lot of physical changes to the business. For example, the entryway used to be in the middle of the room, and she changed it to the side to make better use of our space. She also put an addition  off the back. We could still use more room, but she handled a lot of the physical components.

When I came in, I focused more on computerizing the business. They were still writing everything by hand, all the measurements. Technology has advanced since then. There are programs specifically for framing. So we now have something very specific to our industry, which made life a little easier for everybody. I also did a lot of equipment upgrading. Before, the mats were cut by hand. Now we have a computerized mat cutter. I also replaced the old-time press for dry mounting with a vacuum press.

The testimonials on your website speak for themselves. What keeps your customers coming back (some for decades)?

We have really good customers. Ithaca really loves their local small businesses, and people are naturally supportive. At one point, we had three big box stores in town that did framing, and now there’s only one left. I do think the community tries to support us as much as they can, which is great. We’ve been here for 66 years, so we have a really strong reputation in town. I like to think if somebody were to stop someone on the street and ask, “where do I get something framed,” I would bet almost anybody would say “The Frame Shop,” because we have more recognition than anybody else.

Our customers trust us. They know that we know what we’re doing. They’re not fearful when they leave something with us. They know we care about their piece. Also, no one I employ feels like this is just a job. They love art, and they’re respectful not just of the artwork that’s in front of them, but of the process. I think customers know that about us. I have a low employee turnover, so when people come back, they see the same faces. That makes them feel good.

Tell us about the historic building that houses The Frame Shop. 

The building was built in the late 1800s. We’re pretty sure there was a shoe store in there in the early 1900s. Then it was a grocery store, and at some point, it became The Frame Shop. I love it because it’s in a residential area, which makes us unique. I see people sometimes driving by and doing a double-take because they don’t expect to see a little business in a residential area.

What is something we might not know about the art of framing? 

I would say the biggest thing is how much time it takes. It is such a labor-intensive process, which is why it can be expensive.

A friend and customer recently came in with a huge photo of her grandfather and JFK. The photo had just been tacked to the wall at her family’s business, but she wanted to frame it. We sent her pictures of the framing process so they could put it in a slide show. After she saw the slide show, she said, “I had no idea. I just thought you put a frame on it.” The fact is that things need to be measured, supplies need to be ordered, frames have to be built and joined, plexiglass has to be cut, acid-free foam has to be cut and everything has to be assembled. People don’t realize the attention to detail.

How do you protect the art you frame? 

Everything we use, like mat boards and foam backing, is acid-free, and we typically use a conservation quality glass. That’s what we recommend. But some people just like regular glass to keep costs down, which is fine. We try to offer options and work within what they want.

We have learned the best conservation practices, and that’s what we follow. If we get something that was framed in the ’70s or ’80s, it will have cardboard backing, and that might be leaching into the artwork. We’ve learned that you don’t want to put glass directly on a photo, because if it gets in the right humidity, it will pull the emulsion off. That’s why we put spacers between the glass and the art, or a mat, to keep that from happening.

What is the most surprising or interesting piece you’ve worked on?

There are so many, but opening something up and finding artwork behind it is always a fun one. Sometimes you can find something that’s better than what the customer had originally wanted to frame.

We’ve also framed some things of value, which is a really neat thing. We’ve done Warhols, we’ve done Calders, we’ve done original Audubons. It can be a little nerve-wracking, but very exciting to have your hands on something original like that.

Sometimes people bring artwork in and there’s a family component to it. I had a woman bring a piece in that was in her husband’s family, and she wanted to reframe it. It was a neat old wood block print. When she left, I googled it, and there was this whole history. Freud had collected this artist. She didn’t know any of this, so it was really fun to be able to share that with her.

Do you have an artistic background? 

I would say almost all my employees do, but I’m more of a businessperson than an artist. I would consider myself a photographer, though. That’s always been my passion. I appreciate a good photo when I see it.

When I came into the business, I didn’t know if I had the ability to do this kind of work, to help somebody, but I learned quickly that I do have an eye for it. You have to be able to have something in front of you and figure out what colors work, and I do have that skill. In that way, I feel like I have a little bit of artistic ability.

What is your favorite type of art to frame? Is there anything that is particularly challenging?

Part of what makes my business so interesting is that you literally see something different every day.

I think we all have our own kind of art we like. I totally gravitate towards oil paintings; that’s just kind of my genre. Some of my employees love modern illustrations or bright-colored things. But we all like when customers are adventurous. You can always do a black frame with a white mat, but we have a lot of really fun frames and enjoy when our customers go that direction.

Anything large is challenging. It seems like whenever somebody has something large, they want to float it, which means they want it to sit on top of the mat. It’s very time-consuming. Then there are pastels, which can be crazy, trying to keep all the dust off the mat. We’ve also had objects like fossils, which can be challenging because they are so fragile. “Okay, how do we do this?” It takes a lot of effort and research.

Tell us what The Frame Shop does other than framing. 

Pre-COVID, we did shows quite often. But we’re such a small space that I haven’t gotten back into that. And my wall space is now mostly examples for people to see, like a little mat, a big mat, this kind of glass or that kind of glass, what a spacer looks like. But I wouldn’t mind doing an employee show. Let them put some stuff on the wall for Christmas and see if they can sell anything. Everyone’s really talented, so it wou be fun to do that.


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