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CONTRA COSTA TIMES — Berkeley Voice

Posted on Fri, Oct. 04, 2002

The Right Frame of Mind
Loyal customers have made Channing Way store a success story

STAFF WRITER

As Joyce Barison turns onto Channing Way Sunday afternoon, a silk shawl in hand, her heart sinks. She noticed a sign that reads "Computers" in large print leaning into the street and worried that her favorite framing store had been replaced while she was away on vacation.

But after a few steps more Barison is relieved to find the Framers Workshop still at 2439 Channing Way, nestled at the southern end of the Sather Gate Mall as it has been for the last 25 years.

Barison is holding a silk prayer shawl she brought back from India, which she wants to frame as a gift for a friend. The shawl is a long turquoise-patterned piece that could easily stretch from ceiling to floor. To fit the fabric into to the 18-by-20-inch frame she holds in front of her, Barison plans to fold it.

But when Kirstie Bennett, founder and co-owner of the store, takes a look, Barison's plans quickly change. Examining the piece and the frame side by side, with the eye of someone who has done this thousands of times, Bennett suggests hemming the shawl.

"That way, you eliminate the folds behind the frame, and she gets to keep a part of the fabric for herself," Bennett says, picking up a silk mat she thinks might be a good backdrop for the piece.

Even though the personalized service at the owner-run shop sometimes means a longer wait for the finished product, loyal customers like Barison have been bringing their art to the Framer's Workshop -- one of the last remaining do-it-yourself frame shops in the Bay Area -- for as long as they can remember.

Bennett swears her personalized service and her role as owner-manager are reasons the shop has stayed in business this long.

"By the time the customer leaves the store, I know all about their life, where their kids go to school and what they do professionally," Bennett says.

From the ground up

In 1977 Bennett, fresh out of UC Berkeley, rented an empty space under the Sather Gate Garage, hired a friend to help her build a do-it-yourself frame shop from the ground up, and on a "wing and a prayer," opened the doors to 25 years of success. Not to mention that she found a husband -- Jeffrey Goldberg, Bennett's co-owner since 1978 -- among the first employees she hired.

Now, when do-it-yourself frame shops have all but disappeared, The Framer's Workshop is as busy as ever.

"Our customers come to us from all over the Bay Area," Goldberg said. "We offer them a place to design and complete their framing projects from start to finish. We do all the technical stuff -- the cutting and joining -- and we help them assemble their project on the spot."

Indeed, the Framer's Workshop not only offers generous work space, but it stocks more than 1,200 frame moldings and offers a complete selection of conservation materials.

"Our philosophy is, 'We make it right,'" Bennett says.

DIY challenges

Do-it-yourself framing businesses can be tough to manage because they require a larger inventory of framing material and a much larger staff than a custom-only shops, Bennett says. Many shops that once offered do-it-yourself framing dropped it in favor of offering only custom work.

Instead, The Framer's Workshop increased its selection of do-it-yourself materials, staffed the store for seven-day-a-week service, and built a mezzanine-level custom workshop where two full-time custom framers do specialty work. They also added corporate on-site framing.

Both Bennett and Goldberg go out to business clients to design, deliver, and hang corporate art work. Their clients include Bank of America, Children's Hospital Oakland and Blue Cross of California.

"We have made this shop work because we are a small, one-location family business that we run hands on with framers we hire for both personality and skill," Bennett said. "Unlike other shops that have tried do-it-yourself and failed, we never lost sight of our original objective: to offer top-quality do-it-yourself and custom framing ... at competitive prices."

Bucking the business climate

To run a successful business in these times is no small feat, according to Kathy Berger, executive director of the Telegraph Area Association. It takes perseverance, a good product and customer dedication, Berger said.

"I think Telegraph-area businesses, like businesses all over the Bay Area, have been hard-hit by the economy and by the fall of the dot-com industry," Berger said. "Businesses have closed because they can't afford to pay the rents and can't rely on a steady flow of customers."

Bennett and Goldberg considered leaving only once in the last 25 years, when their front doors were closed for 18 months while the Sather Gate Garage was being renovated. But their scores of loyal customers, who include both individuals like Barison and institutions like the university, convinced them that pushing through hard times would be worth the struggle.

"We would have lost so many years of regular traffic," Bennett says, as one of the shop's regulars meanders in and hands them a CD he has brought to listen to while he works. Without a word Goldberg puts the CD in the player and presses play.

"After 25 years, I love this business more than ever," says Bennett. "I never tire of it because I meet new people every day and I get to work creatively on an amazing variety of art. The public just love to get involved in the craft; they come for the hands-on experience."

Just last week the shop framed a violin, helped a student choose a mat for a small project for his dorm room and helped an elderly man frame a photo of his wife. At the same time, an impressive list of famous artwork has passed through Bennett's and Goldberg's hands, including a Marc Chagall lithograph, Salvador Dali prints, prayer shawls, spears and intricate needlework from around the world.

Where do Bennett and Goldberg plan to go from here?

"For us this is lifetime work," Bennett says. "Our motto still holds true: Satisfaction is a job well done."


Michal Lando can be reached at 510-339-4506 or at mlando@cctimes.com