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Article Last Updated: Sunday, December 01, 2002 - 10:43:03 AM MST

Bennett flourishes at do-it-yourself frame shop
By Alec Rosenberg - BUSINESS WRITER

BERKELEY - Kirstie Bennett flips through her scrapbook. She smiles and points to an old photo of an empty store. In 1977, fresh out of the University of California, Berkeley, she rented that vacant space just south of campus at 2439 Channing Way. She went to framing school, bought a book on how to run a business and opened The Framer's Workshop. She hasn't left. The store, now covered floor to ceiling with mouldings and framed art, is celebrating its 25th year. The business is profitable and busier than ever, with revenue topping $500,000 a year.

Under the Sather Gate Garage, in the shadow of Telegraph Avenue - a street known for its hippie flavor, funky stores and sidewalk vendors - The Framer's Workshop has carved a niche as the last do-it-yourself framing shop in Northern California.

``It's definitely a labor of love,'' said Bennett, 55, of El Cerrito. ``There are other ways to get rich quicker in the art field.''

Do-it-yourself shops are difficult to run because they require a large supply of in-stock framing. Keeping a tight inventory is key, Bennett said. With nine employees, the owner-operated Framer's Workshop also has a larger staff than a typical custom shop.

``You never know when you'll have six customers at once,'' Bennett said. ``We can't keep them waiting.''

Bennett has help from her family.

Her husband, Jeff Goldberg, is the store's co-owner. Their two children, Ian and Chelsea, also chip in.

Bennett met Goldberg at the shop just after she opened it. ``I hired him for $5 an hour,'' Bennett said. ``He knew more about picture framing than I did then.''

It was $4.25 an hour, Goldberg said.

Their recollections may differ, but the couple complement each other.

``She comes up with more ideas. She's more innovative,'' Goldberg said. ``I'm more in charge of day-to-day operations.''

Their son Ian, now a 20-year-old art history college student in Los Angeles, has helped out at the store since he was 13.

``I've grown up around the business,'' he said. ``It's nice to work around artwork. I like designing with customers. It's gratifying to see them happy with the finished product.''

Bennett was born in England. She came to the U.S. on the Queen Mary in 1952. She lived in Canada and then moved to Los Angeles, where she grew up.

Her father traveled a lot, as he worked in the service department for Rolls-Royce and then for Volvo's Western region. Her late mother was an executive secretary for a wealthy family in Bel Air.

``I'm a lot like my mother,'' Bennett said. ``I had a chance to see someone of enduring presence running her life in an efficient and charming way.''

Bennett earned a bachelor's degree from UCLA with a major in English and minor in art history. ``That certainly provoked a real interest in art, which carried through into the business.'' She received a teaching credential from UC-Berkeley and worked as a substitute teacher with a small publishing business on the side.

``I enjoyed teaching,'' Bennett said. ``I think I had more of a head for business.''

She sold her publishing business and borrowed money from her parents to start The Framer's Workshop, Berkeley's second do-it-yourself framing shop.

``I thought this would be a nice little business to run,'' Bennett said. ``Little did I know it would become a thriving business 25 years later.''

Bennett has meticulously arranged the main floor of The Framer's Workshop. Hundreds of framing samples are stacked on the walls. The center is lined with a row of work tables for do-it-yourself customers.

The mezzanine level is for custom framing. A catch-all, open-door office is in the back. ``Chaos,'' Bennett said. The office is a mess, except for the back wall, which is decorated with framed newspaper ads, carrying tag lines such as ``a perfect way to spend a rainy afternoon.'' Framing helps both to preserve the art and enhance it, Bennett said. ``It gets on the wall and it makes it look stunning.''

Helping to assemble their own frames, customers can save $25 to $30 on each piece. But doing it yourself doesn't mean you are on your own. Bennett and her handy staff help customers through the design process. They offer tips in selecting from more than 2,000 samples and do the technical side such as cutting and joining.

``We guide them all the way,'' Bennett said.

The Framer's Workshop has many longtime customers, such as Catharine Ahr of Lafayette. She came into the store on a recent Friday for framed portraits of her three children. She likes the quick turnaround, competitive prices and hands-on participation.

``The staff is very knowledgeable. They lead you step by step. There's a sense of pride when the frame is finished because you feel you've had a hand in making if feel more beautiful,'' Ahr said.

The Framer's Workshop offers custom framing for more complicated projects and for those who don't want to do it themselves. Today, about half of its business is do it yourself and half is custom framing, corporate work and special orders.

``We've framed Chagalls and Picassos,'' Bennett said, ``and all sorts of valuable and unusual pieces'' from a violin to a Cal band cape to African art.

Do-it-yourself framing shops peaked in the early 1980s, when the area had more than 20, Bennett said. But The Framer's Workshop became the last of its kind locally about five years ago, as the other shops converted to custom framing or went out of business, she said.

The Framer's Workshop's core customers are from the East Bay, including UC-Berkeley. The shop has started e-mail specials, upgraded its Web site and added on-site corporate framing services to broaden its base.

Berkeley is a good place for a framing shop, Bennett said.

``You have a large percentage of very well-educated and talented people who have all sorts of interesting art to frame,'' she said.

It helps being near Telegraph Avenue, which over the years has added chain stores but still has a variety of independent shops and street vendors, she said.

``We welcome the street vendors,'' Bennett said. ``I think they bring a vitality to the area that you might not have otherwise.''

The Framer's Workshop shares in that vitality.

``We're going to run it 'til we retire,'' Bennett said. ``This is lifetime work.''

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