Laidlaw Group Principal Cindy Laidlaw sits down with A Street Frames owner, Mark LeSaffre for a candid interview on how A Street Frames began and the direction of the company today.
Cindy: How did you get started in the picture framing business?
Mark: I more or less stumbled into it. My first 2 partners and I met at the Art Institute of Boston. After graduating from AIB, were all working at jobs that we were getting tired of and came up with the idea of framing art for artists to support ourselves as artists.
Cindy: Did you have any experience in professional framing?
Mark: No, none at all. One of us worked in a frame shop, one was a painter/carpenter and I worked at a restaurant as a waiter.
Cindy: Every business needs a little start-up money. How much did you start with?
Mark: We all chipped in $2,500. I got my portion from my grandparents.
Cindy: What was it like during the first couple of years?
Mark: We all needed to keep our other jobs so we could make ends meet, but we loved what we were doing. We started slow, and it took us well over a year before we were actually making a salary. I think it was $50 a week. We did something very smart though. We rented out an entire floor at 205 A Street. We divided the floor into a number of studios and we rented them out. We charged everyone a little more than what we were paying so we didn’t have any rent.
Cindy: Then what happened?
Mark: Well eventually I was able to give up one of my shifts at the restaurant. That was the real turning point. I weaned myself out of the restaurant business after about 3 years.
Cindy: Fast forward to today – A Street Frames is known for high quality frames that you custom mill, how did you get so good at it?
Mark: Practice. I’m the type of guy that doesn’t mind asking for direction. I asked a lot of questions and kept getting better. When we started, we had a neighbor who was a great woodworker and he helped us out. I remember the first time I attempted to route a profile on the shaper and I fed the stock in the wrong way.
Cindy: Ouch. Were you wounded (laugh)?
Mark: The stock flew out and my thumb went where the wood should have been. I visited the city’s emergency rooms regularly back then.
Cindy: Moldings are key to your business. Were you also making some of your own moldings when you started?
Mark: No, we had profiles milled for us and sometimes we modified them, like turning a flat basis cap molding into a round over. Back then when we had a molding milled, we would have the same profile made in 4 different species of wood and we had to make a 1000 ft. minimum to avoid a set-up charge. Money was very tight so we always wanted to avoid that cost but too often the 200 ft. of ash would get used up. We still had the other species but we realized that we had to make better decisions about the moldings.
Cindy: How do you do it now?
Mark: Now we use a 5 head molder, so the stock goes in one end and comes out a profile. I’m over simplifying the process, but that’s essentially what happens. We also grind our own knives so we can reproduce a molding a customer brings to us or modify existing profiles. The machine that grinds the knives is also used to sharpen them, so we always begin a run with sharp tools. All the stock comes in and is stored in board feet, and we have 11 or 12 different species of woods in various thicknesses, and upwards of 80 shapes, and that doesn’t include our welded steel line. Every frame is made to order.
Cindy: It’s impressive that every frame is made to order. When a customer orders a certain wood and shape, do you set up the machine to mill just that frame?
Mark: Yes, that’s why I chose the molder we use, its set-up time is faster than all the others. It’s an Italian machine called SCMI. My shaper, wide belt sander, and thickness planer are also SCMI. There are certain moldings we use all the time, frames we make for galleries for instance. In that case we do larger runs of 200 ft. or more.
Cindy: I actually own a few of your welded steel frames, they’re beautiful. When did you start doing those?
Mark: It started with one of our former employees who was and artist. He came up with the idea to frame his own work, so when customers would order a steel frame, he’d make it in his studio. We sold very little for about 5 years. After he left we would cut the profiles and take them to a radiator repair shop to be welded. It was a very funky place where they welded old junk cars back together. Their welding was terrible. I knew we could do it better so I signed up for a welding class at Mass College of Art. MassArt has a great facility. Fred, now the head of our welded steel department, and I took the course. Soon we were welding in-house and we had a small line that we took to our first framing show, as an exhibitor, in NY and people went crazy for it. Fred has been running the steel dept. for 15 years now.
Cindy: Do you still weld?
Mark: I could in an absolute pinch, but it wouldn’t be pretty. I can do most any job in the frame making department, but because I don’t do it regularly I’m not nearly as skilled as the guys are.
Cindy: Where do you buy your lumber?
Mark: We get most of it from Rex Lumber in Acton, MA because they are the only local supplier that handles FSC certified wood.
Cindy: I see that FSC logo more and more, what exactly does it mean?
Mark: It stands for Forestry Stewardship Council. This organization has set a standard for how trees are harvested. Trees are selected, culled out so to speak, so trees aren’t clear-cut. It’s almost like a Christmas tree farm which I have a great deal of experience with having owned one for six years.
Cindy: How is it like a Christmas tree farm?
Mark: In a grove there are trees of various size the oldest are selected to be cut and in the spring a young tree is planted next to the stump of the harvested tree.
Cindy: What got you interested in FSC wood?
Mark: I got the idea from one of our sales reps on the West Coast. His customers were asking for it. The west coast seems to set the standard for such things. We tried it out for a year to be certain of its availability and quality before we advertised it and I hope to have ASF certified this year so we can display the FSC logo. That’s one of the rules and of course it makes sense. There are guidelines you have to adhere to.
Cindy: If you’re not certified, how you advertise the fact that you have FSC wood?
Mark: We simply state that we use sustainable woods, which we do. We don’t advertise any affiliation.
Cindy: Is FSC wood more expensive?
Mark: Yes, but in many species only minimally. We don’t charge our customers extra for it. There was one species that we use a good deal of as a structural frame that is considerably more expensive so when the economy fell we chose not to use it. I am working with Rex to source that species again so we can reintroduce it into our mix.
Cindy: How is business for you now?
Mark: Things are getting better, but I take nothing for granted. We were very lucky because we have a great bank, Cambridge Trust Company. I’ve banked with them for 30 years and they have stood by us. They also like the fact that we don’t sit back and wait for work to come to us. We actively look for new business. We keep sending samples out to frame shops to grow the wholesale side of the business, and we keep knocking on gallery doors here in Boston and in NY to build that side of the business. We’re focused on building our brand. And we have hired you guys at Laidlaw Group to help us do that and that is working out quite well.
Cindy: Thank you Mark. We are taking you into the world of social media, and it’s very exciting!
Mark: You’re welcome, I know I’ve been a skeptic when it comes to social media but I listen to my younger people, and I see how people are getting information today. Everyone’s head is buried into their smart phones. I know you want me to get a smart phone Cindy, but I draw the line there (he laughs). I just do picture framing and make frames. I’m satisfied to be able to check and send emails. Recently I was typing an email and my 14 year old daughter was there and I could sense she was staring at me. I turned to her and she said, “Is that really how you type?!”