Tom Muzzio
Tom Muzzio
T.E. Publisher
I've Been Framed
Learning the picture framing business
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Howling at the Moon

The first six months living at Lake Tahoe were great fun. We had sold the greeting card company and were looking for something new. I had come with the company in that I had indentured myself for a six‑month period to teach the buyers how to run the place. That was fine, and I understand that is a common practice. However, I didn't want to end up being an employee of the very company that I founded! So, my partner, Dale, and I decided to move up to Lake Tahoe. That way I could be close enough to get down the mountain to Reno to participate in all the various aspects of the card production, sales, and what-have-you, but be far enough away so as not to be totally swept up in the day-to-day.

I took some of the proceeds from the sale and bought a nice little gift shop in a small strip mall in Incline Village, a spiffy, upscale ski resort on the Nevada side of the Lake. Dale reworked it from a "rich little old lady" hobby boutique to a serious shop with a great merchandise mix. But, once everything was up and running like a Swiss watch, I began to get bored. As usual, the excitement and enthusiasm of a new project had tuned into the rhythm of routine, and true to form, I began scoping around for something new.

I was on the lookout for a new challenge that day when I drove down the mountain from the lake to Reno, in the valley 5,000 feet below, with several posters that I needed to have framed. They were going to be décor for the candy/yogurt shop that we owned in the same mall.

To tell the truth, I was shocked at the price I had to pay to have four posters framed – even with simple Nielsen metal frames, paper mats and standard glass – no frills. I knew the frame shop manager from one of the gay bars in Reno where we used to hang out after work at the card company. He answered a lot of my questions and even took me back into the work area beyond the well‑appointed showroom with the standard ubiquitous frame corner samples that are called "profiles" in the framing biz.

A world apart from the sales area, the workshop was a high‑ceilinged room with yards of storage areas along the walls for molding, glass, mats, and fabrics. Glass and mat cutters were mounted on the walls, and miter saws for cutting metal and wood moldings were mounted on large worktables alongside vices and "C" clamps of all sizes. But, the device that fascinated me the most was the "chopper." A cast iron woodcutting monster with two wicked looking blades set at perfect 45 degree angles, it could slice through any wood molding like butter.

The artist in me said: "I've got to get into this business!" So I did. Renting a unit in our mall, I threw the ball up in the air, figuring that I'd just make up the game before it came down. Like every other new project that I have ever begun, I just dove right off into the deep end of the pool. We hired Simon, the framer in Reno, to tutor us at nights in his shop. Dale and I were joined by Jerry, an out-of-work construction guy who had great skills with wood, tile, concrete, and all that butch stuff that those hardhat types like so much. Dale and Jerry were onto it all right away, but I realized that my old nemesis from grade school – arithmetic – was rearing its ugly head. I always hated fractions in fourth grade, and little did I know how many quarters, eighths, sixteenths, and thirty seconds one had to deal with just to cut a basic mat (let alone expensive molding). I burned out immediately, and declared that I would leave the higher math to them and would concentrate instead on dealing with the merchandise, décor, sales and advertising – the things I did well in the card industry.

We drove to Oakland California, and bought all the equipment necessary to set up for business. Everything was big and heavy, especially the chopper that took four of us to lift onto the truck for the long haul up the Sierra to Lake Tahoe. I'll never forget horsing that cast iron contraption into its place in the workshop. What a hassle! But the customers came, and in no time we were framing like mad. I was grocery shopping at Safeway shortly thereafter when I overheard a couple of middle‑aged women discussing the new gallery/frame shop. "Yeah," said one, "the gay guys who have the gift shop and the yogurt place are doing it. I hear it's going to be great. I've got lots of stuff I need to finally get framed." And she added, knowingly, "Those kinds of guys are really good at stuff like that."

The following spring (it was still snowing in April) Jerry got the call to warmer climates. Framers are always in demand, and experienced pros can just about choose to work wherever they want. At the time we had two lesbians in training. They were good, but had not yet graduated to some of the really tricky and difficult procedures like French mats and fabric wraps. Those specialties are reserved for the really expensive art and archival quality prints and originals. Clearly we would have to find a serious replacement for Jerry.

"How are we going to find a framer way up here?" I asked incredulously. "They don't just grow on trees, you know!" But we decided to try the old tried and true: ad in the newspaper trick. I didn't expect to find a qualified framer by such a lame method, but it was worth a shot. The ad would appear in the Sunday paper and I was flabbergasted when the phone rang at six a.m. sharp. The first caller was enthusiastic and confident. But something was wrong with that picture.

"I have twenty years of experience," he boasted, "and I've got all my own equipment!"

I flashed back on the four of us struggling to get that chopper on and off the truck! "How could anyone possibly have a mat cutter, a wall‑mounted glass cutter, and all the necessary saws and clamps in the back of a pick‑up?" I mused. (Let alone, a chopper!)

"You must have a pretty big truck!" I ventured.

Silence.

"Well, I do have a lift-kit," he said in an odd, questioning sort of way. I was envisioning a twenty-six foot cab‑over or something, but even then it sounded too weird for words. But we were desperate for a framer, and twenty years of experience did sound good... I forged ahead with the interview.

"Can you do fabric wraps?" I queried.

"Fabric what?" came the quizzical reply.

"A framer with twenty years under his belt who doesn't even know what a fabric wrap is? How is that possible?" I asked myself.

"What kind of a framer are you, anyway?" I asked with a hint of irony and disbelief.

"A house framer, of course," he said dryly. "What did you think?"

Well, after recovering from my faux pas and telling thirty more house-framers that the position was filled, I finally ended up with a great guy who was a real picture-framing wiz and who could do a mean fabric wrap! How did I do it? ... By the most reliable method of all ... word of mouth!


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