John Wilson left his part-time job as a picture framer for the Anaconda Building Co. back in 1968 to join photographer Al Hamm in his Missoula studio.
As Bonnie Wilson tells the story 50 years later, that full-time gig with the iconic photographer was intended to help pay for college at the University of Montana, though it turned into something more. The partnership set the foundation for a small Missoula business that has defied the odds by surviving generational transitions and new technology.
Now, it’s something of a Missoula icon, entrusted with some of the finest fine art in the region.
“My husband and Al Hamm, the great photographer in Missoula, started the Art Attic,” said Bonnie, recounting those early years. “He was doing (Hamm’s) picture framing and the two of them started it together. That was 1968.”
While the Art Attic dabbled in everything from paint supplies to antiques in its infancy, it was framing that emerged as the singular focus. Ten years after its founding, the Wilsons sold the business to Roger Woodworth and his sister, Janel – or at least they inquired.
It was 1978 and Janel was fresh out of college – and she knew little about framing.
“I didn’t know if I could do it, but I took a big leap and went to the bank,” said Janel. “Roger signed on the first line and I signed on the second line. Then I bought him out a few years later.”
While the Internet pecks away at many of today’s small businesses, others are facing a sweeping shift in demographics and may not survive as a result. Baby Boomers are retiring in growing numbers, and the number of Millennials and Gen Xers may be too lean to replace them all.
With no one to take over, Main Street businesses owned by retiring Baby Boomers – often described as the backbone of America – may simply vanish from the streetscape. The Pew Research Center estimates that more than $10 trillion in businesses will need to change hands by 2025.
Janel, who has owned and operated the Art Attic for the past 40 years, saw it coming years ago.
“This is a profession that requires absolute, almost perfect workmanship, and hands and eyes are a part of it,” she said. “That’s one of the things I started realizing, that I couldn’t see as well, even with cheaters. It’s a young person’s profession because it’s very physical – it’s very mental – and you have to remember a lot with your clients and when you’re designing. It’s time for me to go and smell the roses.”
When Janel purchased the business, Missoula was awash with art framers. She placed the number as high as 17 at one point, though many have since closed, including Marie’s Arteries and DaVinci’s Framing and Gallery.
“There was nobody to take over,” said Janel. “All of a sudden they close and they’re gone. Finding a buyer and finding somebody who has the passion to take on the business is very difficult. We Baby Boomers are retiring.”
With retirement closing in, Janel was both delighted and surprised when, in 2009, a relative stranger answered her ad on Craigslist. Emily Hall had just moved to Missoula and, best of all, she’d worked as a picture framer in Portland, along with a number of other handy hands-on tasks.
Nine years later, she’s ready to take over the business, keeping the tradition alive and saving it from the fate of other Baby Boomer businesses.
“We’ve always talked about me taking it over, but I never thought it was something that would be financially feasible for me,” said Hall. “There’s a lot involved in owning your own business. I have a great relationship with the customers and clientele that walk through the door. The staff is amazing, and I have a fairly good handle on the day in, day out of the business.”
Over the past few decades, the Art Attic has expanded its reach, a move necessary for survival. It acquired the customers and materials from other framing shops that closed, and it expanded to commercial hospitals and retirement centers, framing everything from art to shadow boxes.
As Janel and Hall tell it, “art installation has become really huge,” and the business sits on solid ground as it enters its third chapter under new ownership in a city awash in art.
From Walter Hook and Rudy Autio to Stan Hughes and Salvador Dali, the staff has framed it all. Local galleries and the Montana Museum of Art and Culture remain solid partners.
“There is added pressure – and added insurance,” Janel said of framing the finer works of art. “The museums work very closely with us, and we’re known for our knowledge of preservation and how to do appropriate framing for these works of art. That was huge when I took over, learning about that conservation.”
That pursuit of perfection added another challenge as Janel sought to find a buyer. While running a small business takes time and commitment, it also requires skill, something that’s not gained overnight.
But Janel grins, knowing Hall is up to the task and that the business she’s toiled to build over the past 40 years remains in good hands.
“To be able to keep something like that alive and keep going and know it’s all custom built – it’s a trade,” Hall said. “You don’t just have someone just walk off the street and learn to do this in a day. It takes experience, years and years, and that’s how it keeps going. Everything needs to be perfect.”