“I didn’t want to be a frame store owner,” said Mary Ann Martello in 2003. The company her husband worked for was moving to Connecticut. “We were at a crossroads.” Ultimately, they decided not to move and disrupt their family (including a middle schooler and high schooler), and began thinking about getting involved in a business. In 2004, they aligned their experience and education and bought a framing franchise. Eventually, they left the franchise and formed MSC Custom Picture Framing.
When I asked Mary Ann how the pandemic affected her, she was very transparent and replied dimly. "We went from a fairly thriving local business one day, to no business, no revenue just like that. We had some reserves to make payroll and pay our bills, but it has been difficult. We need to get back to business."
In her 17 years of running a framing shop, two things have driven her consistently. “I wanted to create an atmosphere that is fun and creative, and in no way intimidating,” she said. What means the most to her, she said, is getting to know her customers and seeing “the reactions on people’s faces when they pick up a piece that is personal to them.”
With graduations around the corner, Mary Ann is coming up with quick and creative solutions to showcase the hard work of students and highlight their achievements in a time when many seniors feel they've been jipped. She showed me a stack of finished art pieces ready to be picked up. I asked her about her hopes for the future. "My customers are terrific. Montclair really supports local businesses. I am confident that we will land on our feet again. It just might take some time."
Masks are now required, and one guest at a time is allowed in the store. They put a plexiglass shield at the front counter and installed a doorbell to safely moderate the traffic, "We will be changing our hours, and doing By Appointment Only for the foreseeable future. And of course, we'll sanitizing as often as possible."
“We are doing curbside pickup! Call when you arrive and I can leave your order outside our door or hand off right in your trunk." Mary Ann had a sign on door with MSC Framing's “New Rules.” Despite it all, she is hopeful as she confidently told me, “We’ll do it!”
Mary Ann is implementing more technology in her consultations, such as FaceTime/Zoom sessions. Clients can drop off their artwork and she puts together samples of mats and frames to show them options, virtually, with their artwork in hand. Clients would be able to see what the final framed print would look like and approve their orders that way.
When I arrived at MSC Framing, there was a long-time client in the shop who came to discuss framing along with his furry companion, Bianca. "We love having the dog!" Through the plexiglass, Bianca helped pick out the perfect frame. “She likes sheep,” her owner informed us.
We then went to the back of the store where MSC's workshop is. “This is where it all happens.” Cheryl, at MSC with Mary Ann for 10 years and 40 years total as a framing professional, was manufacturing a frame. “We make everything here. We cut the mat and wood and then join it to the frame size. And then put it all together with these machines. Here are the pins and here’s the saw.” A large painting of Diana Ross flanked the dividing wall, watching over the production. “This is what people don’t really understand about custom framing: it’s cut down to size and individually made to your artwork.”
We then started talking about this Small Business documentary project, and the recommendation by Carley Graham Garcia of Montclair State University's Incubation Lab that I photograph Mary Ann and MSC Framing. In April, Carley, “one of our favorite clients”, a Montclair resident and small business advocate, wrote an editorial article in the Montclair Local newspaper listing all the local small businesses that she and her family frequents and included her favorite framer, MSC Framing.
Mary Ann was so touched by this act of humanity, connecting the town's small businesses to its residents. “I happened to just stumble upon the article, and she included us in it. It was just a couple of words, but it meant so much to us coming from a real person saying we are real people.”
MSC Custom Picture Framing is located at 33 Watchung Plaza, Montclair and can be found online at www.mscpictureframing.com
For more on our COVID Small Business Documentary Series, please visit www.villagestudiophotos.com/blog or on Instagram at @vsphotos_nj