After almost five decades in the picture framing and decorating business, Bob Pritchard sometimes thinks he’s been asked to frame everything you can imagine. But he says just when he decides that’s true, a customer shows up to surprise him.
Last month, Pritchard’s business — Frames and Things — marked its 70th year in downtown Brownwood. He has owned the store for almost half of its existence, and lately, business has been improving year after year.
Pritchard has no plans to retire.
“I tell people I’ll probably work until I die,” he said this week.
The observance of the shop’s 70 years was low-key. In a letter thanking customers for their patronage, Pritchard wrote that March 1 represented the anniversary of the store’s opening in 1947 as Embrey-Earnest Paint and Glass at 109 East Baker. One of those partners, Carl Earnest, had previously sold the business, but he was still working at the store when Pritchard bought it on Sept. 1, 1983, and moved from Dallas.
“Carl told me one of the biggest mistakes he made was selling the store when he did,” Pritchard said. “He kept working at the shop until he was 86.”
The store had changed hands a couple of times before Pritchard bought it from Travis and Sheryl Winn, who accepted jobs in Everman schools. Then, the store was located at 301 Center Avenue.
“I was fortunate that Carl, and Tully and Donna Hair were working at the store when I bought it,” Pritchard said. Tully graduated from Howard Payne soon after and went to Citizens National Bank, where he is now senior vice president. Later, Donna left to work at the Brownwood Area Chamber Commerce. She is now marketing director of Brownwood Regional Medical Center, as well as this year’s president of the chamber of commerce board.
Once in Brownwood, Pritchard said he hoped to duplicate the experience he had managing a frame and decorating store in the Dallas area — part of the House of Frames group. It had experienced a significant surge in sales after moving to a larger location.
So he moved his Brownwood business to the former Bowie Theater at 413 Center, and was there seven years. The overhead of that larger facility proved too much to absorb, so he relocated again — across the street in September 2005 to his current location at 408 Center.
“It’s made a $2,000 difference (a month) in overhead being here,” Pritchard said of his current location. “The best months we’ve had have been when we were here.”
Any retail field can be cyclical, and the store’s sales were down several years ago. But business has been on the upswing lately.
“Sales have been up in each of the past three years,” Pritchard said.
Frames circle the globe
While its customer base is in Brown and neighboring counties, Frames and Things has clientele across the country and on several continents.
“Over the years, we have framed for customers from Paris (France), Russia, Japan, Brazil, Mexico and Canada,” Pritchard said. “We have customers in every major city in Texas, plus many small towns in the United States. We have frames in New York (state), Delaware, Florida, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Alaska, Hawaii, California and Washington, D.C.” Because he made frames for national restaurant chains while working in Dallas, he figures his frames are likely still found in every state of the union.
Most of his current long-distance clients have some sort of tie to Brownwood, either through families who live here, or a history of attending school or working here.
Pritchard mentioned a Texas A&M University graduate with family here whose mother ordered a frame for his diploma. After the man worked his way up in his company and achieved a major promotion to New York, he wanted to frame other items recognizing his career achievements.
“He had gotten so many compliments on that diploma, he called here about it,” Pritchard said. “We pulled the old work order to confirm what we had done, and that turned out to be a $1,400 purchase.”
Customer satisfaction has been crucial to staying in business this long.
“When people are happy, they keep coming back,” Pritchard said. “When you do it right, that’s not only satisfying for the customer, but also for me. And when they are satisfied, they tell other people.”
Part of making customers happy includes delivering quality work that endures, and a significant portion of Pritchard’s business involves building new frames to replace cheaper frames from other sources.
“You get what you pay for,” Pritchard said, and he picked up pieces of a plastic frame that had broken in a customer’s car on the ride home from a national chain crafts store. “It’s plastic, so you really can’t repair it. They thought they could save a little money, but instead they wound up paying for two frames.”
Pritchard has two large poster boards crowded with small stickers of business names he’s taken off frames he has replaced. They number in the hundreds.
He said it’s also important to pay attention to what customers say they want. Even so, the finished product must nevertheless fit into the intended setting.
“You need to know what color their walls are,” Pritchard said. “The frame and mat should set pictures off from the wall, not blend in with it.”
Frames and Things has remained open in Brownwood across 70 years, even though eight other frame shops have come and gone, Pritchard said. He gave the late Red Williams, who operated MasterFramer, credit for being his most skilled competitor, but personally, they got along well.
“We had a good relationship,” Pritchard said. “He sold art supplies and we didn’t, and we would often send people to him. He also would send people to us.”
Pritchard has been involved in a variety of civic activities, including serving as president of the board of Downtown Brownwood Inc. in 1997-1998, a member of the board of the Brownwood Area Chamber of Commerce, and a short term on the Brownwood Main Street board.
He recalls how downtown merchants were instrumental in planting the seeds for, partnering with, or spurring interest in projects that include downtown beautification and street work by the city, demolition of the old J.C. Penney building where Pat Coursey Park is located, preservation of the old county jail that now houses the Brown County Museum of History, and restoration of the Depot and the Lyric Theatre. Much of that activity was in the 1990s.
“I went to see ‘Beverly Hillbillies’ at the Lyric, and Jodie Armstrong of Brownwood Music was in the cast,” Pritchard said. “After the show, Jodie saw me and said, ‘Doesn’t the theater look a lot different now than it did when (Downtown Brownwood Inc.) held Christmas Past and Present here?’ ”
Downtown merchants at one time placed concrete benches on the sidewalks, but the City of Brownwood had to replace them with metal benches due to damages to the concrete.
“Downtown Brownwood Inc. had about 30 active members when I joined in 1986, and by 2003 or 2004 it was up to 125 members,” Pritchard said. That number has dropped by to about 30 now, however.
Photographs, documents and artwork are standard fare for a frame shop, but Pritchard is often asked to put non-typical items in a frame. Most of those objects are decidedly three-dimensional.
The walls of the Frames and Things showroom offer numerous examples to pique the imaginations of those who stop by. Those include coin collections, booklets, military memorabilia, Scouting awards and other items. One framed box holds a set of silverware that Pritchard said needs to be opened and polished periodically, because the silver will still tarnish.
“Items I have framed over the years are a wedding dress, graduation gowns, football and basketball uniforms, many military uniforms, rattlesnake skin, cow patties, horse harness, chaps and all kinds of guns, knives, arrowheads, military medals and patches, stained glass windows, sports medals, trophies, ribbons, a gas cap, seashells, and even a cake,” Pritchard said. That happened after a baker in Dallas had won first place for a design.
“Just about the time I think I have framed everything anybody would want to frame, someone brings in something different.”
Pritchard has two personal frames on the wall behind his counter that illustrate how high school keepsakes as well as family heirlooms can be preserved. One holds mementos from his high school days in Southland, and the other is dedicated to his father with photos, his pipe, pen and a plug of tobacco found in his shirt pocket when he died.
Long road back home
The Santa Anna native traveled a long road to end up only 20 miles away from his hometown.
Pritchard’s father worked at a cotton gin and as a carpenter in Santa Anna, but ginning was seasonal and carpentry work became scarce during the drought of the 1950s when he was a child. After exhausting other employment options, his family moved to the Lubbock area where gin work was more reliable. Pritchard graduated from Southland High School, between Post and Slaton.
He enrolled at Texas Tech University, but he and a few friends decided to enlist in the U.S. Air Force as the Vietnam War heated up. They thought by joining at the same time, they could remain together. That didn’t happen, though.
After his father died while in training, Pritchard was granted a hardship transfer from Topeka, Kansas, to Amarillo where he served 3-1/2 years.
“Amarillo was close enough to Lubbock so I could help with the family,” Pritchard said. His older siblings were already married.
After his discharge from the Air Force on Feb. 1, 1966, he finished his education at Texas Tech.
“I’ve always been very competitive,” Pritchard said, and he quickly became a top producer at his job at a machine shop. After a disagreement with an inexperienced foreman regarding what was the more efficient — and safer — way to handle a job, he started selling encyclopedias. He was the company’s top seller in a multi-state region his first month, but the mandatory three-day cooling-off period after the contract was signed cost him sales.
He said the experience taught him how to assess customers’ needs and work with them on their purchases.
With his wife, Margaret, the family moved to Fort Worth in 1970 where he went to work for the American Handicraft Division of Tandy. Its crafts division operated some 400 stores. In three months, Pritchard led a Pennsylvania location that was ranked around 340th in the company to 42nd, and then improved a Portland, Oregon, store’s profits 300 percent over three years.
But a change in regional managers brought about a micromanagement issue, despite Pritchard’s sales success, so he transferred to a Denver store for about eight months. That’s when the company vice president who had been his mentor left the company and purchased several House of Frames properties. Pritchard agreed to join that firm, but only if he could move back to Texas.
In the next nine years, Pritchard won Manager of the Year honors and took his Richardson location to the third-ranked operation in a group of 65 stores. He received the President’s Club Award in 1982 from Decorating Industries Inc.
But those achievements required long hours, and he often worked seven days a week even though his store was closed on Sundays.
“Part of the understanding with my wife when we moved to Brownwood was that I wouldn’t work on weekends,” Pritchard said. “I wasn’t getting to see our children grow up.”
Today, his family has grown to include three children, 12 grandchildren and 15 great-grandchildren.
“I have to give Annita Rushing credit for a large part of our growth,” Pritchard said. “She was with me for 28 years, and since I wasn’t working on Saturdays, she built up a good clientele. Many customers even preferred dealing with Annita.”