by Victoria Ritter
Deb Parsons and Martha Johnson believe in not only providing the right tools for the job, but also in offering their knowledge to help get it done. The co-founders of Queen City Framing & Art Supplies in Helena, MT revel in their customer-based approach.
The right frame of mind
The majority of Queen City Framing & Art Supplies’ revenue comes from custom framing. Customers seek Johnson’s expertise to frame fine art, diplomas, pictures, heirlooms and more. Several of the store’s clientele are repeat customers who appreciate the advice and service they’ve received for past projects. In turn, the staff keeps track of past projects to better understand patrons’ individual styles and tastes.
“Its personal treasures. They’re framing their memories,” Parsons stated.
A few unique items people have brought in to be framed have included dried rhubarb leaves for a mixed media piece and a taxidermied bat. One customer brought in a rusted truck door to be turned into a frame for a buffalo painting.
“Depending on what a customer is framing, we ask them questions,” Parsons said. “It’s part of knowing your customer. We ask them about who it’s for, where they’re going to put it, what color their walls are and offer suggestions and styles. We talk with the customer to come up with what works with the piece and what best works for them.”
Trying something new
Queen City Framing & Art Supply’s inventory consists of fine art supplies, gifts and ready-made frames. The store carries more than 7,000 SKUs with brands including Hahnemuhle Paper, Da Vinci and Zen. Parsons and Johnson base their selection on items they see at the Creativation by NAMTA show, in art magazines and recommendations from customers. Some product that patrons have suggested, including Fluid 100 Watercolor Paper, have become popular items. “When we get more than one request for something, we start looking for it,” Parsons said.
Current trending items include journals, paper pads, markers and fine art brushes. Parsons has noticed how printmaking and greeting cards have become more popular in recent months. In the front area of the store – which Parsons calls the “impulse area” – customers are drawn to greeting cards made by Montana artists and handmade paper. The latter is used for a variety of functions including bookmaking, wrapping gifts and framing. “It’s a fun, beautiful product to buy and you don’t have to be an artist to appreciate it,” she said.
One offering unique to the store is its Grab & Go Art Boxes. While Parsons initially brought up the idea for the boxes, the whole team has collaborated in their formation and distribution. Grab & Go Art Boxes made their debut just before the pandemic and continue to be one of the business’ top sellers, as customers use them as gifts or to explore new art forms.
A standard box can come at different price points depending on the type of art supplies it contains. Boxes range from a kids’ painting box at $20 to watercolor and printmaking art boxes for $45. “Customers can come in and get a $25 drawing box, for example, and have a taste of a lot of different drawing products,” Parsons said.
The staff releases a monthly specialty box that features supplies for a specific type of art style. In April, the focus was on no-sew books. The May box had supplies to make origami money boxes, perfect for graduation gifts. The store notifies customers of the monthly box launch – and reminds them of their standard Grab & Go Art Boxes – through email. “It has to be something that’s doable,” Parsons explained. “If we’re interested and enthusiastic about something, we know that the customer will be as well.”
Experience becomes expertise
Everyone, from Parsons and Johnson to their two full-time employees and one part-time staff member, puts their artistic talents to work. Johnson’s more than two decades of framing experience and training has made her a trusted resource for customers. Parsons has extensive knowledge as a graphic designer, production artist and freelance calligrapher. She has developed an appreciation of working with different types of clients throughout her career. “Operating a brick-and-mortar store, it all comes down to customer service,” she said.
The employees each have their own specialty area, but are cross-trained so they can help with every aspect of the store, from offering suggestions on art supplies to helping at the framing desk and front register. Some even help with art classes. “We’re all artists who work here, so we know what we’re talking about,” Parsons said. “It’s just fun. Martha is the best business partner. Working with other people, our staff who are creative, makes it interesting and fun.”
Queen City Framing & Art Supplies hosts classes in the fall and early spring. Sessions can be one-time occurrences or a series led by a staff member or local artist. Past topics have included hieroglyphics, landscape acrylic painting, block printing and creating hardcover books. Each class is a safe space for artists as they try new mediums. “The classes have made casual artists feel more confident about trying new things, so they increase traffic, buying more things,” Parsons said. “Some people take classes for the fun of it and they take more classes because they enjoyed them so much.
“It’s the camaraderie,” she added. “People that are creative like to hang around people who are also creative. We’re giving them that opportunity.”
Employees and patrons alike are given opportunities to shine through the store’s artist receptions. Each month, the store displays a Montana artist’s work that will be for sale. “The featured artist doesn’t have to be from Helena,” Parsons said. “Usually, they’re new or emerging artists. We have a reception and advertise for them. It’s a great way to support the arts and our local artists.” Once a year, the employees have their staff show.
Customers come first
Parsons and Johnson value every customer who walks through the store’s doors, as quality customer service is one of their main goals.
Patrons who come in for supplies range from established and new artists, people who simply like to dabble, students from the nearby colleges, parents whose kids are interested in an art form to retired citizens who want to resume their artistic pursuits. Some customers have even traveled over an hour to come to the store. Framing brings in an even more diverse group of people, said Parsons, including new residents who want to decorate their home, families who inherited pictures or heirlooms and people looking for expertise. Parson’s favorite aspect of running the store is simply chatting with people and seeing what projects they’re
“People like to support local organizations,” she said. “One of the reasons we’ve been successful and steady is that people are more aware of supporting locally-owned businesses.”
We’re not done yet
Parsons and Johnson met when they were employees at the former Ben Franklin Crafts – which operated for more than 40 years in the same strip mall as Queen City Framing & Art Supplies. Parsons ran the art department while Johnson ran the framing department. In 2016, the owners of Ben Franklin Crafts announced they would be closing the store.
“The owners decided to retire,” Parsons recalled. “We decided that we weren’t done and so we went into partnership together.”
Parsons and Johnson used part of Ben Franklin Crafts’ location to open Queen City Framing & Art Supplies. The 2,200-square-foot space is manageable with the selection of products it contains, Parsons said. The store’s large front windows are a bonus as they provide natural light, a clear view of incoming patrons and an inviting ambiance to the space. “People can see us when we’re working,” Parsons stated. “We have great sightlines.”
While their former employer sold craft and art materials, Parsons and Johnson decided to specialize in just arts and framing services. There wasn’t much competition in the area, as there were no fine art supply stores in the vicinity. A Michael’s location had come and gone before Parsons moved to the area and Hobby Lobby was just moving into Helena as Queen City Framing & Art Supplies was opening.
Today, the store is doing a steady business, according to Parsons. She and Johnson are looking to expand their reach 100 miles to the north and south, covering a central region of Montana. “A lot of art supplies stores did well during COVID. Even though it was a huge hassle, it was a good time for us,” Parsons said. “We have stayed steady and we’re not expecting a downturn.”