She has been a constant in a rapidly changing neighborhood since 1991, when she first opened her business, Clinton Hill Simply Art and Framing Gallery. And now in her 20th year, Brown is a symbol of how a small business can withstand the challenging test of time.
She is the only small business in the area that still exists; all of her contemporary merchants, who entered the neighborhood with a specialty, are gone.
In October, the gallery will celebrate its 20th year of serving the Brooklyn neighborhoods. And Brown has managed to constantly reinvent her business with each mountain of a challenge, enabling her to be acclaimed not only locally, but also nationally.
It all started in 1991. That was when the business “chose her.” Brown was working as a successful advertising executive for Ebony Magazine, but she always had a passion for collecting African art.
As the African American middle class began to grow in the late 1980s, Brown believed that reproductions of artwork from African American artists would soon be in high demand. But she encountered one problem: reproductions could not be found anywhere.
“I was really shocked to know that the only source of buying reproductions of original art came from the museums when they had shows or cultural centers,” she said. “I was really surprised. You couldn't go any place to buy ethnic art on paper.”
She found out that many of the artists were self-publishing their works because at the time, art publishers were not interested in publishing African, Latin, Caribbean and Native American art.
“I thought about it, and having access to that kind of information, I said, 'I think I could open a business selling nothing but prints and posters and maybe in another 20 years I'd be so wealthy and so happy,'” she said.
Twenty years later, she admits she is not wealthy, doesn't have the staff she had when she first started – but she is happy. “Let's just put it this way, I never looked back,” she said.
Three months into opening the business, she left her position at Ebony Magazine
“There were challenges, barrier after another, but I'm here,” she said. “So many people told me I wasn't going to make it here, but it wasn't a business necessary for the surrounding neighborhood, it was for the surrounding metropolitan area.”
She started off selling only reproductions of artwork in prints and posters, and attracted clients from all boroughs and neighboring states. The framing was only a complimentary service at the time.
But over the years, the framing grew to be at the core of her business. “Through the years up until today, it is still the base business,” said Brown.
The local and national economic challenges forced Brown to revamp her vision for her business at two major points: 9/11 in 2001 and in 2006, when the big box retailers, such as Ikea began moving into the surrounding neighborhoods.
“I had to treat it like a new business each time,” she said. She had to restructure to stay alive. Forced to stay in the business because she could not go back into her former career since it had changed so much, and not willing to do any other job, she developed a new marketing and financing plan and revamped.
“I realized that's when my career skills kicked in to save the business,” Brown said. “I knew I needed to change and was able to understand how to change, and the discipline and vision was there.”
As 2001 rolled around, and 9/11 changed everything, including the economy, she noticed that people started to value personal items more.
“My business stood shaky up until that point, but it became very stable,” she said. “Emotionally it was devastating, I lost clients, I heard horror stories, but also that is when the businesses flipped from selling art to picture-framing services.”
People wanted the first finger-painting of a grandchild, and they wanted it custom-framed, she said. That's when Brown realized something else was happening and decided to go into specialty framing using premium materials to preserve the work. “It was just happening, and I said 'let me get into this,'” she said.
From 2006 through 2011, the big box retailers pushed many merchants out of the neighborhood. “It cut into 70 percent of my profits for one year,” she said. “It was devastating. That was a really, really tough time.”
Again, her career skills kicked in. “I decided that if I was going to treat any mass retailer as a competitor, that they would be the department store and I would be the specialty, my clientele would never go to them because they are looking for a certain quality and standard,” she said. That evolution has enabled her to approach her 20th year.
Now, Brown admits she has it tough day to day, but she is still having fun. “I loved what I do since day one, I don't regret it at all, but I couldn't even afford my service if I wanted to,” she said.
Her new clients are part of Generation Y, the 20 to 30 year olds she calls “new bloods.” And the 35 to 45 year olds moving into the community have already acquired artwork and come into her store with a knowledge of custom framing.
And as Brown's business survived the changing neighborhood economics, demographics and real estate market, one thing she is intent on changing is the way small businesses are defined. She wants to drop “mom and pop” title.
“It's about as outdated as the old cell phones that look like blocks,” she said. “There is no such thing as 'mom and pop' anymore; these are specialty businesses with people who come from different careers, different countries and different special interests. They are not mom and pop, they are not family-grown businesses anymore.”
She has also been outspoken about avoiding business improvement districts (BIDs), because she says they don't do as much as they should to help small businesses obtain grants or bank loans.
“It's the only thing that has followed me since 1991, and it's based on how we are identified,” she said. “It's a hindrance, we need to redefine small businesses.”
For now, Brown doesn't see herself closing up shop, she is waiting for the divine intervention which she says has helped her throughout the years as she constantly reinvented her business.
In the next few years, she wants to break into something new, evolving her business and her skills even more. She plans to give talks, workshops and demonstrations with hints, tips and insider secrets on the business to everyone from artists to collectors. She is looking for an organization to work in conjunction with her.
“I'd like to be able to help people, and custom framing is not going away,” she said.
She has also created a blog, called Clintonhilllframe.blogspot.com, which she plans to update more regularly.
In the end, she wants people to have respect for framing.
“I equate art and framing to a bride and a groom: you bring the two together and you have a different product, a different union and it's strong,” she said. “You can't hang art without frame, and you can't hang a frame without some form of art.”
To view L.B's blog, scan the QR code: