BENNINGTON – There are 10 departments inside Jay’s Art Shop & Frame Gallery – including greeting cards, clothing, framing and art supplies – but the store owner’s favorite section is an office inside floor with barred windows that overlooks the main sales area on the first floor. This is an early version of a modern customer service desk.
“If you can imagine it with the person here with the green visor and people coming up to pay their bills,” Jay Zwynenburg said late on a recent Saturday afternoon as he stood in the cramped space. “I use this desk because I always like to be part of the store when I’m working.”
Zwynenburg celebrates its 90th anniversary. It has been part of local retail for over half a century. And since 1987, his store has taken up much of the space inside 115 South St., built in 1865 and long home to the department store Alexander Drysdale & Son. Jay’s Art Shop & Frame Gallery has a retro retail feel as it operates out of an authentic old retail building.
“Drysdale’s was like the RH Macy’s of southern Vermont,” said Manhattan native Zwynenburg. “They were using all three floors.”
In 1972, when he reached the age of 40, Zwynenburg changed careers and purchased Bennington Bookstore.
Working for General Cable, Zwynenburg had served as general manager of the division which operated three local plants. When he later took over another division, he had to commute weekly between his home in Old Bennington and his offices in Manhattan. Tired from his travels, he visited a real estate agent in Bennington and told him to find a business he could own and use to earn a living. The agent searched for two weeks and couldn’t develop a lead.
Earlier in 1972, Zwynenburg had walked into the Bennington Bookstore and bought a drafting table for one of his sons, then in high school. He remembered this transaction when, in exasperation, he told the real estate agent to look more carefully.
“I just raised my arms and said it might even look like Bennington Bookstore,” Zwynenburg said. The store was not for sale, but the agent approached the owners and began negotiations. An agreement was quickly reached to transfer the store, its inventory and its goodwill to Zwynenburg. The first trading day under new ownership was May 1, 1972.
Most commercial companies experience the ups and downs of changing demand for their products, and Zwynenburg has encountered many of these over the past 50 years.
“Business has been good,” he said. “He has recovered very well from the pandemic.”
Bennington Bookstore is a short walk from Jay’s Art Shop & Frame Gallery, but the two entities have not shared common ownership since 1984, when Zwynenburg sold the book side of the operation. “Margins on books are lower,” Zwynenburg said. “That’s why I decided to focus on art supplies, cards and gifts.”
The Hallmark cards part of the business was then spun off and sold to one of his sons, now retired. Zwynenburg imported greeting cards from other manufacturers, and in 1987 purchased the site of the former Drysdale department store. He sold the building a few years ago and now rents two floors inside 115 South St. He still really likes the structure.
Leaving the office, Zwynenburg stopped on a flight of wooden stairs that descend to the carpeted walkways on the first floor. He noted the original woodwork on the railings and balusters.
“You get a good overview of the store from here,” Zwynenburg said. A man in his thirties looked at greeting cards while a little girl, probably his daughter, burned off excess energy by jumping up and down and dodging left and right.
Vermont-themed gifts and clothing are displayed near the front of the store. Zwynenburg said sales of maple syrup, t-shirts, sweatshirts and related products, most of which are purchased by tourists, are an important part of his business. These purchases were mainly made by individuals from a different market segment. Just as a local resident was not likely to purchase a Vermont sweatshirt, visitors to the area were less likely to purchase art supplies and would likely not offer items to frame.
“It’s the department that really produces,” Zwynenburg said later, after opening a door to a large room downstairs. The area contains work tables, a huge glass cutter, and other accessories needed to fulfill framing orders. A large machine that runs on a 220 volt power line is used for dry mounting – or attaching foamboard backing to prints and other frameable objects.
The cost of a frame job depends on the size and casting choice, and Zwynenburg said typical jobs range from $50 to $750. Some customers drop off multiple items to frame, and the total cost of those orders can approach $3,000, depending on the owner.
The matte panel is cut on the Wizard SwitchBlade 9000 – a computer-controlled device that sweeps an arm over the panel as it rests on an angled table and directs the up and down movements of a cutting blade. Zwynenburg said he paid around $12,000 for the machine years ago, but feels it was a bargain because they now sell for around $18,000. The magician in his shop is in a far corner of the framing room, near one of the walls of the old building.
“But what I want you to notice,” Zwynenburg told a visitor, “is how we have new technology and 1860s technology, separated by three feet. I’m proud of that.”