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Photo: Kathryn Geurin

The Business of History

In buildings and the urban environment, rediscovering what we have always had

By Kathryn Geurin

On Monday morning, pick-up trucks, vans and station wagons lined the block in front of four historic row houses on North Lake Avenue in Albany’s West Hill neighborhood. The abandoned buildings don’t appear particularly remarkable, but they hold a tangible connection to the city’s past.

Built in the 1880s, the modest homes served as worker housing in the predominately German neighborhood. They housed carpenters, milliners, bookkeepers, grocers, chauffeurs and firemen for over a century. The community’s strong German culture is evident in the heavy wood details. But come April 1, 124-130 N. Lake Ave. will be razed to make way for the new Brighter Choice Charter School. So, on this chilly morning, a dozen or so volunteers with the Historic Albany Foundation are traipsing through the dilapidated buildings to salvage whatever significant remnants of architectural history they can.

“These were not the homes of the well-to-do,” says Cara Macri, Historic Albany Foundation’s director of Preservation Services. “These were the houses that people came home to after working long days to build this city. Their history is here.”

Macri is one of only four paid employees of HAF. The rest of the salvage crew has volunteered their time and various skills to pull claw-foot bathtubs, radiators, moldings, staircase railings, spindles, newel posts, mantels, windows, hardware and doors from the buildings and load them into their makeshift caravan. According to Macri, “If it’s not plaster, it comes.”

Archeologist Walter Wheeler from Rensselaer-based firm Hartgen unscrews the plywood boards from the doorways and makes his way into the already-salvaged buildings. Wheeler will document the homes—measuring the walls, floors and foundations, and sampling moldings and building materials—and create a set of retroactive blueprints. “After demolition,” says Macri, “at least a record of the house survives, if only on paper.”

The crew of volunteers delivers two vans, two station wagons and two pick-up trucks full of salvaged materials to HAF’s Lexington Avenue Architectural Parts Warehouse, the oldest continuously operating nonprofit architectural salvage business in the country. The 10,000-square-foot warehouse houses an overwhelming array of historic architectural elements, which either have been salvaged by volunteer crews—Marci estimates that complete salvages are done on approximately 25 buildings a year—or donated by individuals during remodels and renovations.

The salvaged parts are available for sale at the warehouse, which is open to the public four days a week. It is an incomparable resource for people who are working to authentically restore historic homes, or simply trying to find a match for that missing century-old doorknob.

The mission of HAF is to preserve and promote the built environment around the city of Albany. The salvage operations and parts warehouse are only two of the many facets of HAF’s work. Over the past 35 years, the foundation has branched into three main programs: preservation advocacy, education, and technical assistance.

HAF maintains a list of the city’s endangered architectural resources, which informs its preservation advocacy. Currently, its main initiative is to preserve St. Joseph’s Church. HAF also offers assistance to property owners interested in securing preservation grants, as well as property assessments and preservation advice. Monthly workshops help the do-it-yourselfer learn how to preserve and maintain historic homes, from window repair to heating and plumbing systems. Historic home tours, lectures, and research assistance are available for those interested in learning about the history of their home and their city.

HAF executive director Susan Holland spends much of her days advocating the importance of preservation. The short version: “The infrastructure is already there, reusing buildings is environmentally friendly, not to mention that houses were originally built ‘green.’ And architecturally, there are a lot of mass-produced boxes out there today. We don’t have that in our city. We have character; it gives the city identity and history, and we’re lucky for that, but we have to preserve it.”

While many nonprofits are, at best, struggling in hard economic times, HAF continues to thrive. Holland discusses the foundation’s success with a confident but cautious tone. “We’ve been around for a long time. . . . We’ve already weathered a lot of hard times, and we know how to survive them. Of course we’re still somewhat worried about tomorrow.”

Because HAF is not reliant on state aid, it doesn’t need to fear sweeping funding cuts that have plagued other nonprofits. “We’re very cautious with our resources, and we know exactly what our expenses are, so we don’t have a lot of surprises. And we have a great staff; they don’t ask for much, and they always give 110 percent.”

The foundation receives stage grant money for some of its restoration projects, but very little state aid for the day-to-day work. HAF is funded almost entirely through membership, fund-raising efforts and warehouse sales.

HAF currently counts more than 545 members. “They believe in us, and in the importance of the work we do, and most have continued their support,” Holland says. “Of course, some have come to me and said they can’t afford to donate right now, but they ask what they can do. They volunteer their time and their resources. We are truly running on hundreds of individual contributions.”

Despite economic turmoil, Holland is certain that we are approaching a very positive age for preservation. Interest rates are falling, stimulus funds are supporting restoration projects, and the country’s mindset is turning toward more efficient and sustainable living.

“The economy got to where it is because of our greed, our constant need for the new. But now people are talking about walkable cities and smaller houses,” she says, “things which we’ve had all along.”


Photo: Alicia Solsman

Lean and Mean

Local design firm ID29’s key to success is staying focused, staying small

By Chet Hardin

In ID 29’s self-published How to Be a Better Client, the client is defined as “an entity, or individuals, who owe their past, present and future success to the creative agency that has agreed to work with them and bestow upon them a goodness that is probably not deserved.” Tongue planted firmly in cheek, the book continues for 100 more pages, gently satirizing the industry pressures of “creative types” dealing with “business types.” But the moral of this story is clear: Leave the creative types be, and all will be good in the design universe.

Which was, essentially, the ideological impetus for Michael Fallone and Doug Bartow back in 2003, when they started the small design firm on River Street in Troy. The two had met while working at a large ad agency in the area, and found that they agreed that there is a lot about the larger firms that they just don’t like. Instead of focusing on growth through cutthroat business practices, which exhausts their talent and marginalizes the creative process, they decided they would focus their growth on a commitment to excellent design and employee loyalty.

“We wanted to do something that was a little selfish,” says Bartow. “We wanted to do something that was great.” The two wanted to start a small, elite firm that held excellence in design above the other necessary goals of a business.

“We wanted to lead with good design,” Fallone adds. “The importance of the creative output is our primary driver, and not making money.”

Not that making money isn’t a priority. Fallone, the creative director of the company, is a competitive businessman, and ID29 has been able to land large, international advertising campaigns. “We are growing carefully,” Fallone says. “We are not growing for growth’s sake.”

And, surprisingly in this economy, they are comfortable with turning clients down, he says. “We have no problem saying no.”

“The last firing was us firing a client,” Bartow says, “and not them firing us. We made a mistake, and realized it a couple projects down the road. When you are up at night worrying about things that you shouldn’t be worrying about, weeks at a time—you know, work is supposed to be exhilarating and fun.”

“The client didn’t value what we do. And there is no reason to try to push that,” Fallone says.

The two have cultivated, at least locally, a perception that ID29 holds itself to the highest standards. That includes a higher price tag than most of their competitors. This helps, they believe, weed out potential clients before they even contact the firm. Plus, the size of ID29 (there are eight people on staff) limits the amount of clients the company can take, and the amount of work that they can do, which is exactly the way Bartow and Fallone want it.

“We do have high standards,” Fallone says. “And it has been a good prequalification for our clients. There is a perception in the Capital Region that we’re a little bit higher-end, a little more boutique then some of the other agencies in the area. And I think that’s a good thing.”

“We knew that going in,” Bartow says. “It was never a question of getting a lot of clients. It was always a question of getting a few great clients, and doing great work for them. And to build from there.”

One of these great clients brought them their biggest job to date: the seventh Harry Potter novel. That deal was “a huge coup” for the company, says Fallone. “It was like a dream.”

“We were up against four of the world’s largest ad agencies,” he says. “And we beat them on the creative work that we did.”

They got the Harry Potter gig through their aggressive self- promotion, drawing the attention of an executive at Scholastic after mailing a series of self-promotional posters, five in a row every two weeks. “We had the name of the former creative director, but he had left, and we didn’t have the name of his replacement. These posters were getting stacked up in the mail room, and the new creative director saw them stacking up and really liked the packaging and took them,” Bartow says. They went on to meet with the executive four times.

“He said that he liked us, and he liked our work,” Bartow says, but being a creative director at Scholastic meant that he had a team of 30 or 40 designers of his own. “He told us, ‘Keep in touch.’”

And then they got the call. It was a possible project: the seventh Harry Potter book. They were given a week and a half to put together their proposal, which included the media strategy and creative concept.

“We knew we were up against these massive agencies with unlimited resources,” Fallone says, and that led to some very late nights. But they did win the contract, “and for the next seven months, we toiled in secrecy,” Fallone says. “We came up with the whole visual aesthetic, and helped them execute the whole national campaign.”

Nearly the entire United States campaign was the work of ID29.

They did everything: Web sites, apparel, buttons, bags, posters, Bartow says. “We have never had one project that big. We had done all those pieces before, but not all for one campaign.”

“The print run was 12 million pieces. I’ve never printed 12 million of anything,” Bartow says. “I thought that was pretty cool.”

ID29 is currently expanding, taking about 1,000 square feet from the floor above the current office, and connecting the two floors with a spiral staircase. Still, there are no plans in the near future to increase the size of the staff.

chardin@metroland.net


Engineered for Success

Even in these dark economic times, better business paractices can keep you in the black

By Stephen Leon

 

Memo to remaining staff:

As promised, the second round of salary cuts will go into effect next paycheck. Please be assured that these reductions are only temporary. If sales don't pick up soon, there will be more.

I think we can all agree that the recent elimination of the employer match on your 401k plans makes complete sense in these difficult economic times. Stock market being what it is, we were only throwing good money after bad anyway. Management strongly suggests pulling out of the 401k completely, saving you the administration fee that we began passing on to you as of last week. We have a better idea for your retirement, assuming you all have old shoe boxes and an attic.

Also as promised, here is the new health-care policy: Don't get sick.

Sales team: (Does two qualify as a team? We'll get back to you on that one.) Please push the buy-one-at-half-price-get-three-free special. Sell, sell, sell (even if you have to give away, give away, give away).

Oh, and remember to stress the "improvements" to the product. When they insist it looks smaller and shabbier, move on to the "new green materials" script.

Hope to see all of you at the staff party, which, by the way, has been moved from the Executive Club to Joe's. Wings are half-price on Thursday nights, and the first basket of 10 is on the company.

Cheers,

--What's Left of Management

 

You’ve heard the grim stories. Sales off by 10, 20, 40 percent. Layoffs and salary reductions. Benefit cutbacks. Businesses hanging by a thread, changing product lines and pricing strategies, eliminating services, desperately trying anything to stay afloat.

But that’s not the whole story. Here in the Capital Region, many small businesses continue to thrive, and others that have felt some recessionary pain are riding it out, some making creative adjustments to the way they do business, others staying the course and using the economic downturn as an opportunity to refocus on what they do best.

Almost everyone surveyed for this story reported that while people are still spending money, they are being more careful than ever about how they spend it. So Jim Nejaime, owner of Nejaime’s Wine Cellars (three stores in Pittsfield, Lenox and Stockbridge, Mass.), made one modest adjustment to his wine-buying policy: Instead of focusing on keeping the stores stocked with “great wines from all around the world,” he’s been shopping for the best values for the dollar—at every price point. We’re looking for “outstanding value at $10 , outstanding value at $30,” he says.

In some cases, old business strategies suddenly are new again. At Rockabella clothing boutique in Saratoga Springs, owner Jackie Szurek had seen “a little bit of a decline in business” over the past several months, and had also noticed something else: customers agonizing over an item they really wanted to buy, and saying out loud that they just didn’t have enough money to pay for it in full. So she began offering a plan she had always had, but that few people had ever asked about: layaway. It was a hit during the Christmas season, and she plans to promote it during prom season as well. “People are taking us up on the offer, and it’s working for both of us,” she says.

Kate Halasz, owner of Aunt Katie’s Attic, an eclectic vintage-to-antiques store in Glenville, thinks the small businesses of the somewhat distant past had it right—especially when it comes to customer service. “We always cater to the customer to begin with,” she says. And Halasz sometimes takes customer service to unusual lengths. One day, she noticed a woman wavering on buying curtains because she couldn’t decide if they would look right in her house. “I said, ‘Linda, take them home, test drive them, if you like them, call me and we’ll make a deal and then you can mail me a check.’

“She said, ‘I’m not going to mail you a check—I’m gonna come back in to pay you so I can shop here again.’ ”

This kind of personal service, she says, breeds lasting customers. “I like doing business the way people did back when the stuff I sell was first made.”

Paul Haddad, president of Haddad’s Rug Company and Haddad’s Carpet Warehouse in Pittsfield, echoes several others in noting that the recession has really driven home the point about customer service. “I think we’ve always been good, but [now] we’re really prioritizing the customer,” he says.

Haddad has made some adjustments—expanding the product line, revising the pricing, offering prepayment discounts on cleaning—but he also has noticed a simple truth, that customers appreciate when you are honest about why things cost what they do, but also flexible enough to work with their budget. “A lot has to do with price today, so you really have to make a conscious effort to fit the price to their needs,” he says. “If they want to be a do-it-yourselfer, we try to give them the tools to do it.”

Stores that also repair what they sell have a built-in recession buster: People who think they can’t afford to buy new will repair what they already own.

Mark Garzia, owner of Lexington Vacuum in Albany, says that “repair has picked up. . . . I’ve weathered a number of recessions through the years. It stabilizes things.” But it also gives Garzia a unique opportunity to point out the value in buying a better quality machine that will last a lot longer without having to be repaired or replaced. “We treat the repair fairly,” he says, “but also counsel and coach people that if they’ve got the money for a better one, that it’s a good investment.”

That coaching, as well as they fact that they do repair what they sell, builds trust. Years ago, an employee wanted Garzia to build a wall to visually block the “unsightly” repair area. “I said, “Absolutely not. That is very powerful, when people see the tools and the wrenches and the workbenches, that’s their safety net.’ ”

“My service dept is as busy as I have ever seen it,” says Parkway Music co-owner Tom Murphy, echoing Garzia. “I am absolutely buried in repair work. I suppose people are fixing their stuff as opposed to buying new stuff.” But apart from the spike in repair work and a slowdown on big-ticket items, Murphy doesn’t see the economy as changing his business that much—if anything, he’s seeing a slight boost from people cutting back on more expensive purchases and treating themselves to a $500 guitar. “I don’t think the recession is going to stop people from making music,” he says.

And for business models that are basically working, knee-jerk reactions to bad economic news can be counterproductive. Cindee Lolik, operations and administrative coordinator for Honest Weight Food Co-op in Albany, points to the impulse to cut back on advertising. “Unfortunately, some business leaders feel that advertising is a nonessential that can be cut back on when times get tough,” she says. “It is our philosophy that keeping your business visible and publicly vibrant is more important that saving a few dollars in the short term.”

Finally, if you’ve built up a reputation for quality, what’s to change? Café Capriccio’s Jim Rua notes that his, like all restaurants, has been affected by the recession—but not as badly as it could have been, in part because the business cycles here are less severe than in other places. “I feel like we have a special little place,” he says, “and we just need to be true to ourselves, and also to be sensible about business issues.”

And no one makes this point more firmly than Scott Meyer, co-owner of the Spectrum 8 Theatres. “In stressful economic times, it is important to maintain your identity and do the best job you can. People will respond to a quality content and presentation no matter what type of business it is. If the issue is surviving a downturn in order to get to the other side and become profitable again, stay the course and put your best foot forward, as opposed to the fire-sale-giveaway-promotional desperate response. The actions you might take if you panic are often unproductive.”


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