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Photo: Alicia Solsman

A Family in Frames

Clement Frame Shop & Art Gallery is preserving area history, one treasure at a time

By Kathryn Geurin

Ninety-three-year-old Edward Clement pulls two framed photos from behind his cluttered desk at Clement Frame Shop & Art Gallery and holds them proudly at arm’s length. One is an image of his original business, Albany Camera Shop, from the 1960s. The second is a shot of Clement propping up a fully framed king-sized quilt, taller than he is, against the brick wall of the alley behind the Albany business. His eyes shimmer as he appraises his monumental work.

The nonagenarian still comes to work every day at the family business, which has evolved over the years into a frame shop and art gallery. He is quiet now, and hard of hearing, but his sons Ray and Tom—both grown gray-haired themselves—piece together their family story bit by bit, like a pane of stained glass.

In the 1930s, Edward Clement founded the Rensselaer Astrophysical Society at RPI, where the undergraduate student used to craft his own telescope lenses to observe the cosmos. But he was called into service during WWII, before he could finish his degree.

The young veteran returned home needing to build a career, and so struck out into the entrepreneurial world, opening a camera shop. At the time, it was one of only three camera shops in the Capital Region. “They used to run the film down to the trains to New York City,” says Ray. “Once, Amelia Earhart stopped in the shop, right Dad?” The eldest Clement nods broadly, grinning ear to ear.

By the early ’60s, business was changing across the country, as chain stores began supplanting family-run businesses. Ed was feeling the pressure locally, and decided it was time to expand the shop’s services to include custom framing. “In the 1960s there weren’t trade magazines about framing, there weren’t classes available,” says Tom. “You needed to learn from a master, from someone who was doing it.”

So, at 14 and 15, Ray and Tom began apprenticing at Lewis Frame Shop in Troy. “We absolutely worked our way up from the bottom,” chuckles Ray. “First we learned to sweep the floor. Eventually he taught us to cut mats, join frame.”

“We were kids,” says Ray. “We weren’t giving any thought in terms of the future. We had no idea this would become our career.” But, gradually it did, and nearly 50 years later, the brothers reflect on their lives’ work with extreme satisfaction.

“People bring us the things they treasure the most,” says Ray. “We get to know them through their art, their collections, their family memorabilia. They brainstorm an impromptu list of treasures that have passed through their doors: Pisarro drawings, the oldest maps of the area from the New York State Archives, an ancestor’s civil war sword, a telephone Nelson Rockefeller ripped straight off the wall. “Our customers don’t just hand us the items,” says Ray. “They tell us their stories. They are entrusting us with very personal items, very valuable items, irreplaceable items. They know we will properly care for them, and that is really an honor.”

“There are so many big box stores in the market now,” says Tom. “They market huge savings all the time. But we’re not trying to be the least expensive. We’re trying to be the best, guaranteed. We feel strongly that we are competitive and that we do what we do in the absolute best way we know how.”

“My father is still sitting here at 93,” says Ray. “What better guarantee can you get than that? You get to talk to the person who will do the work, and you can be confident we’ll be there to back it up, five years from now, 10 years from now.”

Artists in their own right, the framers all sign their work when it’s completed. “It’s a pride thing,” says Ray. “We really do take pride in our work.”

Today, the family has closed the photo shop in Albany to focus on the Troy store, which has blossomed into a full-service frame shop and art gallery.

Jon Gernon, who oversees the gallery aspect of the shop, is the only non-Clement on staff. Still, Gernon seems to have earned a place in the family after 15 years on board. “The gallery goes hand-in-hand with the frame shop,” says Gernon, an artist himself. “Rembrandt and Vermeer were both framers,” he points out. “They were what you’d consider Sunday painters.” The team works with an array of artists, mostly from within a 100-mile radius of Troy, so promoting and showing their work was a natural progression. The Clement Frame Shop & Art Gallery presents two group shows a year and a solo show every month, including recent shows by local favorites Harry Orlyk, John Conners and Len Tantillo.

“Back in the ’60s,” says Tom, “there were maybe three galleries in the Capital District. But today the art scene is booming, with art nights out and new galleries opening all the time.”

The shop maintains a collection of city directories spanning generations, and a vast collection of antique postcards. They’ll help you find your story, or print you a historic image of a favorite building.

And, as though it was scripted, a woman walks into the shop. “Hi,” she says, “you don’t know me, but you recently helped my husband find a picture of West Hall. I wanted to thank you.” The couple met when they worked together in the RPI building, which began its legacy as Troy Hospital in 1869.

“I hear West Hall is haunted,” whispers Ray. And the storytelling begins.

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