BRATTLEBORO—“I turned 66 in November. I’ve had a job since I was five years old,” Robert Clements, co-owner of Zephyr Designs, said, when asked why he is retiring at the end of the month.
“Literally, I’ve been working for 61 years,” he added. “I figure I don’t owe the Gross Domestic Product anything at this point."
Clements’ first job as a young boy in Detroit was piece-work, assembling car door switches for an engineer friend of his father’s.
Since then, he has worked in restaurants, construction, and maintenance. For the last 41 years, he has owned Zephyr Designs, the art supply and custom framing shop in downtown Brattleboro. His younger brother, John, came to work with him in the early 1980s, and within a few years became a partner.
Zephyr Designs began its life in 1971 as the Zephyr Frame Shop. Zephyr Renaud opened it, then moved it a few times before selling it to Virginia and Peter Vogel in its incarnation at 51 Main St. in April, 1973.
The following year, Robert Clements arrived in the Brattleboro area.
“I moved here in September, 1974, to live in a tepee,” Clements said.
In November, 1975, Clements bought the Zephyr Frame Shop. He soon added art supplies, and changed the name to Zephyr Designs.
When Clements bought the business, it was located behind Alan Gill’s photography shop, the Village Studio. When that moved, the front of the store became available.
Clements said the Christian Scientists were interested in putting their reading room in the old photo studio, but he did not think a quiet reading room and a noisy frame shop would be a good match.
So, he took over the entire storefront, renovated the space, dismantled the interior walls, put in a new floor, and removed the drop-ceiling to expose the tin ceiling, which he repaired. And there Zephyr Designs remained for about 25 years.
“We tried to buy that building for the better part of 15 years,” Clements said, but the owners did not want to sell it.
Meanwhile, the shop was running out of room.
In 2000, while his older brother was in Tucson for a gem and mineral show, John learned the building at 129 Main St. was for sale. He bought it, and in August, the shop moved to its new home, where it has been ever since, and where it shall remain after Clements retires.
Being pretty much the only frame game in town has provided the brothers and their staff an interesting view of the area.
“We’ve been asked to frame some pretty weird things,” Robert Clements said.
The one he said provided the greatest “engineering challenge” was a full formal matador suit a bride wanted to present to her groom. The major caveat: the man had to be able to remove it from the shadow box and wear it. Clements said John custom-built a form that could be taken out of the frame.
In another instance, “someone had gone on a spiritual journey” and come back with what Clements described as “roadkill."
“It was pretty much leather” by the time Zephyr’s staff had to deal with it, so there was nothing drippy to frame.
In 41 years, Clements said he has only had to kick two people out of his shop.
The first one was a customer who asked him to do a project, then when she did not like it, even though he followed her instructions, he had to do it over numerous times. Finally, he gave up and told her he could not help her.
The second was what Clements described as a “local artist” who treated Zephyr’s employees poorly.
“You can say what you want to me. I can take crap,” he said, adding, “I can give it, too. But don’t abuse my staff."
“I told him, ’Find somewhere else to go, then stay there.’” Clements said.
Other than those few incidents, Clements speaks of his time at Zephyr Designs as overwhelmingly positive.
“I really feel fortunate to have been... involved in so many people’s lives,” Clements said, noting he “framed the arc” of many of his customers’ lives via their photographs: children become parents, parents become grandparents.
“I’ve had friendships” with his clients, he said, and they have become “more than customers."
Clements’ last planned day on the sales floor will be Dec. 24, after which the shop closes for the week between Christmas and New Years’ Day. Then, John will take over.
“I thought it would be best to work through the Christmas season,” Clements said.
“That’s no time for a new person to begin,” he said, noting “the amount of business we do between Thanksgiving and Christmas is about as much as we do in a quarter."
Clements said he presumes the current staff will remain. They tend to do that, he noted. The employee with the least amount of seniority has been there for eight years. Between the shop’s three workers, Clements said, they have a combined 38 years of experience at Zephyr Designs.
As for Clements, he does not plan to laze around upon his retirement.
“To go from a nine-to-five job for 41 years to nothing” is not a good idea, he said.
“I’m a long-term planner,” he said. “I’ve made plans to make this transition as well thought-out as possible."
His first move will take him to Jamaica a few days per week to work on the line at Asta’s Swiss Inn, where Clements will learn about Swiss, German, Austrian, and Alsatian cuisine under the expertise of Chef Michel.
“It’s an area of cuisine I don’t know,” Clements said. “If I have anything that resembles an artistic expression, it’s cooking. I spend two hours a night making dinner — that’s normal."
He commented on the challenge of making a living selling one’s art, and noted that without the requisite passion, supporting himself without it would have been a lost cause.
“I had taken art classes in college,” Clements continued. “I was proficient in it, but I didn’t have a passion for it.”
But, that art training has helped Clements run his business and relate to his customers.
“It’s very fortunate that I’ve been in a business where I can use my knowledge, but I don’t have to sell my artwork to make a living,” he said.