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Published: Tuesday, 2/10/2004

Accidental entrepreneur says farewell after 21 years of growth

Bill Chapin never intended to own a business. He was trained as an artist and an art historian, and he probably would have become an art teacher.

But 21 years ago, Mr. Chapin, now 56, was more or less forced to take over a business, and he's ever so glad he made the entrepreneurial plunge.

Saturday, after a three-day liquidation sale, Mr. Chapin closed the Frame Shop, a 51-year-old firm on Adams Street but now he's got the entrepreneurial bug for life.

Matt Jasin carries out a table at the shop's liquidation sale Matt Jasin carries out a table at the shop's liquidation sale

He's started a new firm, Chapin Studios, that he'll run for a time in Perrysburg and probably eventually in Phoenix.

His experience is similar to those of many accidental entrepreneurs - workers who buy out their employers. And the life cycle of the Frame Shop is similar to many other small businesses that struggle, flourish, and then eventually close because there's no one in the family to take over or because there's no ready and willing buyer to assume the business as a going concern.

John Vance, left, thanks Bill Chapin for signing the back of a framed artwork. John Vance, left, thanks Bill Chapin for signing the back of a framed artwork.

Mr. Chapin started working at the store in 1975, when he was still in his 20s. "I didn't even know there were frame shops," recalled Mr. Chapin, whose training was more oriented toward museums and galleries.

He found out there was a great demand for custom-made frames. "If it hadn't been for people asking, 'Bill, can you make me one of these?' I wouldn't have learned [what I know now]' " he said.

By the early 1980s, the founder, the late Charles Wolcott, a retired Toledo district fire chief and art lover, was ready to sell his business. "I didn't want to buy it, but he pushed me into it," Mr. Chapin remembered. "He said, 'Either you buy it or you'll have to help me move it.' "

Even though Mr. Chapin grew up in an entrepreneurial family in Cleveland - his mother and father owned a Kirby vacuum-cleaner distributorship - he wasn't thrilled at the prospect of having employees and paying bills to keep a business running. "It was intimidating," he said.

But he bought the frame business and several years ago he also reopened the Town Gallery, which sold artwork on a consignment basis, in the same building, a 1920s structure at 1811 Adams St. in the Uptown district. And along the way, Mr. Chapin became an art conservator for the Toledo Museum of Art.

"Looking back, I can't even tell you how fortunate I feel," said Mr. Chapin yesterday, adding that the frame business grew an average of about 10 percent a year for two decades. He estimated the firm created more than 75,000 frames in the last half-century, and the frame parts, laid end to end, would stretch more than 85 miles.

But for the last decade, Mr. Chapin and his wife, Tish, have been spending more time in Scottsdale, Ariz., a Phoenix suburb. Last year, he started looking for a buyer for the Frame Shop, and thought he found one but said the person backed out when "it just didn't feel confortable."

He sold the building to Kathleen Kovacs for $195,000. She said she plans to refurbish the second floor into a loft apartment and hopes to find an art-related tenant for the first floor.

Mr. Chapin said more than 500 customers thronged the shop Thursday, Friday and Saturday and bought most of the merchandise and artwork, through a sale arranged by McIlwain Antiques, of Sylvania.

Selling a business intact is difficult when customers relate to the owner as an individual, said Mr. Chapin. "They came in to see Bill. [And] I couldn't sell me. It was almost better to end it clean and know it's over rather than not know where it was going."

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