How did I get to this place? Rich man, poor man, beggar man, thief…doctor, lawyer, Indian chief… My own life morphed in unusual ways. My list included: Deckhand, 1st mate, Boat Captain, Cook on a Charter Boat, Carpenter, Outward Bound Instructor, Postal Carrier, Writer, Teacher, and Mother. I never thought to be a small business owner, nor an upholsterer.
But the winter after I got my Masters in Education and a teaching degree at UMASS Boston through ‘Teach Next Year,’ there were no jobs for high school English teachers in Boston. I was unemployed and helping to renovate the two-family house my mother and I had bought, and my boyfriend had a bunch of old furniture in need of redoing, so I took an upholstery class.
It brought me back to 7th grade when we were the first girls to take Wood Shop. Our culminating project, with stern Mr. Cary, was a mahogany bench with an upholstered seat. He provided us with a sheet of black naugahyde, but when I asked if I could bring in a different (prettier) fabric, he said okay. I still have the bench in my living room and it was one of the first things I reupholstered on my own, with only the help of a boyfriend’s staple gun.
Kevin Kennedy’s upholstery class in West Concord reminded me of how much I liked working with my hands and how satisfying it was to work on smaller projects than a house! It was fun to re-invent and bring alive a piece of furniture with a carefully chosen fabric. Stretching webbing, tacking in 6 ounce tacks, I felt in my element. I asked Kevin if he would consider me as an apprentice, but he refused. Several months later, I finally convinced him that I could bring him work in exchange for his teaching. He started me selling fabric as well.
A year or so later when a shop space opened up on Broadway, near my home in Arlington, we decided to go into business together as a partnership.
Upholstery on Broadway’s size belies all that happens there. Four times a week, nine adult students of varying ages and levels of experience, gather to work on their chairs, ottomans or crickets. Conversation flickers amidst the sounds of WJIB radio’s Broadway tunes. Kevin and I explain as we teach, often slipping into anecdotes or stories. The atmosphere is a warm and cozy one. Customers walk in with a request for an estimate (we also do these by email), or a set of dining room chairs they want redone.
I am manager, coordinator, organizer, keeping track of everything in addition to helping out where I can with the teaching. Kevin, with his 30 years of experience as an upholsterer trained from a young age with old European Masters, does most of the upholstering, though I do a great deal of stripping and prepping the pieces in preparation for the new fabric. Keeping the shop tidy, ordering supplies, accounting, planning ahead, advertising classes, making changes on the website or our Yelp page, are all things that I do.
I was an entrepreneur as a young girl when I babysat all through our neighborhood, and at age 12 when my friend, Gina, and I, wrote, produced and sold a magazine for kids, ‘The Magic Unicorn.’ The small business owner is alive and well within me. After two years in business, after starting out with only $100 each, we are a growing success. I love the flexibility of owning our own business, or I should say it’s what makes it possible for me to work. Juggling, as so many women do is necessary. Keeping regular shop hours is a challenge but with the advantage of technology such as Smart Phones, I can take calls on the playground or the ice skating rink or while taking my elderly mother to a doctor’s appointment. I love the challenge of thinking of new ideas to make our business work better. I love our students and their enthusiasm. When I called one student to see if she wanted to make up a class the next day she told me, “There’s nothing I’d rather be doing than coming to Upholstery Class.”
Next item on our docket: how to grow enough to afford health insurance for both partners and our families. Perhaps that is a question for Elizabeth Warren?