MAYNARD — In June, while browsing antiquarian books online, Justin Chien came across a limited edition copy of “Alice in Wonderland,” illustrated and signed by surrealist painter Salvador Dali. What attracted his interest — and his $6,000 — were 12 full-color Dali prints that he imagined hanging in his Boston condominium.
But when it came time to frame the prints, Chien didn’t stay in Boston. He traveled 25 miles to Maynard and the Gallery Seven Frame Shop & Fine Art Gallery.
“A lot of people don’t know the difference between one framing shop and another,” said Chien. “There’s a difference between framing as a technical process and treating something as a work of art.”
Gallery Seven has built its business by knowing the difference, becoming a go-to place for customers who want special care for works not only by Dali, but also by Picasso, French painter Georges Braque, and Indian artist Jamini Roy. Founded seven years ago by Nick Johnson, a fine art photographer, and his wife, Kelli Costa, who previously worked at Lee Gallery in Winchester, the framing business has prospered by building a niche among art lovers and collectors, even as thousands of other shops across the country have failed.
Gallery Seven’s strategy is common to many small business survivors: provide specialized, high-end goods and services for which people will pay more. At Gallery Seven, the average framing costs around $200, about 10 to 15 percent higher than chain shops.
That premium buys archival quality materials such as acid-free backings and UV-protective glass. It also includes a service visit by the shop owners to hang newly framed art at clients’ homes.
“If you’re just going to do a price thing and compete with the big box stores, you’re going to lose,” said Jay Goltz, a columnist for the trade publication Picture Framing Magazine and owner of Chicago’s Artists Frame Service, one of the largest independent frame shops in the country. “The shops that have survived are surviving because they know more about conservation and design, and they are selling to people who have more discerning tastes.”
Like independent booksellers, independent framing shops have had to contend with big chains and Internet competitors, Goltz said. Nationally, the number of independently owned frame shops has plunged to 8,000, down from 25,000 a decade ago, Goltz estimated.
Johnson and Costa opened their business in downtown Maynard in 2008, attracted by a local artists’ community and proximity to affluent towns — Lincoln, Sudbury, Stow, Acton, and Concord — where many of their art-collecting clients live.
From the beginning, Gallery Seven focused on the art, not the frames. The shop frames about 80 pieces each month, but customers walking in won’t see racks of frames. Instead, they’ll see a gallery featuring Greater Boston artists.
The gallery hosts six exhibits each year. In addition to supporting the local art scene, the idea, said Costa, is “to put on a fancy opening reception for the shows and get people in here who say, ‘Oh, there’s a frame shop here.’ ”
The result: a steady lineup of collectors with rare works and average annual sales growth of 12.5 percent, the owners said. Last year, the shop reframed a Picasso etching signed by the artist and valued at $10,000. Another Boston collector asked Gallery Seven to frame eight signed prints by Braque, best known for developing Cubism with Picasso, which were worth $24,000.
In May, a West Roxbury couple brought in a $30,000 painting by Roy, one of the best known Indian artists of the 20th century, for frame restoration. The shop also framed a $20,000 piece by modern artist Mel Bochner and a $25,000 signed American flag taken to the moon by astronaut Buzz Aldrin.
Johnson, 60, who teaches at New England School of Photography, has framed his own work for nearly 40 years. He said he has learned that elaborate matting and framing can be a disservice to the art. For the most valuable pieces, he often recommends a museum-quality, basic white mat with black frame, allowing the art to stand out.
The influx of expensive art has led Gallery Seven to double its insurance to protect against theft, damage, or loss. To cover the rarest of pieces, Johnson and Costa buy riders — one-time insurance boosters. It is a cost they the say they are happy to take on.
“We’ve seen quite a few businesses come and go in the seven years,” said Costa. “It’s been amazing for us.”