They Were 
Framed

Somewhere between 100,000 and 150,000 Frame Game frames are hanging on Vermonters’ walls, and the count is rising

by Liz Schick

Thirty years ago, when Joel Bradley was seeking a new career direction, he bought a custom framing business in South Burlington. Thirty years and several shops later, he’s still framing, and “life is good,” he says. Bradley, his wife, Beth, and their dog, Lefty, pose in their shop, Frame Game, in South Burlington.

Jan. 1 was Joel Bradley’s 30th anniversary in the framing game. “They threw one heck of a big party for him in Times Square,” quips his wife, Beth.

Celebration was definitely in the air for Joel, as Feb. 1 was also the sixth anniversary of the current Frame Game store at 1203 Williston Road in South Burlington, and Valentine’s Day was the Bradleys’ 21st wedding anniversary. 

“Love is what it’s all about,” Joel says. “ I love my wife, my family and the framing business. I have the best employees and most phenomenal customers anybody could ever have, so what more could anybody want.” 

Joel’s business career began when he bought Pennino’s on Dorset Street in 1976. Within two years, volume was so high he needed more space, but it was too expensive in that location. Believing there was a lot of potential in the North End, he opened a store in the North Avenue Shopping Center. 

“I started Frame Game as a do-it-yourself store,” Joel says, “where people could pick out their mats and frame pieces and put them together on big work tables. At Pennino’s we were doing high-end custom framing, so I didn’t feel I was cannibalizing my business.” The Frame Game concept was an instant hit. 

Business in the North End built up quickly, and Burlington Square Mall on Church Street recruited Frame Game to be among its first tenants in 1980. “It seemed like a good idea to  move, and it was,” Joel says. “Business was so terrific that 10 years later we opened another Frame Game in University Mall, and in 1998 opened still another store, in Plattsburgh, N.Y.

Bradley started Frame Game as a do-it-yourself store to complement Pennino’s, his high-end custom framing shop, but eventually realized that people didn’t want the bother of doing it themselves. Jared Place (left) and Alex Dostie work as framers.

“We were making hundreds of frames a week — at least 10 to 12 frames a day in each store — as well as selling posters and other affordable, mass-produced art. It was a lot of fun, but truthfully, most people didn’t want the bother of doing it themselves so we were always in the custom framing business; so we sold Pennino’s to our manager to concentrate on the mall business.” 

By the time Joel had the three stores, Frame Game was the largest wholesale buyer of framing supplies in the state. In time, though, the business started to change. “Poster sales trailed off,” he explains. “In fact, over the past five or six years, more than half of the poster publishers in the country have gone out of business.”

Along with the poster business’s going south, the Bradleys admit they had become “tired of dealing with malls, not having enough space and having to be open seven days a week, including holidays. “I think the last straw,” says Beth, “was having to be open July 4th, our one truly national holiday.” 

After 10 years in University Mall, they decided to buy a building that would give them all the space they needed in one convenient location, and, in 2000, they closed the location and moved to Williston Road. They closed the store in Plattsburgh in 2001, and left downtown Burlington in 2002.

“Having one business in one location is a pleasure,” the Bradleys say wholeheartedly. 

So does Skeeter Camera, chief designer, professional jazz drummer and framer with 30 years’ experience, who joined the store two years ago. 

“I’ve known Joel close to 30 years,” Camera says. “I had my own frame shop and gallery in St. Albans back in the late 1970s and early 1980s when I bought supplies from him. Then I moved to California and Australia, but have been working for Joel since I returned, two years ago. I love working here, because it’s a lot of fun, and we do a lot of good work for a lot of good people.”

Good work is why customers Dana and Michael Engel keep coming back. They moved to Burlington slightly more than a year ago and came in because they liked the name, Frame Game. They also liked what they saw and liked how they were treated, and have been coming back ever since.

“We started off with a few things to be reframed and have given them so much business it would have been easier to pay them if I had just deposited my pension check in their account,” Dana Engel says, laughing. 

“I have a particular taste in art and nobody in that store has ever passed any judgment on my art or my taste. Their philosophy is, if you like what is to be framed, then they work to make it the most beautiful it can be. One of their greatest talents is that they make you feel as though you have great taste.”

Engel goes on to explain, “There were times when I’d go in with no clue as to what to do, and times when I would tell Joel that I’d like to use a certain color with a piece. He might agree or he might suggest that I try another color of his choosing, and it would always be the better choice.” 

Skeeter Camera, a professional jazz drummer and framer with 30 years’ experience, joined Frame Game two years ago as chief designer.

Frame Game’s two talented framers are Jared Place, who is also a craftsman of fine, custom knives and has been with Frame Game for five years, and Alex Dostie, a local artist who has been bringing his talent and know-how to treat precious artwork to Frame Game for the last two years. Son Justin, a junior at Champlain College, can be found in the store when his studies permit, as can Beth, along with Lefty, their 15-month-old Australian shepherd and sheltie mix, who serves as public relations director. 

Bradley’s daughters aren’t involved in the store but are in the arts, he says. Kate used to work at The Point, 104.7, and is on-air talent and co-producer of The Loft, a program on XM Radio. Computer graphic artist Shannon works for IDX in Boston. 

It seems unlikely that Joel, an Air Force brat and former shop teacher, would end up in the framing game. 

Although he was born in Burlington, his family moved every 18 months as his Air Force father served around the world. He became a shop teacher in Hinesburg after serving in the Air Force himself, and earned a degree in mass communications from the University of Vermont. It didn’t take long to realize teaching shop was, he says, “a declining career field.”

His sister was in a business that bought and sold businesses. One such business was Tilting at Windmills, a Manchester gallery owner’s attempt at franchising in the northern part of the state. Joel thought Burlington wasn’t high-income enough for the gallery business, but the framing portion made sense to him. He changed the name to Pennino’s, reflecting a family name.

In the 1980s, both divorced singles, Joel and Beth met at Sweetwaters restaurant in Burlington. Beth had her own business, The Executive Barber, an on-site hair-cutting service for businesses. She became Joel’s barber and eventually his wife and bookkeeper. “Every time he would start a new business, I would do the paperwork,” she says.

These days, as recent “empty nesters,” the Bradleys have become involved in Dragon Heart Vermont — a group of breast cancer survivors, like Beth, who have begun to race dragon boats.  

Dragon boat racing honors the 2,500-year-old Chinese tradition in which 22 people, plus a drummer, who beats the cadence, and a steerperson in the back, synchronize the paddling of a 41-foot canoe. According to Beth, it is the Number Two team sport in the world, second only to soccer. Last year Beth’s group raised enough money to buy two boats, and traveled throughout New England to  compete in races. 

To keep the teams synchronized over the winter, the women have taken up Taiko drumming. In true Bradley fashion, Joel has been busy making drums, which the women finish by covering them with silk brocade fabrics.

“It’s the same philosophy as Frame Game — helping people do things they’ve never done before,” he says. “Whether making the drums, drumming or paddling, you can see how these women share a sense of accomplishment,” Joel says. “For me, it’s a wonderful experience to watch these breast cancer survivors begin to feel good about themselves once again.”

Asked how many frames he or his businesses have made, Joel says he has no idea. “We probably make five to 10 a day here, and when we had three stores. I figure each store made the same number so, conservatively, it probably works out to having made somewhere between 100,000 and 150,000 frames over the last 30 years. 

Bradley gives every sign of a man who is content with himself and his world. “I love our store location, I have great employees and our customers are the best. I love what I do and I have my family, as well, so there isn’t anything left to say. Life is good.”