Former Frame Shop Owner is Finally Ready for Retirement
By Daniel Barnes
There are early bloomers—and then there is Don Taylor. The former owner of Taylor’s Art Center on J Street, Don married his teenage sweetheart, Mec, while he was still attending McClatchy High. He purchased the Midtown framing store in his early 20s, expanding Taylor’s to include locations in Arden-Arcade and Stockton, and later adding an office supplies store and gallery. Don even retired young at the age of 58, selling to University Art when the framing industry nosedived in the 1990s.
University Art continues to operate on J Street, while Don at 79 still seems more like a 58-year-old. Residing in Carmichael, the Taylors have traveled the world and started their own jewelry line since selling the business, but Don still misses the frame game. “I wasn’t ready to quit,” he says. “I think we’d opened nine different businesses when I retired—most didn’t make it, but
that’s the fun part.” Taylor’s Art Center debuted as Van’s Art Shop in 1949, the same year Relles Florist and Art Ellis opened on J Street, which was a two-way road at the time. While attending Sacramento City College and working at UPS, 18-year-old Don stepped into Van’s to purchase art supplies, only to be offered a job by the owner, a twinkly-eyed Dutchman named A.M. “Van” Van Soest. Don refused, but Van offered again when Don went back two months later. “This is very weird, considering what ended up happening,” Don says.
Then in his late 70s, Van had previously owned art and frame shops in Amsterdam, San Rafael and San Francisco, and they all went broke. Van’s Art Shop seemed headed for the same fate, until Don and Van’s son John, both barely of legal drinking age at the time, bought him out in 1960. “We knew the framing business, and we knew there was lots of business,” says Don. “But Van was pricing us out of the market. He was going broke every day because he didn’t pay his bills.”
Taylor’s quickly developed into the go-to frame shop for then-unknown artists Wayne Thiebaud and Gregory Kondos, who both taught college at the time. “If you’re an artist or teacher, they’re not told anything about framing,” Don says. “They had to come to us, if they cared, and learn from us.”
While the framing business boomed in the late 1960s and throughout the 1970s (at one time there were 63 frame shops in the Sacramento area), Taylor’s became established as the biggest fish in a deep pond. “We were probably working 18-hour days, including Saturdays,” Don says. He tried to aggressively grow the business, adding additional, short-lived locations, first in Stockton and later in Town & Country Village, and expanding the store to include more art supplies.
Don bought his fatigued business partner’s share in 1969, at which point Mec came aboard, helping the J Street location expand from seven employees to 50, while also adding an office supplies store, home organization store and gallery. At high tide, Taylor’s had salesmen roaming from Reno to Vacaville, plus two in-house employees who only took phone orders. They also sold supplies to the local airbases, as well as both daily newspapers. “Everybody had to buy from a major store, and we just happened to develop into the major art store,” he says.
The industry changed drastically in the 1990s as personal computers became more powerful and accessible. “At one point in time, everything was dependent on materials,” says Don. “Suddenly the Macintosh came along, and we were told that this thing could hurt.” Industry experts predicted it would take 10 years for businesses like Taylor’s to feel the crunch, but it only took two. “We literally lost most of our business,” he adds.
Five years after the big drop, Taylor’s was reinvented enough to keep the business afloat, but the magic was gone. “It’s not fun anymore when you can hardly pay your bills,” says Don. Palo Alto-based University Art made an offer in 1998 and, after six months of resisting, Don accepted. Only 58 at the time, Don wasn’t ready to ride off into the sunset. “People talk about being retired, and so many of them retire and die five years later,” he says. “I guess I was too young for that.”
In addition to traveling the world and creating a jewelry line with Mec, Don has re-focused on his own painting over the last two decades, mostly working in watercolors. “Since I retired, I’ve been able to do a lot of experimenting,” he says. He also became active in the South Sacramento Rotary Club and started mentoring through his church’s employment center. “Everybody needs a toe up, everybody needs something to grab on to,” he says. “Nobody understands that better than me.”
Daniel Barnes can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.