Alan & Amanda James, owners of Smithbrook Picture Framing
ALAN – I was born in Woodstock, Oxford where I lived for 3 years. My dad was in business and every 3 years the family moved and we finally settled in Guildford in the early 1980’s. I now live with Amanda in Alfold, Surrey.
I had a happy, secure home with loving parents and often remember our Sunday evenings. We would sit together as a family, watching TV programs before bed, before Monday morning when school started again, the dreaded school days! I didn’t particularly enjoy school and was glad to leave at the end of each day.
As a youngster I was keen to discover my creative side and from an early age I wanted to use my hands – even though the things I took apart (like an old tv or radio) were rarely put back together again! I developed my creative side through school and college. From the age of 6 I remember helping my father to make things and doing DIY together. My first interest was woodwork and metalwork. I even had a woodwork piece (a circular chessboard) entered into a school exhibition at the age of 16. That’s one positive memory I have of my school days though I was happy to move to college to study carpentry and cabinet making.
My journey from there to picture framing is a long one. After I left college in 1985, I went to the Job Centre in Guildford (when these were physical offices you could walk into!). In the window was the smallest of adverts – ‘Trainee picture framer wanted at a prestigious gallery in Guildford’. As a nervous young lad, I went for my first job interview and was successful! I was employed at Forest Gallery as a trainee, and trained there for 3 years. Subsequently I moved to Smith brook Picture Framing and continued my joy of picture framing before heading over to Walton- on-Thames to be the Workshop Manager of a high street picture framing business. there.
AMANDA – I was born in Epsom, Surrey and after leaving school, I trained as a nurse with the NHS and had a successful 30-year career working in most areas of the NHS. I had a stop gap to bring up my 4 children. In 2019 I retired from my final position at The Medwyn GP Centre in Dorking and embarked on a new career with my husband, Alan. We moved to Smithbrook Kilns to run Smithbrook Picture Framing. I’d also previously had a part-time job at a high-end jewellery company in Reigate where my passion (and natural talent) for design and customer service became apparent. I’ve been able to bring this into the business at Smithbrook Picture Framing. Alan recognises my flare for design, colours and choice of frame types. We’ve had customers asking me “Are you an interior designer?” I’m also responsible for quality control of the completed work and complete the assembly of work, final clean up and wrapping. And of course, the laborious material ordering and basically keeping Alan in check!
ALAN AND AMANDA – So how did we come to this business? In 2019, 20 years on, we contacted Smithbrook Picture Framing because we had something to frame after a trip overseas! Actually, it was the largest papyrus you could get on a plane, it was huge! It was so timely because after chatting to the owners and reminiscing with them, we discovered the business was up for sale as they were retiring. They gave us the opportunity to buy it and we leapt at the chance. The business had a good customer base which we’ve developed further and brought this once “sleepy picture framing” business into the 21st century.
We’d never run a business before, but it came naturally to us both. We now have an amazing window display, upgraded lighting and over 1500 frame samples. Our social media presence is huge with thousands of followers on Facebook, Instagram, Youtube and Google where lots of completed framing work can be viewed.
We receive amazing reviews on Google/Cylex/Trustpilot which is a testament to the hard work in making everything we do as perfect and interesting as possible.
Alan says “Running a business is very hard, it buzzes in our head 24/7! And when we do get a break, we’re still thinking about marketing and framing ideas. Our business never stays still, it is redesigning itself as styles and trends change”.
There are days when we certainly have what we call the “Repair Shop moment”, when displaying a final framed piece. The customer can sometimes stand there, staring at the piece and for a moment we don’t know if they like it or not. Then emotions start to run high and they sometimes get tearful because they are absolutely blown away by the design and framing of their piece of artwork that has such great memories of a past partner, or a deceased dog perhaps. That’s the love of the job – we connect with our customer from the initial design of framing, introducing new ideas, all the way to the delivery of the final piece. Customers comment how the journey has been an “experience” and not just “choosing a frame”.
Do we have a plan for the future? With all business ventures the risk of getting too big, too fast is sometimes a path to avoid. Together we offer a high-end, picture framing service and we’ll continue to have our shop at Smithbrook Kilns. We’ve looked into offering a printing service – but printing is a massive market. So we simply offer to print customer’s photos using a printing company in Horsham. Customers email us their photographs and we organise the printing and subsequent framing.
Ours is very much a bespoke experience and we want our customers to be “gobsmacked” as they collect their completed work.
We have a massive selection of over 1500 frame samples from the modern to antique. These are sourced from Italy, Germany and Portugal and stockpiled by our suppliers in UK. We have our handmade frames from Frinton Frames which are beautifully constructed. We also supply readymade frames for the ‘grab and go’ market.
We use the latest technology to assist in making sure our customers’ framing is completed in an orderly fashion (it usually takes about 10 days). But the picture framing process remains mainly a traditional process of coming to the shop, touching the materials and working together with us to decide the best frame and materials. All the work is then completed on site by us.
Alan says “I doubt any picture framer could fully go online. It isn’t the right direction for us. Any craft or skill similar to ours, for example a cabinet maker, cannot be done online. The customer has to see the wood, materials, quality finish and be tactile with it. The risk of sending away a customer’s precious piece of artwork is a worry they don’t need to have here at Smithbrook Picture Framing“.
Why do we remain at Smithbrook Kilns? The business is in its 40th year at Smithbrook Kilns and even though we’ve seen businesses move away and new ones arrive, we’ve stayed solid throughout recession, pandemic and the present cost of living crisis. Smithbrook Kilns is a lovely setting with easy parking, a coffee shop and many other retail shops to browse around. Amanda says “The setting is amazing for us. Set in the countryside with lots of trees, ponds and a great community too.”
Smithbrook Kilns is perfect for any business, situated off the busy A281. The signage beside the A281 captures the eyes of many drivers as they drive pass. One benefit of Smithbrook Kilns is the short walk from the free parking area, when bringing items big or small, to the shop. Or if necessary, customers can drive straight up to the shop to offload any large pieces of artwork. It’s ideal for dog owners too, as we’re a dog friendly shop.
We are totally customer focused. We work with their framing needs, from beginning to end. We can instantly correspond with our clients regarding design ideas over WhatsApp. We email customers when we’re designing complicated memorabilia pieces or similar. Everything we do is centred around ensuring their framing experience is perfect in every way possible. Feel free to call or pop in for a chat and also visit the other businesses on site.