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Bah Humbug: An Interview with Tobin Fraley

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Looking to shop local this Holiday season? Look no farther than Woodland Grove Gallery, owned by husband and wife team Tobin Fraley and Rachel Perkal. Not only does the duo show work by artists both regional and national, they are also the creators of The Humbug, a Christmas book and product line available at the gallery. Our Town spoke with Fraley about art, business and Humbugs.

Our Town What’s your favorite part of owning a gallery?
Tobin Fraley Rachel and I are good partners because we both have different strengths. She is amazing in working with customers and her knowledge of the business side of retail is terrific. I really enjoy designing the spaces and setting up product in the stores. And we both love the hunt for new artists and products.

OT You’re responsible for bringing Lyman Whitaker's Wind Sculptures into town. What attracted you to them?
TF Rachel and I first saw Lyman's wind sculptures at a gallery in Santa Fe in 2005 and we were instantly entranced. At that point Lyman's sculptures were in about 10 galleries around the world and they were not looking to expand that number. Occasionally I would check back with them and then, last summer, I spoke to Lyman's wife Stacey, and she said that she would stop by our gallery when she was out in Chicago visiting a friend in June. Stacey came by and we instantly connected. So in July, Lyman and a small crew came to Long Grove and we installed 40 wind sculptures. It was wonderful working with Lyman and the wind sculptures have been a great addition to the gallery.

OT How do you choose artists to showcase?
TF We really only offer work that we like. It is much easier for us to sell a person's work that we would have in our own home, plus we get to enjoy it every day at the gallery. Overall, the retail business is a lot of very hard work, but the pleasures outweigh the difficulties because we are able to meet so many great people and work with such incredibly talented artists from around the country.

OT What’s the story behind the Humbug?
TF One day around Christmas in 1997 I asked Rachel if she thought that Humbugs would make cute Christmas ornaments. Now Rachel had been the creator and manager of Hallmark's Keepsake Ornament Collectors Club, so she definitely had some expertise in this field. She first question was "What's a Humbug?" I said that it's a little bug that gets into mischief around Christmas. A Humbug is what knocks ornaments off the tree when you're in the other room and why brand new Christmas tree lights go out. She then said, "Write a story about this little guy." So I did.

OT What’s the response been like?
TF There is a little mischief in all of us and the Humbug, despite his nature to cause trouble, is basically good at heart and cares about others. People seem to fall in love with the Humbug. Especially little kids. Many times we have had someone purchase a copy of the book before reading it, take it home and then come back the next day to buy ten more copies to give to all of their friends.

OT In a time of economic uncertainty, you’ve managed to grow your business. Any secrets or advice for small business owners?
TF Tenacity and determination are probably our biggest allies in keeping our businesses going. Over the years, we expanded the gallery four times and have opened two women's clothing stores and a garden shop called the Artistic Gardener. But this was all accomplished prior to the economic downturn. Certainly these last few years have not been easy and there were a number of times when we had to assess whether we should continue. But we believed in what we were doing and so we borrowed and used portions of our IRAs to get us through the worst days. The other thing that has sustained us is the loyalty of our regular customers. We feel that the people who shop with us are a part of our extended family and I think that they must feel the same.

Born in 1951, Tobin Fraley spent his first ten years in Seattle, Washington, growing up in and around his grandfather’s amusement park. His interest in photography began in high school and the political environment of Berkeley in 1968 offered him a chance to practice with the camera. As a center of counter-culture and a flashpoint for anti-war activity, there was no lack of relevant subject matter to photograph. But it was not until years later that he began to study photography in earnest before owning and operating Zephyr Press, a wall calendar publishing company. In 2000 Tobin and his wife Rachel moved to Long Grove and settled next to the Reed-Turner Woodland Nature Preserve and now own and operate several shops in downtown Long Grove. He is the author of three books on the history of Carousels along with a holiday children’s story titled, A Humbug Christmas. Fraley currently teaches photography at the Chicago Botanic Garden and the Morton Arboretum.

A writer with an MFA in Creative Writing from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Sarah Terez Rosenblum freelances for a number of web sites and print publications. Her debut novel, “Herself When She’s Missing," (Soft Skull press) is available for pre-order here. She is also a figure model, Spinning instructor and teacher at Chicago’s StoryStudio. Inevitably one day she will find herself lecturing naked on a spinning bike. She's kind of looking forward to it actually.
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This page contains a single entry by Sarah Terez-Rosenblum published on December 16, 2011 2:54 PM.

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