Retiring couple says “it’s been a good life downtown”

John Gephart is finishing his final projects in the next few weeks after nearly 60 years of custom framing treasured items, and selling wall décor and arts and craft supplies.

Gephart’s store in downtown Richmond, John’s Custom Framing, is closing no later than the end of February.

He aims to sell the remaining merchandise, such as craft patterns, stencils and art portfolios, and the store’s fixtures. His extensive collection of Hot Wheels and other miniature vehicles on display also might have to find buyers because he doesn’t think he has room at home for them all.

“They have to sell me last, because I have the key,” Gephart joked.

The building’s new owner, who has not yet been named, already is creating plans for 823-825 E. Main St.

“It’s a local business owner, a very good person, who will do something really nice,” John said.

Thinking about his many customers, employees and the friendly felines that watched over the shop, John says he’s met “a lot of good friends.”

Early beginnings

After studying art at the Central Academy in Cincinnati, John found work in the metropolitan area in advertising as a commercial artist.

Later, he added a part-time role teaching drivers’ training and learned one of his students’ families had a picture framing shop. They asked if he could help them sometime.

After taking on some framing work, John found that creative avenue interesting. They offered to hire him, and he studied there for a couple years before hunting around for his own location.

He considered opening a shop in Dayton or Cincinnati. But after talking with people in Richmond, John saw potential for a store to prosper in an “art-minded” community, thanks to support for the city’s art museum, civic theater, opera company, symphony orchestra and other assets.

It also helped that Richmond was his wife Barbara’s hometown. They’ve been married for more than 60 years.

John and Barbara first opened their shop at 712 E. Main St. in 1964, before the tragic April 1968 downtown explosions just a block away.

John is still impressed that despite storefront windows being broken throughout the shopping district, there were no reports of anyone reaching in and taking merchandise.

He recalls that businesses quickly received help in boarding up before more extensive repairs could be made, and merchants had a collaborative spirit for rebuilding.

“We just worked together,” he said.

John eventually heard from a friend in real estate that his current location was available, offering expansion opportunities for arts and crafts merchandise.

The framing shop was originally built as the S.S. Kresge store, and then was converted to Kresge’s Jupiter Discount Store brand. He’s proud to be the building’s second owner.

He has many good memories of fun Friday nights when the store stayed open late and downtown shoppers were plentiful.

He remembers one Friday evening during the Rose Festival when the sidewalk was so crowded “that you couldn’t get into the flow of traffic to get away from the store” after closing time.

Another of his favorite special attractions was a miniature golf course that was temporarily set up along Main Street.

In turn, John has enjoyed preserving a variety of special memories for area residents through his frames. Shadow boxes and personal artwork are among his favorite items to work with.

The interior of John’s Custom Framing. Photo by Millie Martin Emery

“It’s been a good life downtown,” Barbara said.

Barbara worked in sales and helped John with framing. She also taught painting classes for many years.

The store supported their family of two daughters, Kim Erdosy and Erin Bell, who helped occasionally while they were growing up.

After experiencing the family business — and having the perk of endless access to art supplies — Kim went to the Columbus (Ohio) College of Art and Design and became a graphic artist, and Erin began working in banking.

Kim returned to Richmond about 10 years ago, while Erin currently lives in St. Louis. The Gepharts have five grandchildren.

Kim said she’s in awe of the people who’ve heard about her dad’s retirement and are stopping into the store to share their good wishes.

“It’s a constant stream of people,” Kim said.

She said her dad is very talented artistically, and she hopes he soon can find time to create his own art that he put on hold while running a business, as well as make gadgets and enjoy movies.

Longtime connections

The Gepharts have been known for their hospitality to human and feline neighbors.

Several downtown business owners gather frequently over coffee to swap information at the shop. A cluster of chairs sits near the front counter on the current cold days, which were moved outdoors on warm days.

“It’s a gathering of the minds over coffee,” said Mark Davis, who has enjoyed “good conversation about gossip, sports and local celebrities” for well over 30 years.

Davis called John “a sweetheart.”

The Gepharts also enjoyed getting to know their employees, some of whom worked there for many years.

They hired a lot of high school students, many of them attending Northeastern.

John laughed while noting that one of the young workers had stopped by recently to say hello, mentioning that he’s retired from the postal service.

“Fifty-eight years brings a lot of changes,” Barbara said.

In addition to providing employment, the store has been home to about half a dozen cats over the years.

The orange-colored Robert, who died in 2002, greeted customers for about 20 years on the sidewalk or inside, and frequently drew visitors into the shop.

“There wasn’t a day that would go by that someone wouldn’t come by to check on the cat or pet the cat,” John said.

After Robert’s death, the Gepharts purchased an obituary for him in a local newspaper, and then-State Sen. Allen Paul signed a custom certificate honoring Robert for outstanding community service.

Robert had a perch above one of the doors where he could keep his eyes on the goings-on. A wood carving customer made a cat sculpture that now rests on the perch in his honor.

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Millicent Martin Emery is a reporter and editor for the Western Wayne News.