Frame of Mind

A colorful downtown Fairhope fixture prepares for the next half century of business with a renewed energy and a vibrant past.

Kelley and Mike Lyons in front of stacks of projects and prints ready for framing. Photos by Chad Riley

Stepping inside Fairhope’s Lyons Share frame store and gallery is like wandering into a jewel box. Light pours in from the tall windows that face the street, illuminating rows of paintings that stretch from the first floor up to the mezzanine above. Pops of color burst from the minimalist abstracts and sumptuous folk artworks on display, enveloping the room in a sophisticated kaleidoscope.

Norman, a 6-month-old English cream golden retriever, snoozes on the cool floor, sprawled out near an array of picture frame samples hung on the far wall. Back here, the lighting is darker, and the ceiling is lower. A doorway centered between the rows of frames opens onto a scene of organized chaos.

This is the fitting room, where a handful of people go about their work framing paintings, photographs and family heirlooms. The week’s jobs are organized on a 5-foot-tall whiteboard, affectionately called the “big-ass board,” which is propped against a table. 

Decades’ worth of mementos adorn every spare nook and cranny around the perimeter of the room. There’s a stack of “I love you, Dad” Post-Its stuck to a bookcase, written by shop owner Kelley and Mike Lyons’ daughter Emily. Nearby, a portion of the wall is encrusted with layers upon layers of stickers from frame shops across the country. Above the doorway, into the adjoining saw room, where frames are cut to size, there’s a small collection of photos of exes who have been unceremoniously removed from customers’ photographs, intermingled with images of popes and other notable figures. Old saw blades hang overhead, drilled into the ceiling joists, and empty wine bottles from First Fridays line up on a high wall-to-wall shelf.

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Taped up among the relics, an old rectangle of cardboard packaging reads “Bedpan,” accompanied by an illustration. The framers discovered it during a reframing job; the customer had used it as makeshift backing. “You never know what you’re going to find behind art,” said framer and artist Karen Faire with a wry smile.

These bits and scraps add up to nearly a half-century’s worth of memories, layered like tree rings marking the passing of time since the shop first opened its doors 45 years ago.

Strike While the Iron is Hot

Kelley Lyons and her grandmother, Betty Joe Wolff, in the early days of the gallery. Photo courtesy the Lyons

Lyons Share’s origin story is inextricably bound to that of its next-door neighbor, bookstore Page & Palette. Half a century ago, Kelley Lyons’ grandmother, Betty Joe Wolff, ran Page & Palette from a little house on Section Street. Finding herself in need of more space, Betty Joe set her sights on the expansive property next door, a sweeping two-story building at the corner of Section Street and De La Mare. She started working out a deal to buy the building from neighboring owner Bessie Montgomery. 

Meanwhile, a few hours up the road in Troy, Betty Joe’s son, Robbie, was stepping out into the world as a newly minted college graduate with a degree in fine art and a plan to open a frame shop in his college town. 

“My grandmother begged him to come back to Fairhope,” said Kelley. “He didn’t really want to come back home, but she talked him into it.” Lured by the offer of space in her newly acquired corner building, Robbie opened his shop – which he called Wolff Gallery – in 1978, sharing the space with the bookstore. 

“When I was in middle school and high school, we used to hang out at Page & Palette and my dad’s store after school,” said Kelley. “When I walked down the street as a kid, I knew everybody. It was very rare that you would see a stranger.” 

This was Fairhope pre-flowerbeds and pre-tourists. “It wasn’t a beautiful Downtown,” she said. Instead of boutiques and galleries, Fairhope of the ‘70s and ‘80s was a hub for necessities: a hardware store, a car dealership, a fast-food place, an old movie theater. At that time, De La Mare wasn’t yet a pretty street lined with inviting storefronts. As Mike Lyons put it, the one-block street was originally “the back door for Fairhope Avenue,” practically an alleyway, home to warehouses. 

As a child, Kelley wouldn’t have believed you if you’d told her she would still be in Fairhope today. She had every intention of growing up and flying away from the Eastern Shore. In keeping with that plan, when it came time to go to college, she hightailed it up to the University of Montevallo. 

However, when she came home the summer of sophomore year, fate intervened. That summer, she and her twin sister Karin worked part-time at Page & Palette’s beach location, in Perdido Key’s Coquina Village. Kelley took a second job at Sweet Peppers Pizza, and Karin worked a second job at a video store.

One day, the video store hosted a party, and Karin begged Kelley to come along so she didn’t have to go by herself. Kelley relented, and they rode together with Karin’s coworker Mike and his friend Todd. Mike flipped a coin to see who he would sit with. As luck would have it, he sat next to Kelley. Kelley and Mike didn’t know it yet, but that coin flip sparked a relationship that would take on many forms – marriage, parenthood, business ownership – and persist decades later.

Later that summer, a smitten Mike swiped a photo of Kelley from her grandmother’s condo and kept it on his bedside table. Except, he came to find out, it wasn’t a photo of Kelley. It was Karin. He didn’t figure it out until months later, and he’s still trying to live it down today.

At the end of the summer, Kelley returned to Montevallo, but after a few weeks back at school, she and Mike missed each other so badly, she decided to transfer to the University of South Alabama. Mike rode up to get her.

“I worked at a frame shop in Mobile when I went to USA,” said Kelley. “It was like Deck the Walls in the mall.” Her dad saw what she was doing there and offered her a small raise to entice her to come work for him instead. She took the offer and moved back to Fairhope to work at his gallery.

Kelley and Mike were married in 1990. Five years later, Robbie Wolff got a wild hair to open Ashland Gallery in Mobile, and he offered to sell Wolff Gallery to the couple. Up to this point, Kelley had committed to setting down a few small roots back in her hometown, but this was an inflection point: She and Mike had to decide whether they wanted to dig in and stay in Fairhope for good. Together, they decided to take the plunge. 

“My grandmother came up to us and said, I think you can find a local bank … to finance it for you because they know you, and they know the business,” said Kelley. “And sure enough, she was right. We were able to buy it without other people helping us.

“Knowing my family, you have to strike while the iron is hot,” she said. “I mean, next week he could change his mind. And so, we got our ducks in a row and made it happen. And the rest is history.” In 1995, Wolff Gallery officially became Lyons Share Custom Framing and Gallery.

The Lyons Share work room contains stacks of paintings and mementos ready for framing.

One of Those Things You Never in Your Life Expect

At that time, the gallery was located in the downstairs corner where Latte Da coffee shop sits now, and the frame shop was upstairs. The trek up and down the stairs was troublesome for a lot of customers, according to Mike. “We had been looking for an answer to that for a while when we decided to buy the property next door.” 

That next-door lot was then home to one of Fairhope’s oldest houses, but time had taken its toll and the building was in tear-down condition. Kelley and Mike had it demolished, then started making plans with Walcott Adams Verneuille to design a striking new building for the gallery.

“I often tell people that it’s one of our best salespeople,” said Mike. “The building’s beautiful. It’s a great showcase for artwork. We were able to fit a lot more artwork in there and ramp up our framing production a good bit. 

“As we continued to grow, we picked up more and more large projects,” he said. They framed and hung 1,700 pieces for the Grand Hotel. Based on their reputation, they were also chosen to put together a show in New Orleans for an orthopedic doctors’ convention. “We had over 100 pieces, some 6-foot-tall marble sculptures, some 100-piece groups that made one piece of artwork,” said Mike.

They also developed a good working relationship with local artist Dean Mosher, who specializes in large-format paintings of historical scenes. When one of Mosher’s paintings was hung in the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum on the National Mall, Kelley and Mike directed the framing of the massive 8-by-10-foot picture, which had to be framed on-site.  

“We got to go in there with little Smithsonian badges and be the boss for the day and tell them what to do,” said Mike. “That was fun.”

Newly-framed photos and works of art are wrapped carefully before being shipped or picked up.

Today, their frames hang in other notable institutions across the country, including the University of Virginia and the library of the University of Alabama. “That’s been a nice little bonus in this job, being able to work with that kind of material in those places,” said Mike.

When Hurricane Katrina flooded the Grand Hotel, the waters jeopardized millions of dollars worth of Nall artwork that Lyons Share had framed. “We knew something had to be done with that,” said Mike. “So, I got my guys together and we went down there. And there’s a state trooper at the front gate. He’s like, nobody’s coming in, nobody’s going. I’m like, we are going in.” 

“We weren’t asked,” interjected Kelley.

Mike told the trooper: “We’ve got to figure out who you need to talk to, but we’re definitely going to go in there because we’ve got millions of dollars worth of artwork in there. Five, 10, 15 minutes later somebody called from somewhere and said, ‘Let those people in there.’ 

“It’s just one of those things you never in your life expect,” he added. When he had first set out in business, he had thought he was just going to frame pictures. “It has been absolutely amazing where it has taken us in this world,” he said.

“When you sit there and work on a shadow box with that person’s grandfather’s medals and photographs and personal items, and you work on that for a few hours, touching it, feeling it, looking at it, by the end, you’re talking to that person. It’s very personal.”

Sometimes, deeply significant stories emerge from the items they handle. An old family friend used to always tell them, “I need to come to your shop and have something framed.” Finally, he brought them the item: A gun, which he wanted encased in glass. 

They came to find out that this funny, optimistic man they’d known for years had been given the gun to commemorate his time as a POW, where he held the record for the longest time spent in solitary confinement – 2,030 days, or nearly six years. “We knew him, but we didn’t know anything about the backstory,” said Kelley.

“It’s very humbling when they bring something like that to us and trust us to take care of it,” added Mike.

“When you sit there and work on a shadow box with that person’s grandfather’s medals and photographs and personal items, and you work on that for a few hours, touching it, feeling it, looking at it, by the end, you’re talking to that person. It’s very personal.”

Mike Lyons

Fresh Air and Sunlight

As Lyons Share hits the home stretch toward its 50th anniversary, the long-established shop is benefiting from a renewed burst of energy.

The fact is, Mike is tired. He held the reins at the shop for years while Kelley focused on raising their three children. But now the children are grown, and Kelley has turned her full energy to the business once again. 

“She is full of passion and raring to go,” said Mike. “It’s been incredible over the past few months. Customers have seen it and employees are wowed, but the fresh air and sunlight that she’s brought into the place are just marvelous.” 

This year, she wants to make a portion of the upstairs mezzanine and the gallery into a studio space where artists can work on collaborations. She’s also been analyzing their costs to find savings and making plans to reorganize the fitting room in the back of the shop.

She admits that she initially dreaded working full-time at the store again. “But now,” she said, “I’m excited. I have a purpose, and my creative juices are flowing.” 

And if, one day, one of her kids wanted to take over the store? “They’ve got to live their life first,” she said. “But if it’s a possibility? I would just be over the moon for this to continue.”

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