Discreetly located,” reads the website. From a moving car it is easy to miss the markers: the unexceptional entrance to the alley, the modest directional sign on the brick wall. But persistence is rewarded: The Alley Gallery, which deals in framing, conservation, posters and fine art prints, is as out of the ordinary as it is out of the way.
Tucked behind taller neighbors that front on the 1700 block of Sherman or Benson Avenue, it is best discovered on foot. To find it a pedestrian need only turn west off Sherman Avenue into the alley between Design within Reach and Saville Flowers and continue in that direction. Midway through to Benson Avenue is the east-facing door numbered 1712 Sherman Ave., Rear 2.
In the kind of space usually inhabited by smokers and trash cans, the gallery gleams like hidden treasure. Inside is a rarified world of art and invention overseen by a trio of owners, a double yellow-headed Amazon parrot named Jessica and the spirit of the gallery’s founder.
The low, brick building was constructed in 1922 as a garage, with stalls for the newfangled automobile. From the 1940s to the 1960s it housed the likes of a locksmith and an upholsterer. Bookman’s Alley, soon to be shuttered, settled across the way around 1971.
Chris Molloy set up shop in Rear 2 in 1985. An Evanston native, Mr. Molloy earned a degree from Johns Hopkins University in the history and commerce of art in the ’60s. Back in his hometown, he acquired the tools of the framing trade from a mentor who passed along his know-how and then went out of business. Having served in the Vietnam War as a photojournalist, Mr. Molloy was known as an intrepid adventure traveler and amateur scientist.
Mr. Molloy died in the summer of 2010 after a long illness, bequeathing the shop and its contents to three young artists who had apprenticed with him. They were among the many actors and artists who had worked at the gallery over the years. Mr. Molloy had “an interest in youthful exuberance,” they say, and always seemed the same age as his staff.
Brent Houston, Ross Martens and Darren Oberto came separately to the place they now share. Northwestern University film major Ross Martens arrived first, in 1997. He continued at the gallery while working part-time as a photographer’s assistant and returned after what he calls a “sabbatical” year in Prague in 2004.
Serendipity brought Mr. Houston to Mr. Molloy’s doorstep in 1999. A painting student at the Art Institute, he says he walked into the Alley Gallery by mistake while hunting for a job at Bookman’s Alley. Mr. Molloy greeted him with, “Are you having fun?” – and hired him two weeks later, he says. Except for a two-year sojourn in Oregon and Arizona, 2002-04, Mr. Houston has worked there ever since. Mr. Oberto arrived in 2002 with a degree in painting from Kendall College of Art and Design in Grand Rapids, Mich.
Their inheritance did not take the three by surprise. They had worried about the future of the gallery for several years as they watched their boss weaken. Mr. Molloy “brought up ‘the succession question’ at the perfect time,” says Mr. Houston; he asked if the three were “interested” in taking over the shop.
Though Mr. Martens admits “it felt like a daunting task,” there was no question as to whether they would answer yes. Thanks to Mr. Molloy’s teaching style, says Mr. Martens, they had already “run every aspect of the business. Chris was so hands-off.”
Mr. Molloy’s laissez-faire approach extended even to the parrot. Patricia Mueller, Mr. Molloy’s life partner, bought Jessica to breed with her parrot. After the birds failed to hit it off, Mr. Molloy installed young Jessica in the shop. True to her species, she bonded with only one other – him. She showed her devotion by grooming his eyebrows and letting him pet her feathers, say his successors. In return, Mr. Molloy built her a space all her own, the house and walkway where she still perches.
His methodology instilled pride and confidence in those around him. “I had a sense of ownership even when I was an employee,” says Mr. Houston.
All three owners balance running a business with careers as artists. Each averages 30-35 hours a week at the gallery. But, says Mr. Houston, “we bend when we need to,” helping each other out when they have individual art exhibitions or other commitments. Although their art backgrounds help them guide customers, they say they, consider framing “a collaboration.”
Framing is a craft-oriented job that requires hands-on attention to detail, they say. One challenging aspect of that job is conservation. “We conserve but don’t restore,” says Mr. Martens. Mr. Oberto adds, “Part of conservation is learning how to preserve; part is knowing what to leave alone.”
At the gallery the three follow certain preservation principles but, in the end, rely on their experience and ingenuity. One customer, they say, brought in a 36-star Civil-War-era flag that had disintegrated to a point where one corner was just threads. The customer told them no one else would touch it. Their solution was to sew the flag to suede cloth and then suspend it between Plexiglas and board.
The same ability to think outside the box characterized their mentor. Mr. Molloy had a passion for science as much as art, they say. Vestiges of his experiments remain – a system for measuring gravity, a whimsical invention to dispense iced tea.
Mr. Houston, Mr. Martens and Mr. Oberto say the painstaking labor of custom-framing sometimes-irreplaceable art has altered the way they create their own. “It changes your thinking,” says Mr. Houston. “I wash dishes differently.”
But more than the work, says Mr. Martens, it was Chris Molloy who made a difference. The young artist sums up his influence, saying, “He changed my life.”