Sales at the Village Framer aren’t just a matter of ringing up customers at the cash register. Each custom-framing transaction is intimate. It requires painstakingly translating each customer’s vision into a product that affects a most-treasured (and sometimes most valuable) possession.

Taking each order can take hours. Fulfilling each order generally takes at least two weeks. Nothing is cookie cutter.

“Everything needs its own time; it’s crucial to get every single detail right every single time,” said owner Melissa Cusano, who opened her shop in Yarmouth in 2000. “You can’t rush it. You just have to beg, borrow, and steal whatever time you need to get it done.”

What’s more, custom framing is a luxury item if ever there was one, driven by the season, the economy, the holidays and the arrival of tax-refund checks, summer residents and houseguests of those who live here all year-round.

The key to stabilizing her revenues has been maintaining a retail sales operation to augment the custom framing. Cusano has devoted a section of her 1,900-square-foot space to sell everything from gourmet Italian dips and crackers, to candles, framed prints, Maine-made pillows and doormats made of reclaimed lines once used for lobstering. Once she even displayed an antique miniature carousel horse. Now her retail sales account for up to 25 percent of annual revenues.

“I wanted to have two businesses, and something that wasn’t so dependent on just one thing,” she said.

Another critical step has been keeping the staff small. She’s had up to five full-time employees in the past. But now, aside from herself, she has one full-time and two part-time positions.

“I wouldn’t want to be twice this size,” she said. “Everyone knows what’s going on all the time. It’s tighter, more efficient and there’s less miscommunication, frustration, questions and fewer errors.”

But in 2008, when Lehman Brothers collapsed and every major economic indicator followed suit, her sales plunged. Fewer customers started coming in, and regular customers returned less often.

“They weren’t sure what was happening with the economy,” she said.

The decline wasn’t enough to put her out of business, but many of her competitors weren’t as lucky. She started to rethink what she was doing and how she was doing it.

“I had passion and vision, but I wondered, ‘Would it last in such a volatile economy?'”

Cusano evaluated her options. She could slash prices, run promotions or use less-expensive materials. She could take on commercial work and bulk orders, or spend more on advertising.

“I knew I wasn’t going to fool anyone with phony sales gimmicks, and I would rather close than cheap out on materials,” she said. “Picture framing is like auto mechanics; most of the work is never seen – there is a lot of trust involved.”

She could cut her employees’ hours, but she couldn’t run the risk of losing highly skilled workers who’d been as invested and passionate about her work as she was.

“If I don’t have my employees, I don’t have a business,” she said.

Peers were advising her to run deep discounts. “It would have been easy to play the mark-up, mark-down game I saw everyone doing,” she said. But that felt like a short-term fix that would change the very nature of her business.

“I couldn’t feel good being in a job, sending projects out the door that look good going out the door but will fall apart in five years because the materials were cheaper,” she said.

Ultimately, Cusano decided to follow the advice she got from a mentor: Find your niche and stick with it. Figure out what you do well and do it better than anyone. Don’t compromise.

“It was a huge leap of faith,” she said.

Rather than scaling back her business, she redoubled her efforts. She invested in technology, education and innovation. She retooled her website, upgraded her software and framing equipment and took the entire staff to New York City to attend Decor Expo, a major industry trade show, to ensure that they were all in the know about the latest trends and technologies.

“At a time when others were trying to dramatically cut costs, I found myself investing,” she said. “It was contrary to what seemed logical, but I knew it would pay off in the long run.”

And it has. This year, revenues are up about 15 percent over last year, the biggest increase since the recession.

“I don’t know what to expect year to year, and I don’t know where the economy is going,” she said. “So to see even a small amount of growth each year is a huge success to me.”

But even beyond the numbers, she’s seeing more referrals from conservators and other customers. That’s huge in a business where few customers speak up about a bad experience, and it’s critical to get every single detail right every time. “I feel that people trust us with their work,” she said. “So I know we’re using the right stuff, and doing things the right way. That’s the goal. And it’s exciting.”

Jennifer Van Allen can be contacted at 791-6313 or at:

[email protected]