New Albany’s Ben Franklin Crafts and Framing Is an Inspiring Institution
BY LAURA ROSS | PHOTOS BY CHRISTIAN WATSON
The Smiths are one crafty family.
The long-time Indiana family is devoted to the community but also creative, energetic and incredibly adept at producing savvy business models that thwart big-box Goliath stores and provide a locally-owned experience and business that caters to customers.
Ben Franklin Crafts and Framing, 420 New Albany Plaza, has been in the Smith family since it opened in 1990. But its roots go much deeper.
Joe and Hilda Busteed originally opened a Ben Franklin Crafts franchise store in Milan, Indiana, during the post-war era.
“Joe was a Fuller Brush salesman originally,” said Kristy Smith, who is a third-generation owner of Ben Franklin Crafts and Framing along with her husband, Jeff Smith, and family partners Dane and Diann Smith.
“When Joe and Hilda opened their Ben Franklin Crafts store,” said Kristy, “it was a true five and dime. You could buy everything there from coffee beans to fabric to make a dress. We still have their first cash register, which rings a maximum of two dollars.”
The Busteeds were treasured local merchants, and when Joe died of an aneurism in his 50s, his daughter Patsy Jo and son-in-law Wayne Smith took over the store. Later, they opened a second shop in Bloomfield, Indiana.
In the late 1980s, Walmart began its the march across the country, gobbling up the market share of mom-and-pop craft and soft goods stores.
So, said Kristy, “Patsy Jo and Wayne conducted a population study and looked for a location that would support an independent craft store. New Albany popped up on the map and had the right socio-economic factors, so they took a leap of faith, closed their two stores and moved south in 1989.”
The Smiths ran the popular New Albany Ben Franklin until they retired in 2000 and passed the mantle on to sons Jeff and Dane and their wives, Kristy and Diann. The team of four now manage Ben Franklin and the attached Ben’s Boutique specialty store together, parceling out roles to fit their talents.
“Everyone has their job,” said Kristy. “I do the displays and change the seasons out and help with the buying. Diann is the floor manager, working with employees and setting the sales and connecting with customers. Dane watches over the frame shop, and Jeff is a jack of all trades – from running the finance and business end to driving our truck when needed,” she added, with a laugh.
And, don’t forget the next generation in the wings. “Between us, we have five children – Tyler, Ryan, Logan, Rylie and Luke – who have all worked in the store,” said Kristy. “They are the future.”
“I never knew I’d end up doing this,” admitted Jeff Smith. “But the opportunity arose when I was in college studying business, and I went for it.”
The Smiths maintained the philosophy of building an inventory tailored to local customers’ needs and focused on buying and selling products from local artisans and craftspeople. That extends to wood products from Diverse Woodworking in Lanesville, to Silver Creek Leather in Jeffersonville, Kaiser Wholesale, Master Frame Supply, and hand-made grapevine wreaths by Morris, which is located across the river in Kentucky.
“We buy local whenever we can,” said Jeff. “That’s our family philosophy. You get the best service dealing with people who know you and are local. We do that as much as possible to keep the growth in our community.”
“A Target is a Target is a Target,” added Kristy. “What makes each community special are the family-owned businesses like ours that care about their neighbors and customers.”
The Smiths’ 18 employees are also considered part of the extended family. Many have been with the store for more than 20 years and are welcome, friendly faces to customers.
“People feel comfortable coming here,” said Kristy. “You get personal attention and help. Our employees are people who knit, who quilt, who paint. They use the products that we carry, so that they can offer advice to customers.”
The staff at Ben Franklin eagerly dives into personal projects for customers, from craft and holiday projects, to school assignments and church activities.
“Schools and churches always need specific things and quantities,” said Kristy. “If we know that church camp is coming soon and they’ll need 200 pieces of whatever, we will go through all our catalogues to find that and have it ready. An advantage to being a long-time local business is we know when the science fair projects are coming, we know when the Turkey Bowl is, we know when we’ll need hundreds of t-shirts at the go. That prepares us for when parents all come running in at the last minute looking for 400 skulls for an anatomy dissection class.
“It’s about building those relationships with our community,” Kristy added. “We genuinely want to help our customers come up with what they need, and we work with them to find solutions that are either easier or cheaper. Our employees love it when someone asks, ‘How I can I make this happen?’ and we always make it happen.”
The Smiths’ Ben Franklin store offers many classes through the year and will expand their children’s classes and craft sections in the coming months. Derby is always a huge seller for Ben Franklin, too. Hats and fascinators rule the world there, beginning in March. They will also add a new men’s gift wear section in Ben’s Boutique soon.
The children’s activities are key, said Kristy. Not only do the crafts provide a creative outlet and time to craft with their parents or siblings, crafts also work on a child’s dexterity and focus, and can reduce anxiety levels.
“It’s those moments that you might think are nothing, but years from now, you’ll treasure those crafts you made with your children,” she said. “It’s not the piece you made but the time you spent together, literally crafting memories.”
Additionally, Kristy is not only a business owner but also a busy mom and global manager for quality for Zeochem in Louisville, where she works her “other” full-time job. Zeochem, which creates molecular sieves and specialty zeolites for chemical and liquid absorption processes in manufacturing, puts her chemistry degree to good use. But, working with Ben Franklin brings out her creative side.
“When I’m at Zeochem, I’m looking at parts per million down to .004 weights and percentages. But when I’m at Ben Franklin, I can design the floor layouts or create natural, free-form floral designs. It’s the perfect stress relief,” she explained. “My mother was an art major and my dad was an engineer, so it’s the perfect blend of left brain-right brain for me.”
What does she love most about her time at Ben Franklin Crafts? “One of the best things about a craft store is you’re connecting with people in moments of their lives,” she said. “You’re quilting the afghan for the new baby, you’re framing the diploma, you’re making a funeral wreath for someone’s mom’s grave. These are life moments and you connect on a family level.”
But above all? “Family,” said Kristy. “It always pulls you back to family.”