With Christmas a week away, shoppers are crowding into malls, outlets, and downtown shopping districts looking for last-minute gifts. But, for those looking for unusual handmade gifts, there’s another, unorthodox, option available.
Grevior Furniture has been a fixture in downtown Franklin for decades. But last summer, the family carved out another space in its large, red-brick complex for a new type of shop. It’s all New Hampshire-made handicrafts. The store’s filled with the kinds of old New England items you’d expect—Shaker boxes and rocking chairs, painted wooden loons, model ships, jewelry, and baskets. Andrea Grevior, who owns the store with her husband, is often here to greet customers as they come in.
But what makes this store different from your standard New Hampshire craft shop is the craftsmen themselves. They’re inmates at the State Prison for Men in Concord. The Department of Corrections used to run its own gift shop, where inmates in the Hobby Craft program could sell their wares. But by 2011, budget cuts forced the prison to cut staffing down to just a few hours, one day a week.
“So we were tasked by one of our supervisors with trying to think outside the box and come up with some other ideas,” says Hobby Craft shop supervisor John Limoge.
Ultimately, the state put out a proposal, asking for businesses to bid on the opportunity to stock their shelves with prison-made goods. Grevior Furniture won.
“The cost to the state to send stuff up there is nothing," Limoge says. "We don’t transport it. It’s 100% on the furniture store, they come up here, they bring it up, they sell it.”
Under the contract, Grevior gets 20 percent of the price of each item sold. Ten percent goes into the Department of Corrections’ recreation trust fund, to keep programs like the Hobby Craft Shop open. Because it isn’t an official prison job, the inmates get to keep the rest. But the state doesn’t pay for their materials. So prisoners use a lot of the money to buy more supplies.
Prisoners in the wood shop work with saws, hammers and chisels. But over on the other side of the sprawling shop, men sit in a smaller, quieter room, making baskets and painting. Tim Barry paints a scene from an idyllic Vermont village—complete with horse-drawn sleigh. He’s 26-years into his sentence for Second Degree murder. At 63 years old now, he’s not far away from his parole hearing. He taught himself to paint in prison.
“When I’m here, with this painting, with any painting, I’m someplace other than prison," Barry says. "In one of his essay, Schopenhauer wrote, ‘To an artist, it doesn’t matter if a sunrise is seen from a prison or a palace.’ I understand what he meant, now.”
Barry mostly works from memory, and pictures clipped from newspapers and magazines. Talking about himself, and his art, his words are steeped in metaphor. He grabs a smaller canvas, showing a rusted-out 1955 red Mac truck.
“Maybe this is a self-portrait. That’s a truck that can’t run--and I’m here. I miss the trucks." Barry says. "I drove long haul. And when a truck is moving cross-country, that’s freedom. It’s the opposite of being in prison. You’re always moving, the scene’s always changing. But when I do my art, the scene’s always changing.”
Barry’s work is displayed on the walls at Grevior’s. He says some of his pieces have already sold for $125 to $250—with the frame.
“It feels good to be in prison, and not have my family have to support me. At this time of the year, if I want to buy them presents, I’ve got the money to do that,” Barry says.
Just a few feet over, 49year old Mark Van Zant sits at a table, weaving baskets. He’s been in the Men’s Prison for 15 years, also serving a sentence for Second Degree murder. For about half that time, Van Zant has been making baskets in the hobby craft shop. Like most inmates, he doesn’t factor the cost of labor into his work—he just doubles the cost of the materials. He holds up his latest creation.
“This is a market basket, it could be used for decoration, or it could be used, actually, out in the field if you were picking up vegetables and other such things,” he says.
Van Zant figures he’ll put $45 on this basket, which is bound for Grevior’s. So far, all but two of his baskets have sold. And they need more stock. Van Zant says it’s about more than the money, though.
“Actually, it’s pretty rewarding. It’s nice to know that you can make something that other people would be interested in, and, you know, they appreciate your art.”
Back at the Franklin store, Andrea Grevior says she’s thrilled with her unusual arrangement with the state.
“And I’ve gotten so much from this, by the gratitude of each and every person involved. And the public has well received it," Grevior says. "And not that these gentlemen did not do some things they shouldn’t have, but they’re still people. And I’ve seen a different side to the prison system.”
The store’s contract runs through 2014. Then, the state will have the option to renew for another two years.