Highlights of Steve Albin's picture-framing career include the awesome responsibility of framing two portraits from Picasso's blue period, original Matisse and Durer drawings and Rembrandt etchings. But he also gets a kick from framing motorcycle posters, children's artwork and even an invitation to dinner with Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip.
"Los Altos is just an amazing place. You never know who might come into your shop or what they might have for you to frame," he said.
Albin paid his first rent check to Rancho Shopping Center in 1970. But his association with Los Altos dates back much farther, to his birth in 1943. His parents had heard Los Altos was "God's country" and purchased a one-acre lot on Manor Drive for $500. They sold half of the property to help pay for their home.
"I remember when there was still an old barn where Rancho is now - it really was a rancho - and two families were squatters in the barn. Then Mr. Wilder came around the neighborhood with a petition to support building his shopping center," Albin said.
Like a real-life Forrest Gump, Albin has been on the spot for much of Los Altos history: he attended Sunday school in a big shingled Methodist Church that stood where the Union 76 gas station is located on San Antonio Road; he picked apricots in John McKenzie's orchard, now McKenzie Park; he attended Loyola School when it opened and Foothill College the first day it opened on its current campus in 1962 (it was located in temporary quarters on El Camino Real for the first year of classes).
"Going to Foothill then was like going into corporate life. We wore brand-new shoes, slacks and new ties," Albin said.
Perhaps most memorable of all for Albin was playing drums in the first rock-and-roll band in Los Altos. "We played for dances at the old Los Altos Youth Center across from the old Whitecliff Market (now Draeger's Market) and also once per month for veterans at the old VA hospital," Albin said.
A job at the Color Center in Sunnyvale during his high-school years revealed Albin's talent for picture framing.
"They sent me to learn more about framing with Herbert Keeble (founder of Keeble and Shuchat, now located in Palo Alto), who had a shop then in Menlo Park," Albin said. "It was like falling in love; I just knew that was what I really wanted to do."
By 1970, Albin was ready to open his own framing shop and signed a lease on the space he still occupies.
"I'm the second-longest tenant here; the hairdresser Marc Joseph came here two years earlier," Albin said. "Eventually, everything here will be part of a chain, but I think continuity is so important - my customers appreciate me staying in one place."
Albin's 30 years in business have brought significant changes in the world of framing. "It used to be that people brought more oil paintings for framing, but now most paintings are already framed when people buy them in galleries," he said. "Today, I do a lot of photography; watercolors, which people buy matted but not framed; mementos, like the Jerry Rice jersey you see here; and children's art."
He has also seen great changes in the framing supplies available. "We have museum glass now, with a coating that blocks out 99 percent of the light, and museum boards for better mounting," Albin said. "When I started out there were maybe 25 mat colors available, and now the number of colors is limitless."
A founding officer of the Professional Picture Framers of America, Albin spent eight years part time on the road, teaching workshops for framers nationwide on design, restoration, mounting and mat cutting.
The two greatest sources of satisfaction to him, over the decades, have been his close and ongoing relationships with his customers and his ability, as the owner of his own business, to donate his services to about 20 charitable causes each year.
"The quality of life is really important to me. Here, I've had the same friends, neighbors and customers my whole life," Albin said.
Albin's stories about his inventive approaches to unusual artworks include shadowboxes for gold coins, special frames for things like car-racing school certificates and the City of San Jose's collection of business cards from its largest businesses, and employee retirement collages for local companies.
"There are so many things you can do with framing," he said. "It's just wonderful for me as an occupation because it's limitless."