When Bill Forsyth takes on a hobby, it can become a permanent part of his picture

Never one to let an idea languish, Bill Forsyth, the owner of PhotoGarden, with stores in Burlington and Williston, follows his varied interests with gusto.

by Rosalyn Graham

"It's like projects and challenges,” says Bill Forsyth. It’s an assertion backed by 37 years of entrepreneurial activities that could only have been tackled by someone with a talent for reinvention. While his current persona is as the owner, manager and resident expert at PhotoGarden with stores on College Street and at Taft Corners, he is also the co-owner of Harrington Brothers, a coffee distribution business, and Climate Care Self Storage. His resume also includes real estate broker, carpenter, ski bum, photographer and  metallurgical engineer.

It was 1970, and Forsyth, who grew up in West Orange, N.J., had a degree in metallurgical engineering from Lafayette College in Easton, Pa. He worked for a year in a plate mill for Bethlehem Steel in Burns Harbor, Ind., and lived in nearby Gary. Although he enjoyed the training as a manager, he reached the end of his first year wondering “what a kid from the East Coast was doing working in the brutal steel business in the Midwest. I was thinking, ‘Is this the way I’m going to spend the rest of my life?’”

At a wedding, Forsyth encountered some college friends who had moved to Vermont, “so I decided to cut the cord on one end without a safety net on the other,” he says. “I drove one day, 13 hours from Indiana to southern Vermont.”

It was summer when he arrived, and he took a job as a carpenter. “Then in November, I signed up, basically, to be a ski bum and work at Stratton just busing tables and cleaning the lodge at the end of the day in exchange for money and a ski pass,” he says. “I had a good time.” 

He eventually went to work for friends in Londonderry and Bondville, where they were building houses, but by then, he was also building a photography business. 

Forsyth’s interest in photography had been stirred when he was a flush young engineer in Indiana. Fascinated by a fine camera being used by someone at a wedding, he bought one. “That was the spark,” he says, “and then it just grew from there over the course of a number of years.”

He began taking photography jobs, doing weddings. He took the original publicity pictures for the Alpine Slide at Bromley. One of the most fun and lucrative photo assignments, he says, was to spend every Thursday at the ski hill on short skis taking photos of students at the ski class graduation slalom as they came through a gate. 

“When you’re going through a gate, even if you’re a terrible skier, your form looks good — or better than it should,” Forsyth says, laughing. He would rush back to the darkroom in Londonderry, develop the pictures and make a few prints. 

“I’d set up a table at the wine and cheese party where all these little kids would be telling their parents that they had to buy these pictures. I could make my whole week’s salary just by doing that one day; so for about five years, that was my life: living in a great place where summers are great, winters are great.”

When he got married in 1977, he quips, “I had to grow up.” 

photoThe advent of digital photography has created challenges and opportunities for PhotoGarden, which has expanded its services and products to include custom framing and matting. Tim Lavigne (left) manages the Burlington store; Avram Halperin does digital retouching and camera sales.

Forsyth had met Nancy Huntoon, a friend of a friend, in Londonderry, but after they were married, he says, they realized “there wasn’t a lot of career-type stuff down there, so in 1978 we moved to Burlington.” 

He put his building skills to work with the eclectic group that was Moose Creek Restoration. Rising interest rates sent them into bankruptcy in 1982.

Forsyth went to work for Rich Feeley at Coburn & Feeley, selling commercial real estate. As Feeley moved into more development projects, Forsyth became the general manager, over the whole company — the residential and commercial real estate end and what was called Atlantic Restaurant Brokers, which marketed hospitality properties. “That was my jacket-and-tie era — a short hiatus into that world,” he says. 

While he enjoyed the real estate world, his entrepreneurial nature was pushing in a new direction. In 1987, he and friend Bob Babcock, who was working at Coburn & Feeley, and Dennis Campbell, who was working at Atlantic Restaurant Brokers, having sold his interest in Nectar’s Restaurant, decided to buy PhotoGarden, a small camera store at 206 College St. in Burlington, from Bob Gibeau. 

The partners installed a mini lab, the new technology of the ’80s, put their confidence in an experienced manager, and continued to work in real estate for a couple more years. 

In a piling-on of projects that Forsyth says has been characteristic of his life, he and Campbell decided to buy Harrington Brothers, the grocery wholesaler on Patchen Road in South Burlington. They left the real estate business in September of 1989. 

At the same time — in the same month — they expanded PhotoGarden to Williston, and his wife decided she wanted to go into business. “Our kids got to the point where they were starting to go off to school, says Forsyth, so she bought the TCBY franchise on St. Paul Street. It was sleepless nights at that point, but we were younger.” 

For several years Forsyth and Campbell worked at their Harrington Brothers business, gradually transitioning it from the grocery wholesaler it had been for 50 years to a new role. Faced with increasing competition from out-of-state distributors, they refocused to become distributors for New England Coffee, servicing convenience stores and restaurants from Rutland to the Canadian border. 

Since the coffee business needed only a fraction of the space in the warehouse, they built self-storage units inside the building and opened Climate Care Self Storage. “We rent them out, and that’s actually a pretty nice little business — very quiet, no impact on labor,” Forsyth says. Campbell is in charge of that operation, and the partners are in the midst of a plan to expand the self-storage facilities.

Innovation has always been Forsyth’s strong interest, he says, and PhotoGarden has given him lots of opportunity for exploring change and new technology. 

When they bought the business and installed the mini lab to provide on-site developing and printing and augment the tradition of sending film away to Kodak for processing, there were only one or two other mini labs in northern Vermont. “We put the machine in the window so people could see the prints coming out, because it was such a novelty at that point,” he says. “We were actually making better quality prints, because the mini labs were driven by an operator, a person who does the printing and has an eye, whereas at the larger labs it’s all automated.”

Forsyth enjoys being actively involved in the photography business and managing the two stores. A third store in the Lang Farm development closed, the victim, he says, of being in a good location too soon, before a new road made it easily visible and accessible. 

photoCamera sales are again on the rise, as lenses take on more importance in digital photography. Edwin Sutphen does digital retouching and camera sales.

The move to digital cameras has been dramatic and stressful, says Forsyth. Stores that weren’t traditional photo stores are selling cameras, and people try to print their own photographs at home. PhotoGarden has had to reinvent itself, broadening its offering by adding a custom matting, framing, mounting and laminating department. Things are turning around, though, he says. “The volume is coming back, and camera sales are coming back as things like lenses start to sell again.

“We get requests all the time from people that want custom mats,” he continues, adding that the technology for that has reached a point where mats can be cut by computer, “and it can do very intricate things.” He plans to operate the new machine and assemble frames in the shop’s basement.

Nancy, who ran out of enthusiasm for the restaurant business, is the bookkeeper for the PhotoGarden operations and has been busy ordering frames and mats for the new service, which will share space with a digital “make your own prints” kiosk (another technology PhotoGarden adopted early) and the counter where customers line up to drop off film, pick up prints or “talk camera.” 

Says Forsyth, “It’s a very busy store, and we’re always weighing between bumping into everybody and the fear of losing our valuable customer base by moving to someplace with more room.”

Forsyth’s enthusiasm for projects and challenges has extended into the community, where he has been active in several organizations, especially the Burlington Rotary Club. Besides being president for a year, he has worked on many of the club’s projects both local and international. His friend Eric Hanson of Hanson Investment Management, who was president of Rotary the year before Forsyth, says, “When you need someone to help out at the last minute — or the first minute — he’s the one to ask. I’ve cooked dinner beside him at Dismas House, and both he and his wife have a wonderful record of helping in the community.”

While juggling this year’s projects and challenges, the Forsyths have also been busy with their camp on Long Point in North Ferrisburgh, which they bought in 1987. This year, they bought a sailboat — a classic, 30-year-old, 25-foot Cape Dory that Nancy, an experienced sailor who grew up in Rhode Island, knew she wanted to replace the powerboat they had while their children were younger. 

Now the children are grown up. Greg, 22,who has just returned from three years in the military, including one year in Iraq, is taking courses at the University of Vermont and has just moved into his first apartment in Winooski. Peter, 26, is a computer engineer with Dwight Asset Management, and the father of the Forsyths’ first grandchild. 

True to form, Forsyth says, “Being a grandparent is a hobby, too.” •