Scrappy duo builds unique scrapbook business

Two Lake Street entrepreneurs make a living crafting people's most intimate memories

We're living in an age where people can pay to get just about anything done for them. Consumers can hire someone to do their taxes, even their grocery shopping. But what about preserving something as personal as photographs -- memories of family weddings, births and graduations?

Liz Malherek and Kelly Verbrick, own a one-of-a-kind Southwest business that does just that. Picturebook, a sort of scrapbook outsourcer, has gained popularity since opening at 611 W. Lake St. in April 2002.

Malherek and Verbrick take people's photographs and, working with those clients, create unique, sophisticated albums, photo installations for their home and even event invitations, holiday cards and announcements. They also retouch photos, restoring old pictures weathered by age, whether or not a negative is available.

Malherek and Verbrick said they've discovered there's a big market for their service; sales have doubled in less than two years. Although they won't provide revenue figures, they can pay down the $40,000 loans that funded the startup.

Verbrick said that some of their success could be due to the current scrapbooking craze -- for example, there's a large-scale scrappbooking store called Archiver's in the Mall of America.

However, customers say Picturebook's success is due to the products they create with and for their clients; the finished product is the business' best marketing tool.

Company background and getting started

Malherek and Verbrick met five ago, when they both worked as freelance graphic designers for a St. Louis Park design firm. Malherek said the pair had often talked about their love for photo albums and both had a similar sense of style: classic, simple and somewhat old-fashioned.

They said after 9/11, both found their workload had slowed and they looked into other job possibilities. From there, their common interests and combined 25 years of design experience aligned and they decided to open up a store. "It's like we were following a trail and everything just lined up," Malherek said. "One thing just led to another."

Neither had experience running a business. Verbrick said she was particularly intimidated by having to work a cash register but has since gotten the hang of it.

Malherek and Verbrick each put in $20,000 to get the business started. They decided to get a retail space right away, but both still consider the business part-time, since they split shop hours. Malherek said they both have side jobs, too.

She said getting started has definitely been a challenge financially. "When you start a business, everybody else gets paid first," Malherek said.

She said they both still rely on their savings and side jobs to make ends meet, but with steadily increasing business, they're optimistic.

As it so often does, marketplace reality has altered their business plan.

Malharek said they'd originally planned to do more family albums, but found demand for birth announcements and holiday cards instead.

Still, Malherek said finding clients hasn't been difficult. Having a retail space is one way she said the partners were able to find nonacquaintance clients. Making appearances at wedding conventions, such as those at the Minneapolis Convention Center, were also a big help in bringing in new clients.

Malherek and Verbrick said they work a lot with individuals; however, many clients are professional photographers. The duo says their business is half retail and half photo services; they have an in-house lab. Because they do so much with local wedding and child photographers, a table in the shop is strewn with the photographers' business cards for customers to sift through.

The store has a laid-back, homey quality with a retro pink tweed couch and chairs, high ceilings and pictures all around, making visitors feel more like they're in someone's living room than in a business. Malherek and Verbrick say because they interact with clients' lives so intimately, sharing sentimental events, many customers become friends.

Photo collaboration process

When people come into the store, they can buy materials to put together a photo creation themselves or just bring in a box of photos, an idea of what they'd like and let Malherek and Verbrick go to work. Regardless of a customer's plan, consultations are free.

After a consultation, Malherek and Verbrick can put together a concept for the customer's approval. Layouts and proofs are priced at $60. Photo retouching and restoration is priced $45 an hour; additional photo services are priced by the size per print. Putting it together is done per print and can be customized to fit any budget. Malherek said they put together wedding albums for between $200 and $1,000, depending on what the couple wants.

Verbrick said with photo album projects, customers often have too many pictures and seem overwhelmed and unsure of where to start. "Then we do thumbnails of where they think they should go," she said. "But some (clients) have it all worked out."

Kenny resident Julia Auerbach is a wedding photographer and uses Picturebook for her photo retouching. She also directs her clients to the store after their wedding for help with an album.

Malherek said it's important to note that if customers have negatives owned by their photographer, Picturebook will respect the photographer's copyright.

Auerbach said Malherek and Verbrick go over her photos with her and have always worked hard to give her exactly what she wants -- whether it's removing someone's cold sore from a shot or altering a picture's light exposure to make the scene look more appealing.

"When you're a photographer, you're demanding," Auerbach said. "Sometimes people take things the wrong way, but Kelly never says 'No, we can't do that.' She always tries."

Kenwood resident Michelle Pohlad said creating photo albums is usually something she does herself, but when she was short on time, Picturebook came through.

She said she wanted to create a memory book for her husband of his deceased mother and stopped into the store for some materials to get going. Pohlad said she met Malherek, who eventually helped Pohlad create the book she wanted, saving her effort.

Customer reactions to finished products

Customer referrals are Picturebook's lifeblood.

Auerbach said Picturebook has been a key part of her photography, business, and her clients are always coming back with rave reviews after she recommends they visit the shop.

Long-time customer Bonnie Marshall said she is also a big advocate for the business. She works in West Calhoun and said she's done a variety of different projects through Picturebook, including an anniversary scrapbook for her boss and birth announcements for friends.

Marshall said she's appreciated how Malherek and Verbrick make every project look like a piece of art and distinctive from other photo-related items. "Picturebook is really good at helping people tell their stories through an album. They're good at balancing the serious and candid shots," she said.