The Renderer brothers become part of the fabric of Upper Jay
by Megan Morley
WHEN SCOTT AND BYRON Renderer acquired the old seed store on the bend of the Ausable River in Upper Jay last October, they got more than a headquarters for their burgeoning business; they inherited a stockpile of small-town legacy. Over the years, the three-story wood-frame and stucco building has been a Ford Motor Company assembly shop, pinecone seed store, antique shop, auction house—and now it’s Upper Jay Upholstery, a business that quickly outgrew Scott Renderer’s garage up the road.
The structure’s history is rich. Arto Monaco, the eighty-nine-year-old hamlet hero and creator of the now defunct children’s theme park across the river, Land of Makebelieve, remembers well the day in his childhood when workmen poured the concrete foundation. The big building, erected in the early 1900s, was to house a Ford automobile assembly plant. Two local men, Earl Keith and Rob Branch, had purchased a franchise to put together and sell Model Ts. All parts were shipped by boxcar to Au Sable Forks with the chassis stacked on end. High-school boys were asked to volunteer to sit on the steel frames’ gas tanks and drive them, bare-boned, upriver to Keith and Branch’s, where the cars would be finished and sold.
“Two types of people came in [to the store],” explains Monaco; the well-to-do could afford amenities such as fenders, running boards, tail lights and windshield wipers (wipers cost twenty-nine cents extra); farmers would order the car stripped down and hang a red lantern in the back window in lieu of a tail light. “They would say, ‘I want to buy one of those new contraptions,’ because that’s what they called them,” says Monaco. “Some people took cars with no fenders on them, but they might come back a couple of days later and say ‘I’ve gotta have fenders—my wife and I went to church Sunday and she got dirty as hell without fenders.’”
When the Renderer brothers took over this old landmark they simultaneously crept into a snapshot from the past. The building remains outfitted with the huge manual elevator that moved the Model T from one floor and phase of its assembly to another, until the completed car drove out the front door and home with its new owner—usually the day after it was ordered. Drains in the workshop floor still indicate where locally gathered pinecones were hosed to shake seeds loose.
The present-day scene in the spacious ground-floor showroom is jumbled but stunning: petite antique chairs upholstered in rich tapestries; Great Camp fireside benches carefully enveloped in rustic-looking cloth; ottomans wrapped in funky bright-colored materials; mahogany-frame, muslin-covered couches that await final disguises; and small club chairs cloaked in red leather. A far side of the showroom holds industrial-size sewing machines and works-in-progress, which the brothers Renderer cut, rip, repair, restuff and sew all day. From their building to their upholstering, these men toil in the pursuit of preservation.
“The frame is everything to an upholstered piece of furniture,” says Scott. “A piece gets stripped to the frame first, and then you build it back up.”
Customers wander into the shop to buy one of the stylishly reupholstered antiques, or they bring a favorite old piece that they just can’t give up. “People usually come in pretty open-minded,” says Scott. “They’ll ask, ‘Is it worth doing something?’ or ‘I love this piece of furniture so much, I don’t want to buy a new one.’ We first decide first if it’s worth it, but nine times out of ten it is.”
BYRON AND SCOTT grew up in Olympia, Washington, and from there, Byron moved south to Portland, Oregon, where he apprenticed with an upholsterer. After years of working with other people, the two found themselves in the Adirondacks, where Byron trained his painter and carpenter younger brother in the art of upholstery. They attribute their knack for the trade to their mother, who was always sewing or knitting. Their skills serve them well—Scott now focuses his carpentry on rebuilding and strengthening the furniture that comes in, while Byron is “conveniently not a carpenter,” he says. He’s the stitching master of the two.
The brothers say that many customers are looking for the rustic slant so closely associated with the Adirondacks. Textiles configured with camp or lodge scenes, fabrics boasting rich earthy colors or antiqued tapestries are popular. Their patrons are from all walks of life. Whether refurbishing an antique for a luxurious second home in the mountains or covering a sectional couch for a family that scrimps and saves, the tradition of two types of customers visiting that Upper Jay building holds today.
The Renderers also make house calls. The two often bring books of fabric to a customer to discuss what they could do with various pieces. They’ll take on a whole house, camp, room or just a single article. And both lend their opinions when asked. “A lot of people get stuck trying to make everything uniform and match perfectly,” explains Scott. “We try to encourage more of an eclectic design. You can have a 1920s chair, a contemporary sofa, a brightly designed ottoman, all in the same room. . . . You can do a lot of things and it doesn’t have to all be consistent.”
What does remain consistent is the Renderers’ dedication to Upper Jay. The booming commercial hub of Arto Monaco’s childhood is gone, but these brothers hope their building retains a small piece of pride and history for the people of Upper Jay.
“They’re [Scott and Byron] an asset to this community,” says Monaco. “They both moved into town, they both bought houses here . . . they’re community-spirited. We need more people like that in town.”
Showing that hometown spirit, the Renderers hosted 156 people in their showroom at a community production of A Christmas Carol, and they are planning a summer arts camp for kids. They have become safekeepers of all that goes on in the big boxy place on the bend. “We really care about putting this building back together,” says Scott, “to keep things intact.”