For some people, the entrepreneurial bug bites early, with a lemonade stand by the side of the road, or weaving pot holders to sell to the neighbors. For others, the urge doesn’t come until later in life. Gerry Schmitt is one of those late bloomers. Now 82, she didn’t start her photo restoration business until she was retired and living in Plantation Estates in Matthews.
It began, as many businesses do, with a private passion that grows over time. “Computers are my love,” Schmitt says, a love that began when she was in the secretarial pool at the DuPont corporation in Wilmington, Del., her hometown. “The woman in front of me was given one of the first computers – a Mac II. She could do wonderful volumes of work, doing in 10 minutes things that would take me an hour.”
She had been contemplating leaving her job (some of her six children were still at home), but told her bosses she would stay if they would let her use a computer. “They were thrilled. They said they had Ph.D.s who refused to use the computer, and some secretaries who threatened to quit if they had to work with one.”
Every time a new computer was introduced at the company, she was sent to school to learn how to use it. Her proficiency and hard work made her one of the most sought-after secretaries.
And then she discovered Photoshop. “When the first volume of Photoshop came along I was hooked. It’s like a puzzle, a mind twister.” She upgraded and learned more as each version was released. She is on the 13th iteration now. “I became spot-on interested in making beautiful pictures.”
She started with photos taken by her husband Stan, who is a talented amateur photographer. She acquired a scanner and began digitizing and restoring some of her daughter’s collection of archival photos, including some tintypes and daguerreotypes.
“The film back in the old days was just marvelous. I love the antiques.” She particularly likes restoring photos from the Civil War.
When she and her husband moved to Plantation Estates, word of her talent spread and some neighbors asked her to restore some family photos.
At first she did it for free, but the requests kept increasing. “I didn’t intend to go into business. Not at my age … But I thought (charging for her work) was one way to ease them up a little.”
Her fees are modest, $15 or so for a simple restoration, more for complex jobs. She has a high-quality scanner and two printers, one of which does archival-quality reproductions.
In addition to reproductions, she also can edit photos to fit her customers’ wishes. In one case, a client wanted her to edit a family photo to remove a girlfriend who was no longer dating a son. Since she was sitting on a sofa in the photo, the editing involved not just removing the woman, but shortening the sofa so her absence wouldn’t be noticed. “I guess you could say now I am an upholsterer, too.”
Some clients bring her small photos and ask her to enlarge them so they can be hung on a wall. Through the miracle of digital graphics, she can enlarge a two-inch by two-inch photo into an eight-by-ten with no loss of detail.
Jinny Hagemeyer is one of the neighbors who has sought out Schmitt for her work. “She is excellent. Anything she does is fantastic,” Hagemeyer said. Some were family photos dating back 40 years or more. Some were more contemporary shots that Hagemeyer wanted updated or edited. “In one shot there was a blank spot on one side. She made that go away. I don’t know how, but it’s gone now.”
Another client is Jean Royal. “She restored some old family photos of mine, some of them dating back to the early 1900s. They were on, like, cardboard. They were faded and creased and she brought them back to life. They have brought back wonderful memories of my grandparents and my great aunts. I’m 88, so you know how old they are.”
Before Schmitt got into photo restoration, she was (and still is) a painter. One of her works hangs in a gathering space at Plantation Estates. Hagemeyer says the photo restoration is an extension of Schmitt’s artistic side. “She is truly a very talented person.”
Schmitt will occasionally post before and after photos on Facebook with the permission of the customer. This has led to her now doing business for people as far away as Kansas, Mississippi and Pennsylvania. But her real joy comes from working with her neighbors at Plantation Estates.
“People here, their pictures are their life. They want to know where they came from. They want to preserve the past. And I help them do that.”
Gerry Schmitt can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org