Inspiration shines on stained-glass shop

Starting a business was an afterthought

Harford Arts & Culture

October 23, 2005|By CASSANDRA A. FORTIN | CASSANDRA A. FORTIN,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Rita Ragan got up from behind her worktable and extended a warm welcome and a firm handshake.

"Shaking hands with me is like shaking hands with a porcupine," said Ragan, holding her palms up to expose coarse skin. "That's one of the first things you learn about a person who works with stained glass - their hands are like sandpaper."

Ragan developed her affinity for stained glass more than nine years ago, after beginning the craft to help pay for the building on Union Street in Havre de Grace that houses The Avenue Stained Glass Studio and Gallery shop and her work studio.

"I saw this building and knew I better get it while it was available," said Ragan. For a living, Ragan is coordinator of the Johns Hopkins University neuroscience graduate program four days a week. She wanted to find something to do during her downtime to offset the costs of the newly acquired building and decided upon a stained-glass class at Harford Community College. She learned rudimentary skills, which wasn't nearly enough for Ragan to start a business. In the beginning, she had such a difficult time she thought maybe she was in over her head.

"On my first try, I did a horrible job soldering the piece," Ragan said. "It's sort of a dragonfly lamp. When it's turned on, it makes a light like a church cathedral. When it's turned off, it's ugly. It's in my house. I wouldn't let anyone else see it."

She taught herself by working constantly, and found her biggest obstacle was learning to work with glass without cutting herself. "Normally I stab myself when I'm working," said Ragan. "But once in a while, I get cut when I slide my knuckles across the top of the glass. All the edges of the glass [are] sharp when I cut it. Nothing goes out of here without a bit of my blood."

However, despite the trials of learning the art, she filled her shop with her work and during her first year in business she sold everything she could piece together. "By Christmas that first year, the store looked like it was going out of business," Ragan said.

Although Ragan attributed her success to low prices - $50 to $125 per square foot - Fritz Sterbak, a local antiques dealer since 1968, said it was her work, not the prices.

"Although Rita does have great prices, it's her work that really stands out," Sterbak said. "I have been selling stained glass in my shop for 38 years and I think her work is top-notch. If I don't have something someone wants, I send them to her because her work is just outstanding." And, when he needs a reproduction done, he commissions her himself.

"I buy supplies from her and I have watched her work," Sterbak said. "She uses beautiful glass and does a very good job. Once I had her reproduce a stained-glass window that I had sold for $5,500. She reproduced it and it cost me $450. She uses the best glass companies and puts a lot of care into her work."

Many other people have seen her work and agree with Sterbak's assessment. Ragan receives six commissions a month from customers from Virginia to Alaska. The demand for her work exceeds the supply.

"I'm always working on something," Ragan said. "This is my stress-reducer. It relaxes me after a long day. While most women get excited about a box of chocolate or flowers, I get excited over new equipment for my stained-glass business."

Although startup costs were about $500, Ragan puts about $35,000 a year into supplies she uses and sells to customers. Her studio is full of supplies, including pliers used to nibble off pieces of glass, stencils, copper foil edge trim, glass breakers and cutters.

Among the costly supplies, she purchases specialty panes of glass such as confetti, which runs about $18 per square foot. "I have to carry a large selection of glass styles and types because I let my commission customers select their own colors," said Ragan, showing hundreds of panes of glass in a multitude of hues.

"Sometimes the customer wants color combinations that I wouldn't select. I try to persuade them to select something different, but typically they are set on what they want," she said.

Her stained-glass items are priced from $10 to $500 or more, depending on the size and number of pieces of glass used on a project. Her work ranges from pendants, picture frames, jewelry boxes and nightlights to lamps, spiders, bugs and sun-catchers. Her most popular window designs are nature themes. "It's amazing what you can do with a piece of glass," said Ragan, picking up a kaleidoscope.

Over the years, she has perfected her work and built a following of repeat customers who commission work annually. Ragan said that when she finishes a piece, she looks at it on the sidewalk in front of the shop so she can see it in the light.

"When it's finished, [it's] a heirloom that will last forever. I don't do it for the money; I do it because it's fun," she said.

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