When Eric Brown got sick of his regular job and quit 20 years ago, he knew he had to do something.
“I never did think I could make a living at it, it just happened,” Brown said.
Brown own’s Eric Brown Stained Glass at 33 Courtland Street in downtown Rockford. He is the fifth owner of a stained glass business at that location and October 1 marks the milestone of 20 years in business.
“There are maybe a half dozen who have been here longer than me, so I think that’s pretty good,” he commented.
Brown said he guesses he’s become one of the “old timers”in Rockford, along with J.T. Stitchery & Frame Shop, Reading Books, the Candle Shop of Rockford, Herman’s Boy, Great Northern Trading Company and Baskets in the Belfry.
Brown fell into stained glass as a hobby as a 13-year-old. His older brother was interested in stained glass and decided to make a 400-piece Tiffany lamp. He quit after 20 pieces and Eric took over the project.
Brown said he could never part with that first project, not out of affection, but because it really isn’t that good. “It was alright for my skill level at that time,” he said.
He followed the lamp with more modest projects and over the years became a self-taught master in his craft.
Now the two-story shop that was built after razing the former structure on the site glitters with examples of Brown’s work. “I’m pretty proud of the fact that almost nothing here is made in China, “ he remarked.
At one time Rockford was known for the many resident artists. Now Brown is one of very few that create his products himself. “There is me, the Charnleys at Burlap ‘n Rags and Brien Dews at the clock shop,” he said. He remembers when Rockford supported a glass blower, wood worker, weaver, wood carver and more.
It may not be easy, but for Brown, it is possible to support yourself as an artist. Along with the stained glass classes he teaches nights, the store is his livelihood.
“I’ve seen a lot of them go in and out of business over the years,” Brown said. He attributes his success to hard work, being punctual, affordable and pretty easy to get along with.
It is impossible to estimate how many pieces of glass he has cut over the years. “One lamp could have over 1,000 pieces, and that can mean over 4,000 cuts,” he said. “Multiply that by hundreds of lamps and thousands of windows.”
In addition to stained glass, Brown also sells hand-crafted kiln-fired glass earings, etched glass and blown glass, and other related items as well as supplies. He enjoys his craft for the endless possibilities it offers. “You can have stained glass in clocks, suncatchers, windows, it’s limitless. In windows alone there are an endless variety.”
Brown said one of the most satisfying aspects of his job is teaching others to create. Among the hundreds of people he has had in his classes, there are several who have been working with him for years and are now doing very advanced work.
Advice for the novice? Brown said don’t start with a Tiffany-style lamp. He said it’s exciting to show people that they are capable of making art themselves. The classes are just $55 for four weeks of three-hour classes. Gift certificates are available, and if someone signs up now, they are likely to be able to complete a piece by Christmas.
The long hours don’t bother Brown. He estimates he spends over 70 hours a week in his shop. “There are a million worse things to be doing, that’s for sure.”
He also pointed out that a job like his is not for everyone. It is long hours standing and the work is much more physical than you would expect. Plus, he said he cuts his fingers on a daily basis. “It’s not bad, just little nicks.” He has had some bad cuts, too, one that took weeks to heal and forced him to learn to cut left-handed. That was a good thing, too, because now he can teach lefties as well as right-handed students.
“If you handle glass everyday, all day, you are gong to get cut,” he stated. “If you don’t like to get cut, this isn’t the business for you.”
Brown said being self-employed is not for everyone, either. When he started the business, he didn’t make anything the first few years. “People think if you open your own business, you are automatically going to get rich. It doesn’t work that way.”
He advised anyone thinking about working for themselves to make sure they do something they love. “I have no other life, this is it,” he said. “It’s been a pretty good ride. I can’t complain.”