Photo by Paul Moore
Greg Keeler, owner of Oyster Creek Canvas, has faced many challenges as a small-business owner, from finding the right equipment to balancing a budget. It hasn’t been easy, he said, but it has paid off.
Right now he faces the challenge of finding a snack for his 5-year-old son.
From the far side of the shop, Finley Keeler decides it’s snack time.
“Dad, I’m hungry!” he yells.
Keeler, 38, gets up from his industrial sewing machine to inspect the snack options in the kitchen he built into the canvas shop a few years ago. None of choices appeal to Finley.
Macaroni and cheese with peas? No. Raisins? No. Carob-covered raisins? No.
Not missing a beat, Keeler’s daughter Isla, almost 3, comes out of hiding to snag the bag of raisins her brother rejected, delighted that it’s snack time.
After a minute, Finley decides that the mac and cheese sounds OK.
“We don’t have any ketchup, though,” Greg tells him. And that just won’t do, so it’s down the street to Barganica to find a suitable treat.
Keeler has found a way to get his work done while taking care of his children in the workplace:
His situation is unique, though. First, he owns the 3,000-square-foot building that houses the marine canvas shop, which means he can make certain kid-friendly additions. Second, he is his own boss, so he can work his schedule around his kids.
Even with that advantage, not every workday is perfect.
“I’m not getting much work done this afternoon,” he admits, “but I got a lot done early this morning, so it all balances out.”
When Keeler bought the building two years ago, one of the first things he did was build a play room in the back for Finley and Isla. This 6-by-8-foot room has a love seat, a miniature drum set, a loft with a TV, art supplies — everything a kid would want in a play room.
The next step was to make the shop safer for the kids by rounding off table corners and making sure that sharp tools stay in one spot.
“I made it so I could relax when they’re around,” Keeler said. “Since they’ve grown up down here I’ve told them what’s sharp and what not to touch.”
There’s not much in the shop that is off limits for the kids. Both Finley and Isla walk around the shop comfortably like it was part of their house. And there’s a lot to play with.
Sometimes Keeler said he makes them foam swords from scrap materials. Or the kids will use the 40-foot table that is often covered in canvas to spread out their art supplies. Their artwork is proudly displayed on the back wall near the play room.
“They keep themselves busy,” Keeler said. “Sometimes I’ll pull 10-hour days and when they get tired they’ll go take a nap or watch a movie.”
Photo by Paul Moore
Patching together a business
Keeler stays pretty busy himself these days, though it hasn’t always been that way.
The canvas industry was something he eased into over the years as the company has attracted more business. In fact, Keeler said that he never really intended to start a canvas business — it just happened that way.
It all started with the location.
A friend of Keeler’s found the space on North State Street in 2001 and decided to put his woodworking studio in there. But he didn’t need the whole space and agreed to lease a third of it to Keeler for a third of the monthly rent.
This meant that Keeler got 1,000 square feet of shop space for a mere $300 a month, which he said he simply couldn’t pass up.
“I wasn’t even sure what I was going to do with it,” he said. “I just wanted a big space downtown and I knew I wanted to work for myself.”
At the time, Keeler was doing commercial diving for Diversified Diving and also picking up side jobs down at the marina. He figured that whatever his next business venture would be, it couldn’t hurt to have some work space.
At the time, his wife, Oso Ghoffrani, first broached the idea of doing marine canvas and industrial sewing. It was something that she was familiar with and they both knew from working in the marine services that there is always demand for marine upholstery and repair.
The two slowly began taking on canvas projects and growing the business piece by piece.
The shop now sees a steady flow of business coming out of the marina, from repairing sail covers to custom-building canvas cabin awnings.
Keeler no longer has to work side jobs and Ghoffrani, to whom he is no longer married, has started sewing bags at home on a contract-by-contract basis.
Every now and then, Keeler said he will get an odd request that usually sparks a new business idea. For example, as the company gained more of a commercial presence, more people began stopping by to inquire about repairs to canvas bags.
Keeler noticed that most of the bags were cheaply made and repairing them with high quality canvas seemed silly. So he began making his own bags, duffels and shoulder packs in various colors, and selling them at the front of the shop.
This spawned yet another idea: if he could make bags with his admittedly limited sewing skills, why couldn’t other people come in and design their own items?
“I want to have a sewing station in the back where people can come sew by the hour,” Keeler said.
“There are lots of people who know how to sew, they just don’t have an industrial sewing machine.”
Keeler said he isn’t quite to that point yet, but he is close. The front of his shop is now devoted to retail sale of the fabrics, buckles, grommets and zippers Keeler uses in the shop.
Even Finley has jumped on the retail wagon. Every day, he pulls his little table and chairs into the doorway of the shop and sells lemonade to passersby. He insists on serving big cups, too, not the little Dixie cups. And he has his own wallet where he keeps his money.
The lemonade stand is just one more way that Keeler said his children can learn valuable life lessons and at the same time, have fun around the shop. Few kids these days get the opportunity to be around their parents while they work, let alone have access to a workshop.
“It’s nice having my kids down here,” Keeler said. “It allows me to get a lot of stuff done and it’s not that different from being home. Plus they get to see a lot of what Dad does and they get to learn a lot.
“It just shows that you can work and still have your kids around.”