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Oh My Word Calligraphy
By Lindsey Colross
For BaltimoreStories.com

After retiring from the corporate world in 1991, Jim Roberts knew that he wanted to have his own business. His wife, Colette Roberts, had been a calligrapher and graphic artist for years, so the two decided to open a calligraphy gallery in Historic Ellicott City , Md.

“We thought about several different kinds of businesses, but this one appealed most,” Roberts said. “It looked to both of us as an opportunity to create a unique specialty shop, which would be an unusual niche for a retail business.”

Calligraphy, the art of beautiful and elegant hand-lettered writing, began with painting on cave walls. Since cavemen did not have a developed language, they had no other way to communicate, so the written word became a picture of life events.

“Calligraphy goes back in Europe and Asia for many centuries, so they've had more history than here in the United States ,” Roberts said.

“I try to make a distinction between penmanship, which is script that is just written, and calligraphy,” Roberts said.

One thing that makes calligraphy so interesting is that it is not just words, it is art too. Calligraphers do all the work on the page–art, drawing, design and words. It takes a lot of time, talent and patience, said Roberts.

The business, Oh My Word Calligraphy, is unique for more than the type of product that it sells.

“We think we are the only calligraphy gallery in the United States ,” said Roberts. “Many calligraphers have their own studios, but they only sell their own work. This is an enterprise that features the work of over 42 different calligraphers from around the United States .

“We've searched the Internet and haven't found any other galleries. I know there's one in Australia because we found each other on the Internet, and I know of a fellow in England who tells me there's a calligraphy gallery there,” said Roberts.

Most of the work displayed in the gallery is prints, some silk screen and some original work. There are seven different letterings offered at Oh My Word, from Book hand and Italic to Gothic and Legend.

The shop will do a calligraphy design for anything, including poems, original writings, quotes, favorite sayings, certificates and invitations. Also, there is more than just framed calligraphy sold at Oh My Word, such as prayer rocks, stationery, greeting cards, magnets, night lights, bookmarks and plaques.

Besides his wife, who does custom calligraphy for the gallery, Roberts finds other calligraphers at places like the New York Gift Show, and through various guilds around the country, like the Washington Calligraphers' Guild located in Virginia .

“I'm a sole proprietor and my wife is my business partner,” Roberts said. “Colette does all the art, layout design and calligraphy, which takes a lot of time and patience. Our studio, where all the work is done, is in our home in Columbia .

“Colette sometimes has 17 jobs on her desk, and one job takes about nine or 10 weeks from start to finish,” Roberts said. “The customer will see two or three rough drafts before we will proceed with a final piece. They come with the idea or the words and it is our job to do whatever it takes to make it right.”

First time customer Sherry Hogue said, “It's especially nice to find someone who can express what is in your heart through words. It's probably the most important thing to be able to communicate thoughts and feelings.

“The word is a powerful thing and calligraphy only makes it stronger,” said Hogue.

At first glance, one might question the need for a calligraphy gallery and wonder how the demand is great enough to keep a business going. Believe it or not, there is a large range of customers from virtually all ages.

“I don't want to put an age on it because we get teenagers; we get young, married couples; we get newlyweds, grandmas, grandpas, business people–it's a huge range that we appeal to.

“With Mother's Day, weddings and graduations, it's the time of year where there are a lot of celebrations, so it's good.

“You'd be surprised,” said Roberts. “I think repeat business is one of our strengths, that is what keeps us going because it is very hard to have a sales curve always going up.”

In addition to custom work, framing, and a large gallery of completed calligraphy to choose from, Oh My Word also offers calligraphy classes open to the public. The classes are held three times a year in the shop with different sessions focusing on a different kind of lettering.

“I move all the furniture to the back and bring down tables and chairs from upstairs. We have a large easel where the instructor, who has been with us about nine years, teaches the art of calligraphy,” Roberts said.

Located on Main Street , in historic Ellicott City, Oh My Word Calligraphy not only brings a unique product to Howard County , but also a sense of hope for the way business used to be.

Roberts' business philosophy is to make the customer feel at home and do whatever it takes to meet their needs.

“If you are caring and you believe in giving service to people and meeting their needs. They need you to do everything you can to make sure you point them in the right direction.

“This is a small shop, so we really have to care about people and make sure their needs are met. Sometimes we do invitations for a wedding and we do everything we can to help the bride meet her deadlines.

“Because of all the things you have to do when you're getting married, we go out of our way to make sure we're on time and to meet their needs. They might call to cancel, then call back and say they'll coming in an hour and we'll rearrange our schedule to fit theirs. Service is very important I think,” Roberts said.

It is the combination of good business and caring about the customer that keeps people coming back to Oh My Word Calligraphy time after time. If you are good to people, they won't forget it, and that is another art that Jim and Colette Roberts seem to have perfected. You know you're doing something right when customers stop in just to give a quick hello.

The Roberts' idea for a unique specialty shop has not only been successful, but is has also been able to hold on to the old way of doing business.

At Oh My Word Calligraphy the bottom line is not making as much money as possible, but it is instead doing what it takes to make the customer as happy as possible.

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