Only with more than 34 years of ardent passion for art and travel can one bring together ornaments as diverse as those at Ursel’s. These pieces, with names like Swiss glass angels, German smokemen, and Bavarian pewter ornaments, comprise the marvelous world of Ursel’s Web Frame Shop and Art Gallery on Washington Street.
There’s something about Ursel’s, surrounded by modest white walls, that you simply can’t experience from passing it on the street. The magic of the store and the woman who owns it doesn’t display itself flamboyantly. Rather, it emerges with subtle intrigue. As you dig deeper into the store, however, you will find that each object holds hidden stories. Ursel Shaffer, the owner, knows all of them.
Shaffer, who emigrated from Germany to Middletown in 1964, opened her first frame shop in Middletown in 1980. She has been managing Ursel’s Web, her second store, for the past 24 years. Known for her picture frames, Shaffer pays particular attention to the frames’ quality and seeks the finest moldings and corners. As a result, Ursel’s collection of frames includes a wide variety of imports from countries such as Brazil, Spain, and Italy, the last of which, according to Shaffer, is especially popular for its beautiful gold leaf finishes.
In addition to the quality of her products, Shaffer is committed to giving customers a positive experience and values their business.
“If [customers] don’t like something we did, we always make good,” she said. “We always go out of our way to redo something.”
Despite the beauty of the frames, the main attraction of Ursel’s is the collection of artwork that Shaffer has accumulated during her travels abroad.
While packed with colorful objects, the store is in fact extremely well-organized. On one section of the wall hang paintings and drawings by local artists, many of whom Shaffer befriended 34 years ago. Some of her oldest friends, like artists Mary P. Geary and Sally Barr, have even become part-time helpers at the store. Both an artist and a Middletown resident, Shaffer is exceptionally involved in the community. She participates in the Town Chamber and is associated with the Middletown Art Guild. For her, just as the store has long become a part of her identity, so has Middletown.
“You get personal with customers, and you listen to them, and they tell you their stories,” Shaffer said. “They tell you when they frame something and somebody died in the family, and they are framing an heirloom or something, something old from the family or family folders. They tell you the story, and we listen. So people are always feeling good.”
Shaffer is not only an active local resident, but also an avid traveler. During the short 20-minute tour, I felt as if she had taken me far beyond my familiar borders. From German tree of life decorations to Egyptian ornaments, from glass balls made with Mount St. Helen’s ashes to wooden eggs painted in Vienna, Shaffer’s items reflect the breadth of her travels. Shaffer’s eyes gleamed with excitement as she told me about her discovery of the Swiss Glass Angels, which will arrive in the store soon.
“I was in Switzerland, and I found them in another store!” Shaffer said, “So, I went in there, and asked the woman for the address of the glass blower. So she gave me the information, and I got them!”
At Ursel’s, no two pieces of merchandise are alike. As an artist, Shaffer understands that there is a story behind every work of art, whether it is a piece of blown glas or a wooden sculpture. She hopes her customers enjoy the diversity of her products as much as she enjoys choosing them.
“We try to pick really nice things, really special things that you don’t normally see,” Shaffer said.
Shaffer then showed me her favorite piece, a German incense smoker (known as a smokeman) called “Three Men Playing Chess.” Like the mistletoe, smokemen are traditional German Christmas items. They consist of small wooden sculptures of men and women and have two sticks of incense inside. The smoke from the incense comes out of specific places in the sculpture, such as a man’s pipe or a woman’s frying pan. “Three Men Playing Chess” is a particularly intricate piece portraying three men sitting in a circle. When incense is added, smoke comes out of each man’s pipe, creating a voluminous circle of smoke around the piece. The German smokemen, along with German Candle Pyramids and other Christmas items, will be in the store starting on Oct. 17th, when Ursel’s Christmas reception begins.
“One of our goals is to have people go out happier than they came in,” Shaffer said.
Reflecting back on the past 34 years, Shaffer regards Ursel’s Web as a vehicle for her venture into new realms of art and into the Middletown community. What the store means to her is way beyond a simple way of making a living. Instead, it embodies all of her passion and energy for the world, art, and life.
“What it means is that I’m not planning on retiring because I love it so much,” Shaffer said. “It really keeps you young, you know. It keeps you interested in what’s going on in the community. It keeps you interested in art.”