Some words are harder to write than others. For Linda Crouch, writing “cancer” and “selling the studio” were the toughest.
Crouch, the 51-year-old owner of Fusions Glass Studio in Eagle, penned the words to paper. She scratched them out. She gave up to try again other days.
In December, doctors found a second tumor in her bile duct. Later, they nixed the slim odds for the liver transplant that would give her a fighting chance. She started thinking about the legacy of her business, where she teaches art classes in glass fusing — the partial melting of glass pieces to join them — and sells glass and supplies. She started writing a Facebook post for the studio’s 1,600 followers, seeking an owner to keep it going.
“I started it two months before I actually sent it out,” Crouch said. “I worked on the words. I went over it, again and again. I changed some things. I wasn’t ready.”
Neither were Crouch’s regular customers, many of whom were women of or near retirement age, who depend on Fusions to supply their glass-arts habits and to serve as a gathering place.
Stephanie Nyman, a nurse, said she and other regulars get more from the studio’s open work hours than their fusion fix. One group of regulars formed a Bible study group. Another goes out dancing.
“It feels very family, very fun,” said Nyman, 51. “We chit-chat, discuss things. Some of us agree politically and some of us don’t. But we’re still very nice to each other and like to hang out.”
BRINGING FUSION TO THE VALLEY
Crouch was an electrical engineer turned-stay-at-home-mother of two boys in Seattle when she fused her first pieces, a 6-inch-square tile and a 10-inch-diameter round dish. She finds those rudimentary pieces cringe-worthy today, but they were colorful and shiny, lures that led to a lifelong passion.
“They were very much beginner, but at the time, I really loved them,” Crouch said. “I made them out of glass. It was amazing.”
The Crouch family moved to Eagle in 2001 when her husband, Jeff, tired of the Pacific Northwest rain.
There was no fusion studio in the Treasure Valley, so Crouch continued her education in glass by attending classes in Portland at Bullseye Glass Co., the glassmaker that made fusion accessible by making all of its glass kilns compatible. Most manufacturers make products used in stained glass, which doesn’t require properties of different glasses to match in order to fuse without breaking. Before Bullseye, fusion was the province of only artists skilled at matching glasses.
Crouch sold her pieces at a Saturday market, but she never hoped to succeed as a professional artist. She was more interested in teaching fusion techniques and helping people get started. So, in 2003, she started teaching classes in her garage in Eagle.
The classes quickly sold out, leading to a series of three more studios, each larger than the last, culminating in Fusions’ home at 135 N. 2nd St. The Crouches built and own the 3,100-square-foot studio that opened in 2013. They sold the two condos on the building’s second floor.
People are going to think it’s just another crafty business that couldn’t make it in Eagle. That’s not a good reason to keep the studio going, but it bothers me that people might think that.
Linda Crouch, Fusions owner
One of Crouch’s long-standing customers, Gail Northness, 64, said she was bedridden with multiple sclerosis in 2004 when her husband returned home with a flier for a fusion class. Northness attended a class in Crouch’s garage. Twelve years later, Northness visits Fusions up to four times a week to buy supplies and work on projects during the free open-studio hours.
Northness said she would buy the studio if her health were better. She credits Crouch and the studio with helping her live a full life despite her illness.
“The studio gave me reason to get out of bed, to keep going,” Northness said.
Reham Aarti, a professional Boise mosaic artist, said she used to drive twice a year to Portland to buy several thousand dollars’ worth of Bullseye stained glass. Aarti doesn’t need fusion-compatible glass for mosaics — which make use of stained glass, vitreous glass tile and whatever else an artist wants to use — but Aarti was willing to travel to buy colors of glass only sold by Bullseye. Fusions gives Aarti a local Bullseye dealer — Legacy Glass Art in Boise sells other brands of stained glass — and also serves as a point for cross-pollination among artists trafficking in glass arts, Aarti said.
“People underestimate how lucky we are to have that studio,” Aarti said. “It’s where mosaicing and fusing and all of that other stuff intersects. Half of her students have taken my mosaic class. There’s a lot of crossover between our studios because we all love glass and we all love color.”
Sarah Givens, who has sold Fusions its Bullseye glass since 2007 as a sales representative for the Portland company, said fusing wasn’t accessible in the Valley for artists without their own kilns before Crouch opened her studio.
“That studio pulls in customers from eastern Oregon, eastern Washington, Wyoming,” Givens said. “She’s created this community from the ground up that is beneficial over state boundaries.”
DECISION TO SELL
Couch initially thought about selling the studio in 2014 after being diagnosed with a rare bile duct cancer with a less than 5 percent five-year survival rate. But she responded well to chemotherapy. She managed to keep most of her hair while the treatment stunted tumor growth. She hoped to keep the studio for a few more years.
But the second tumor, discovered in December, forced Crouch’s hand. She and her husband were strong enough financially that, with the help of insurance, her medical expenses were not a concern, she said. But a sudden turn for the worse could render the studio rudderless. Crouch, who is four months past the 11-month average survival period for bile duct cancer, turned her attention to finding a buyer.
“My husband is nervous that if I take a quick turn for the worse, he has to take over the business without knowing the underlying things that go on here,” she said. “I knew I had to speed it up, to get word out to the public.”
Selling businesses on a sped-up schedule due to owner health adds difficulty, said David Bensinger, president of Benexis, a Meridian consulting firm that helps owners sell their companies. The emotional toll on owners compounds the logistics of finding a buyer and negotiating a sale, he said.
“Their business is like a child they have nurtured, cried over, spent sleepless nights thinking about, grown with, and watched develop,” Bensinger said. “It is hard to leave it under the best of circumstances, let alone when it isn’t planned, and finding a buyer on short notice can be very difficult.”
Crouch said she low-balled the asking price of $150,000, covering only the value of $120,000 worth of glass inventory and $30,000 worth of kilns and other equipment and omitting value of the studio’s name and regular clientele.
They are probably the strongest player in the (Intermountain West). Fusions is such a high quality studio that you could drop it into a place like Seattle or Portland or any major city and it would compete and be successful. Tons and tons of glass moves through there.
Sarah Givens, Bullseye Glass Co. sales representative
The studio grossed $340,000 in 2012, its best year, Crouch said. Sales dipped in 2013 when Crouch built and moved into the new studio, and again in 2014 when she cut hours after her first cancer diagnosis.
Crouch said she will disclose the studio’s net profits or losses to potential buyers, but not to the public, because she thinks the business is situated to earn more money. The business has broken even since she reduced hours and classes after her diagnosis, she said.
She has two employees, down from four during the studio’s peak. The studio is open Tuesday through Sunday, with open-studio hours on Tuesday from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. and Wednesday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. The four-hour beginner class costs $85, with tools and materials provided, and advanced classes range from $85 to $250.
“The net isn’t as high as it should be, considering the popularity of the business,” she said. “I was finally situated to where I could focus on the bottom line. And then I was diagnosed.”
Crouch talked seriously with a former employee and an owner of a similar studio in another state. Those prospects didn’t pan out. Some of her regulars have bandied the idea of coalescing into a co-op. That has not resulted in a serious offer.
She said she will liquidate the studio’s assets by the end of the year if she cannot find a buyer.
“I am proud of what’s been done here, and I’d hate to see it just disappear,” she said. “That adds fuel to wanting to sell it, and to a good owner.”
Nyman put her fusion hobby on steroids several years ago, buying $30,000 worth of glass to fuse between 300 and 400 pieces each year. She said proceeds from sales of her candy dishes, wine racks and other work contribute between $10,000 and $12,000 per year to charities, most frequently to the Idaho Foodbank and Idaho Humane Society.
Nyman said she would have to invest in her own kiln if Fusions folds. Most of the other regulars would likely give up their hobby.
“We’d miss the camaraderie that occurs at the studio, and there wouldn’t be master artists coming to teach new techniques two or three times a year,” Nyman said. “There would be less glass fusing in this area.”
Aarti hopes someone in the art community buys the studio.
“It can’t be because they think they’ll make a killing,” Aarti said. “It’s not just a business. It’s much bigger than that. We’re all crossing our fingers.”