Florence Price can't draw a straight line, stitch a button or hammer a nail. But several years ago she created Elder Crafters, an Alexandria shop that sells crafts made by 330 senior citizens.
Elder Crafters sells the ceramics, woodwork, quilts, batik, needlepoint, etchings and jewelry of artisans over 55 whose works have won the approval of a selection committee.
"People are surprised when they see the lovely things here," said 73-year-old Catherine H. Tellman, a retired computer specialist whose knitting prowess has earned her the title of Elder Crafters' "booty queen."
"I don't think people realize our ages," said Mary Ellen Page, 68, a crafter and retired Fairfax County school supervisor. "When they find out we're senior citizens they feel it adds to the beauty."
Price said Elder Crafters was inspired by a visit to a New York City gallery displaying works of senior artists. In 1981 she began organizing a similar shop, requesting money, space and general assistance from the city of Alexandria and local corporations.
The true test of the idea, however, was whether local residents over 55 could provide the wares to fill the shop.
George Gallant, 66, a former administrator in the federal government, is one of the shop's most popular crafters. He said he never expected to spend his retirement years engrossed in walnut and cherry woods, jewelry boxes and brass fittings and diamond-shaped inlays.
But then he never knew he was a talented craftsman until he tried expanding on what he'd always considered a knack for basic carpentry. The result, he said, was the surprise discovery at the age of 63 that he was an artist. "When I started doing this and letting my imagination run, I found out how imaginative I was," Gallant said.
He said retirement gives him the freedom to fashion trays, birdhouses, jewelry boxes and wine racks exactly to his liking. "I wouldn't want to make a living on this, because I'd have to make too many compromises."
For Page, Elder Crafters was the chance to turn a hobby into a marketable venture. A prolific and self-taught artisan, Page said she had filled her home with needlepoint.
"Then one day my husband said, 'Not one more piece of needlepoint in this house!' " and shortly thereafter she began submitting her canvasses to Elder Crafters.
Unlike Gallant, Page likes crafting for customers with specific design requests. "The special orders are fun," Page said. "A lady came in with an order for a book cover. It was an old Bible she wanted to carry to work, and I made a special needlepoint cover with handles."
Page said that selling her needlepoint hasn't detracted from the pleasure she has always taken in it: "It's a sense of relaxation for me," she said.
With grants temporarily paying two part-time employes' salaries, Elder Crafters makes enough money on sales to cover operating expenses, and is a nonprofit corporation whose craft workers are not generally career artisans.
"The majority of crafters are people who've found an outlet," said Price. She said Elder Crafters will expand operations to include giving classes at senior citizen centers and seeking grant money to fund more philanthropic projects.
"I'd like to keep growing," Price said, to further Elder Crafters' purpose of keeping retired seniors involved in projects that contribute to the community.
She said Elder Crafters will set up a wood shop in the Ladrey Highrise, a senior citizen residence in Alexandria, offering classes taught by Gallant.
And the shop's selection committee has added a member, to keep up with increasing requests from senior artisans to get their crafts into the store.