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Custom frame shop has served LGBTQs for two decades
by Jake Wittich

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Duran Duran's 1982 album, Rio, blasts from the record player of Wall to Wall Framing, a custom frame shop in Edgewater. The record sleeve is propped up against a bookshelf lined full with other classic records, displaying the Patrick Nagel-designed album cover as if it were hanging in a gallery.

Leif Forre, the openly gay man who owns the shop, stands at a nearby work table, drilling hangers onto the back of a framed artwork. He's surrounded by almost a dozen other pieces—a portrait of Prince, a poster for an upcoming charity and several other artworks—all in need of his custom framing.

Forre's shop, located at 5554 N. Winthrop Ave., celebrates its 20th year of business later this year. What started as a small operation in the basement of a West Loop industrial building in 1999 has now grown to a business staple in the Edgewater community.

"When I moved the shop to Edgewater 16 years ago, the neighborhood had a lot of boarded up and abandoned buildings. There weren't many businesses here, so it was kind of a rough start," Forre said. "But then a lot of the gay community started moving here, new businesses came in and my businesses really grew alongside the community."

Most of Forre's clients include artists, designers and a range of people from the neighborhood, downtown and the suburbs. He doesn't advertise, so most of his business comes from word-of-mouth, he said. In the last year alone, his business grew by about 20 percent.

In an emailed statement, Ald. Harry Osterman said commended Forre's business success, calling Wall to Wall Framing a "an anchor" in the neighborhood's business district.

"[Forre] has contributed to the areas increased vibrancy and safety, and his business brings new people to our community," Osterman said. "Leif contributes to many important organizations that serve and support the LGBTQ community, leading by example. I look forward to working with Leif for another 20 years."

Forre has consistently used his business to support the LGBTQ community, donating his services to LGBTQ organizations such as Chicago House, TPAN, Howard Brown, The Legacy Project and Heartland Alliance, where he volunteers at the Edgewater food pantry every Thursday evening.

"You have to give back to the community," Forre said. "When you reach a stage in life where it's been good to you, you need to give back. I need to help with other organizations and make sure that I'm using my business to help the LGBT community."

Lori Cannon, founder and Northside Food Program coordinator of the Heartland Alliance, said she met Forre shortly after he moved to Chicago from a small town in Iowa in 1991. He was new to the city and looking to get involved with Open Hand Chicago, an in-home meals program for people diagnosed with AIDS that Cannon co-founded in 1988.

"I always thought his phraseology was unique for a young man, but he said he wanted to be part of 'a mission that offers good intentions,'" Cannon said. "He came to my program with this larger-than-life personality and just rolled up his shirt sleeves, then got to work stocking shelves and serving clients."

Cannon said Forre even bought a record player for Heartland Alliance's Vital Bridges Food Program.

"Every week, he comes in with his carrying case full of vintage albums," she said. "It'll be an Ella Fitzgerald homage, some early Aretha Franklin or '70s rock. He's got a very eclectic, like himself, collection of music, fashion and frames."

Cannon commended Forre's long history of charity work and giving back to the LGBTQ community. She said he's always offered his framing as a gift to community organizations' black-tie events, fundraisers or silent auctions.

"Over the last two decades, I've seen his shop transform from downtown to where he's at in Edgewater, but he's always generously donated his superior and artistic work," Cannon said. "It bespeaks a young gentleman who's not just a good businessman and talented trades professional, but a very kind and generous person."

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