BANGOR, Maine — Paul Gagnon was preparing for Christmas back in 2008 when he received a phone call that changed the focus of his business, West Branch Traders.
It was Dec. 24. An acquaintance who had worked with him at Millinocket’s Great Northern paper mill, Pat Sturtevant, was on the phone. And Pat had a problem.
“He’s driving up the 95, going bird hunting. Never been in my shop. Really didn’t know what I did,” Gagnon recalled. “[He said], ‘I’ve got to buy my wife something for Christmas.’”
Sturtevant’s question: Could Gagnon use his laser to etch a map of Mattaseunk Lake, where he had a camp, onto a slab of wood? While he was at it, could he add in a moose, and a deer, and a picture of Sturtevant’s dogs?
The answer was “Yes.”
And when he completed the project, Gagnon realized that West Branch Traders had found its niche.
“I looked down at [the map] and the word out of my mouth was, ‘Bingo,’” Gagnon said. “I always thought there was a niche that was going to open up some doors.”
He’d just found it.
Since that fateful day, Gagnon has traced the maps of more than 300 Maine lakes, which he turns into handsome works of art. Local artists add personal touches, such as animals or sketches of a customer’s camp. Still other artists add color.
And while West Branch Traders still produces rustic pieces of art that feature moose, bears and deer, the company’s lake maps have turned into the most popular item it produces.
Prices range from $65 for a small, simple design to $1,250 for a coffee table with a customer’s chosen design on it. Last year, about 70 percent of the company’s sales involved lake maps of one form or another.
Sturtevant started out with the business as a customer but became a part owner when Gagnon was looking to buy equipment that would allow him to work on larger pieces.
“Paul had talked to various other people about investing in the business, buying a portion of the business,” Sturtevant said. “He got me interested in it and the biggest step that we had to take was to buy a bigger laser.”
Armed with the lake map idea, Gagnon worked hard for the first two months of 2009 to prepare for sporting shows that would begin in March. Outdoor enthusiasts, he figured, would be among his most enthusiastic customers, if he could show them finished products.
He was right.
Since then, he has branched out. One of the places he does a lot of business nowadays is the annual Fryeburg Fair.
“When we go to Fryeburg and come back, it’s [working] day and night, all the way until Christmas,” Gagnon said. “And last year was our best year ever.”
Gagnon figures he can produce 70 to 80 lake maps a week, if the orders demand it. Helping out are a crew of six local artists he keeps busy doing the fine work that sets the maps apart.
After a career working in a paper mill — which he says he enjoyed — Gagnon says his new profession is one he wouldn’t trade.
“This is the best job I ever had,” Gagnon said. “I work seven days a week, and it’s only because I want to. I never dread going downstairs. The commute to work is great: I just go downstairs to the studio.”
Gagnon does his work in Millinocket, but Bangor-area customers can check out his products at the Camp & Cottage store, which is located just inside the front door of 304 Stillwater Furniture on Stillwater Avenue.
There, artist Tracy Bonadio, who does some of the painting on the lake maps, sells a variety of rustic gifts, including those produced by West Branch Traders.
“At Christmas-time, the lake maps were the biggest thing I sold,” Bonadio said.
While Gagnon says his customers love their Maine lake maps, he has a few frequent-buyers who have gone wild for the products.
One man, he said, has bought 21 of the lake maps — so far.
Sturtevant says one of West Branch Traders’ selling points is the fact that any product can be personalized in a variety of ways.
“I think people love the concept of putting a picture of their camp or their dog on a piece of glass or a piece of wood or whatever,” Sturtevant said.
While lake maps are popular now, Sturtevant said there are a number of other options that the company will explore in the future.
Among those: laser-etched images of ski areas, golf courses or college campuses on furniture or decorative items.
“The idea of growing [the business] is not for Paul to be a big, rich hero, but we’d love the idea of 30 people working in Millinocket, Maine, and doing this and selling these all over the world,” Sturtevant said.
“The whole idea to help grow an economy is to have value added. We don’t want to sell trees to somebody in China who’s going to add all the value to it … we want to take trees in the state of Maine and turn them into furniture and other high-value goods because that’s good for Maine,” Sturtevant said.
For information about West Branch Traders, go to www.westbranchtraders.com.
For information about Camp & Cottage, visit www.campandcottagegifts.com.