Catching the fleeing moments when kids are being themselves
Gallery: Amber Shader Photography [3 Images] Click any image to expand.
Amber Shader's domain in Middletown is barely 15 feet wide, but it's a fairy land of toys, clothing, trinkets, books and the kind of things that you simply cannot resist buying. She knows this, and she's happy to discuss the success of First & Little Baby Boutique, but she's too busy chatting with customers who are conversing with her like old friends.
"Your hair looks so cute!" Shader tells one woman who's picking up several gifts. "Did you just get it cut?"
Another woman comes in not really knowing what she wants, and Shader subtly steers her toward a fedora and tie for her young son that look absolutely adorable. It's all done with smiles and enthusiasm, not hype and pressure.
While First & Little is the public face of Shader's mini-empire, she's also a photographer who specializes in portraits of children. Her photos are tucked in between the merchandise, and they fit so well into the store's aesthetics that you'd swear everything has been groomed by a Hollywood stylist. Shader has created an appealing, consistent design for everything from her business cards to her window displays and her warm, impeccable photos.
But in the beginning, she was just a kid who liked to take pictures.
"I was born and raised in Delaware, and grew up in Wilmington," she said. "When I was in sixth grade, I had just transferred to a new school, and one of my new friends got me into a community center where there were photography classes. I know it sounds kind of cliche, but ever since sixth grade, I've had a passion for photography."
She kept taking photos all through high school and college, but steered herself toward a career in business because she assumed making a living as a photographer wasn't feasible.
"I graduated with my master's degree in business and spent 13 years in corporate America," she said. "I started at MBNA, and worked at Bank of America. I learned so much working there, but I felt like I couldn't be creative. At the same time, in 2011, a colleague had passed away, and I remember sitting at her funeral, and everybody was talking about how much she gave to the company. I was working 80 hours a week, I was never home. I'd be gone for two weeks at a time on trips. I remember sitting in the church and thinking, 'I don't want to do this anymore.'"
Shader and her husband don't have children, but her skill with a new digital camera got her recruited by family members to take portraits. "It kind of grew organically," she said. "I would share pictures I took of my nieces and nephews. People would say, 'I'm going to pay you to take pictures of my kids.'"
She started with a space in her home where she met clients. When parents sometimes couldn't find the right outfit for their child to wear in a portrait, Shader began putting the pieces of a business together. "I figured I knew how to buy this stuff, so I started to research some wholesale things," she said. "I talked to some local moms who handmade some things. And in my home studio, I had things set up for portraits, with headbands and hats and cute little ties and stuff like that."
She found a tiny storefront attached to the Everett Theater in 2012, when it was a derelict space being used for storage. "I wasn't that familiar with Middletown, but I kind of knew where the Everett was," Shader said. "The space was so junky and dirty. I applied to get the spot through Project Pop-Up, when you could get a space rent-free for three months. The small space has worked out to my advantage, actually. All my customers are forced to talk to me, so I get to know them all. All the little kids think I live here, because it's decorated like a house," she said, laughing. "They say, 'I want to go to Miss Amber's house.'"
The limited display space means that Shader has to choose her merchandise carefully. Only the cutest products -- and the coolest innovations -- make the cut. For instance, there's the Neckerchew, a dribble bib for teething babies that has a sewn-in chewy spot. And there are stylish necklaces for moms to wear that are made of rubber. Every mom knows that babies will grab and chew jewelry, so the product fills a need ingeniously. There are sock-monkey toys, stylish nursing cover-ups, and a strategically placed rack of glittery, puffy dresses in the middle of the store that's a magnet for little girls. A mirror is placed about six inches from the floor so that Shader's most important customers can get a good look at themselves in their new accessories.
Using the storefront to meet with clients about portraits works in two ways -- selling portraits, and selling accessories and clothing. On the other hand, people who come in for clothing just might ask about Shader's portrait business.
"I just love taking pictures of children," she said with a broad smile. "There's nothing better. I love going to the client's house when the nursery is all decorated for the baby. I start with a pre-session consultation, to talk about, 'What color is your house? How do you decorate?' We talk about locations, about clothing. We set up two dates -- the shoot, and then an ordering session a couple of weeks later. I never want to just hand somebody a disc of photos, because what happens is that it sits in a drawer, or as a file on a computer. People are not printing keepsakes from it."
Shader's poster-size portraits are room-filling artistic statements, but she can work with images for tiny photo jewelry and everything in between.
"Out of all the ages, 1 is the most difficult age to shoot," she said. "One minute they're having tantrums, the next minute they're smiling. You just have to let them get it out and have a good cry. But I never leave without knowing I have what I want," she added.
In an era when everyone is their own photographer, Shader said, "Good, professional photography is an investment, and not everyone can afford it. My big thing is that, even if you can't afford professional work, make sure you are taking pictures of your children. Don't just let them sit on your iPhone. Print them out.
"There is no better investment than photography. As much as I think my pictures are for the mom and dad, they are really for the kids later on in life. I used to love sitting on the floor, looking at old pictures with my brother. But our mom never wanted her picture taken, so we have very few pictures our mother and us together," Shader said. "A lot of my work is each parent posing with the child, because I'm obsessed with getting that shot."
The children in Shader's photos are not groomed and starched and meticulously posed. They look at the lens with unguarded gazes, perhaps wearing a favorite dress or holding a favorite toy, their hair a bit askew, but they radiate personality. "I love their personalities," Shader said. "I love the things they say and do, their outlook on life."
Shader's success comes at a price. "I'm always here," she said. "Sometimes my husband or mother-in-law will fill in, and sometimes my friend fills in a shift, but it's basically just me."
Her website and social media presence is leading to more online contacts and sales, as well as portrait commissions in places as far away as Tennessee and California. Wherever she takes images, people tell their other family members and friends, leading to more business.
For Shader, getting to know families, and preserving the fleeting moments of a child's life, are richly rewarding in ways that go beyond financial success. "I absolutely love it here," she said during a break between customers. "I love Middletown. I'll never leave. The community has been fantastic. I still wake up sometimes and I can't believe I'm lucky enough to be doing this for a living."
First & Little Baby Boutique is at 49 W. Main St., Middletown. For more information, call 302-562-8976 or visit www.firstandlittle.com.