By Dustin Brown
Finding your way to the Long Island City home of Townsend Glass is a minor adventure that requires a solid stomach and a car with decent shocks.
The small company’s glass workshop sits on the first floor of an industrial building flanked by train tracks on one side and the Newtown Creek on the other — an obscure spot you can only reach by crossing the railroad on a dead-end street that runs in the shadow of the Pulaski Bridge.
The pavement is scarred and the ride bumpy, but the elegance of the glass sculptures and ornaments crafted in the company’s half-dozen rooms could hardly pose a starker contrast to their rugged surroundings.
Indeed, the trek to Townsend is a more appropriate metaphor for the rocky journey its owner Elizabeth Schnee endured to rescue a shaky business and place it on solid ground.
The secret to Townsend’s successes of late, the 47-year-old entrepreneur explained recently, comes down to first-class customer service.
“If you’re going to do it right, you have to be able to think things through, you have to pre-trouble shoot the customer’s needs,” said Schnee, a divorced mother of four who lives in College Point. “The staff here are probably more concerned about your pieces than you would be.”
Metal shelves and wooden tables in every corner of the shop are lined with delicate pieces of glass passing through the production process, like tiny cheetahs and giraffes patiently anticipating the addition of their spots.
Much of the more basic glassware, such as bowls and plaques, is purchased in bulk and gets wrapped beneath a thick layer of tape and red film imprinted with a design, which then gets etched onto the glass by a sandblaster.
More intricate are the glass sculptures created by lampworker Tim Clinton, who melts down glass rods and shapes them into figurines like a soaring ballet dancer or two bodies joined together in a heart .
One of the ballerinas was purchased by former President Bill Clinton for his daughter Chelsea, herself a dancer, at a shop in Washington, D.C. — a sale documented by a Washington Post photo hanging in Schnee’s office.
The business, originally called the Glass Garden, was founded two decades ago by Schnee’s sister as a profit venture for the Unification Church, a controversial religious group founded by the Rev. S.M. Moon in South Korea in 1954 whose members are widely known as the Moonies.
Schnee, who had joined the Moonies herself at age 16, started managing the shop’s finances in the early 1980s when it operated out of a Manhattan storefront and sold glassware crafted by Milon Townsend.
“He would sit in the window and make glass and people would come in and buy it,” Schnee said.
But when the church sent Townsend back to his hometown, he left behind a company that was saddled with debt.
Disillusioned with the church, Schnee severed all ties with the Moonies and ultimately moved the company to Long Island City, where she began the arduous process of climbing out of the hole.
“We cut everything to the bone,” said Schnee. “We got somebody’s old used fax machine. We didn’t rent anything, we didn’t lease anything, we just had our space. I only bought for the orders that we had, and we worked our way out of debt.”
Under Schnee’s ownership the company was incorporated in 1993 as Townsend Glass, which today boasts a celebrity clientele that not only includes Bill Clinton but also his predecessor, President George H. W. Bush, as well as actor Alec Baldwin and vocal legend Ella Fitzgerald.
Indeed, the glass business has its own special rewards. One woman who had bought Townsend’s glass ornaments with her daughter years ago clung to the memories tied to the glass when her daughter was killed in the attack on the World Trade Center.
“She talked about how important those little glass pieces are now that her daughter is gone,” said Schnee. “Because it’s hand-made, there’s a whole lot that goes into it — and a whole lot of emotion gets attached to it.”
Reach reporter Dustin Brown by e-mail at Timesledger@aol.com or call 229-0300, Ext. 154.