Lithograph-Maker Pins Hopes on Sports Nostalgia Market
BUCKTOWN — Eric Fine was inspired by a drawing he saw in a bathroom when he was 10 years old.
The drawing wasn’t anything crude – unless you consider the checkered history of the Cubs boorish. It was a lithograph, packed with 1,700 names and images, formed into a shape of a tree, a visual history of the Cubs, dating back to 1871.
“I was brought up to hate the Cubs,” said Fine, 33, a Bucktown resident and lifelong White Sox fan. But he was so entranced by the tree, his mother asked him if he was feeling okay when he got back to the table. Little did he know that he’d soon cross paths with the artist who created it.
That would be Bruce Burton, 62, who turned out to be Fine’s freshman swim coach at New Trier High School in Winnetka. As a reward for being the team’s most-improved swimmer his senior year, Burton gave Fine one of those trees he liked to design, this one celebrating the Sox.
That's when Fine "put two and two together," realizing his mentor made the art that transfixed him.
The two men lost touch after Fine went off to college to study restaurant management.
In 2007, after a string of restaurant and sales jobs, Fine decided that he wanted to go into business for himself.
The problem was, he didn't know what to sell. Until it hit him.
"I saw a way to bring Bruce [Burton] into the digital era, take it to next level," said Fine.
The two men joined forces to create Burton History Trees. But Burton, who made his first tree in 1979, a visual history of British rock music, was used to making the trees using analog methods.
"You cut things, you drew them, you used a photographic medium to shrink it down, taking a negative of a negative," Burton recalled.
With Fine's help, Burton's laborious 18-month process of creating a tree eventually was reduced to six months, aided in the past two years by a proprietary software that designer Drew Wasserman, a third Burton History helper, uses.
In 2008, their first year of business, Fine said they sold 300 or 400 trees. This past year they sold more than 3,000 trees, through word of mouth, their website and a growing network of retailers including the United Center gift shop, which sells the Blackhawks Tree, designed after the team won the Stanley Cup in 2010. The designs range in price from $25 for an 8 ½ x 11 print to $135 for a framed print.
Over the holiday season, a St. Louis Cardinals tree was the top seller for Burton Trees, thanks to a big push from the United Cardinal Bloggers, an established group of online scribes who advised Burton on what elements to include.
Fine said he’s looking for more enthusiastic fans to champion new designs. In return for their help with creating the tree's content, Fine envisions these fans being responsible for spreading the word and receiving a commission on tree sales.
Though the current media for the company's 20 trees are limited to lithographs, posters and prints, Fine envisions trees on T-shirts. Bar stools, too.
Even with all the big plans, though, Burton History Trees remains a part-time pursuit for Fine, who operates Burton Trees out of his Bucktown apartment, where he lives with his wife, Karen, their 8-month-old son and two dogs.
"I've made my fair share of mistakes and short of an angel investor coming and swooping us all away, this is where we're at. If something is just part-time people like to call it a hobby, but it's more than that," Fine said.
Retired from teaching, Burton manages booths at an antique mall in Volo, in McHenry County, the only place he’d sold his trees before reconnecting with Fine.
“Eric is what we call in the world of life a go getter,” Burton said. “He visualizes things. He's worked hard to get [Burton History Trees] out there. I've just enjoyed creating these one-page history books."