By Rod Lee
The Clements brothers, Ken and Art, can be found in a plain building at the north end of Main St. in the town of Oxford that Rusmart Auto Upholstery has occupied for about five of the seventy years it has now been in existence.
They are old school from the top of their heads, which are coated in white hair, to the soles of their shoes. The sign along the road out front, identifying Rusmart, puts on no airs. Their business card is straightforward with just the bare essentials including a notation that the company was established in 1947. They have no website. They have no interest in Facebook or social media. The shirts they were wearing on October 24th were not even an advertisement for Rusmart. Instead, Ken’s bore the monogram of “The American College.” Art was clad in a “Woodmeister” T-shirt.
Appearances can be misleading, however, and this is certainly true in their case, as proprietors of a business that has a long history and a stellar reputation.
Rusmart is a combination of the names of the Clements’s father, Russell Clements, and his partner Martin Feldman. Both are now deceased. The enterprise is an outgrowth of Mr. Feldman’s family’s Chandler Manufacturing in Worcester, which made seat covers. Originally located on Chandler St. in Worcester, the business subsequently moved to Park Ave., then to 1147 Main St. in the Webster Square neighborhood of Worcester. Burned out of that location after twenty-two years by a fire, Rusmart relocated to North St. in Worcester, in the proximity of Gervais Auto Body, and finally to Oxford.
The brothers are an interesting case study, as is Rusmart itself. Art is slightly taller and the more effusive of the two. Ken, though reserved, is the clever one, as he likes to say, with ample evidence lying around of his ability to create novel solutions to tricky problems. On this particular day Ken was making improvements to a kayak he had built himself from scratch that he puts into the water at places like Lake Champlain and Hyannis Harbor.
The walls of their 2500 square feet of work space are adorned with items that reflect the nature of their business and their personal tastes. Old license plates. “I collect them in pairs so I can sell them,” Ken said. Examples of seats they have upholstered. Miniature replica cars set in a row on a shelf high above the floor.
Asked if they are doing anything special to mark the 70th anniversary of Rusmart, Art laughed and said “no. We work. We go home.”
Home is the house in Auburn their parents occupied. “We live together but on separate floors,” Art said (both are currently single). This is a clue that despite the “fifty years of knowledge” they bring to their craft, they do not always see eye to eye. Ken jumped in several times to correct Art’s recollection of certain dates, for instance.
“We have our moments,” Art said. “We’re brothers! He likes to go dirt biking. I like to go bass fishing.” A camper Art uses and has updated himself sat to one side as we talked.
Upholstering is in their blood.
“I was born and raised in it,” Art said. “I started pushing a broom for my dad at a young age.” Ken came in later. Except for a time away “in fiber optics” after “butting heads with my father,” Art has never left the business.
Every once in a while people who come in will ask after their dad. “Where’s the old guy with the pipe?” they’ll inquire. “That was our dad,” Art said.
Their work in upholstery is not limited to custom and antique cars, trucks, boats and RVs like the muscle cars that Dave Abramo of Mass. Auto Oulet on Massasoit Road in Worcester restores (“they’ve done upholstery for me, vinyl tops, convertible tops,” Mr. Abramo said). They have also engineered seats for the Providence & Worcester Railroad. They do work for “the city of Worcester out of the Central garage.” For local police and fire departments. They do airplane seats (“strange what comes in the door,” Ken said). Booths and bar stools. Seats for motorcycles. Three hundred seats “for the Millbury Draught House.” For skidoos. For golf carts. Coverings for hospital gurneys.
“We’re a dying breed,” Art said. “There used to be eight trim shops in the city of Worcester.” Rusmart is a throwback to yesteryear and the brothers are proud of being “the oldest trim shop in Worcester County.”
They have no desire to retire.
“We’ll work as long as we can,” Ken said.
“I could retire next year when I turn sixty-five if I wanted,” Art said. “What am I going to do, go home and watch the grass turn green?”
They are conscious of changes in the industry, not all of them for the better.
“We watch stuff on TV and they glue things,” Ken said, shaking his head in disapproval.
They run a tight ship and a tidy ship.
“I keep this space clean,” Art said, gesturing at everything in its appointed place. “If you have a $100,000 car you are working on you can’t afford not to.”
Art offers a simple explanation for the brothers’ willingness to accept virtually any work order. Boats. Jeeps. You name it.
“If you can ride on it we can do it,” he said.
Contact Rod Lee at [email protected] or 774-232-2999.
Seat covers like these on a custom hot rod “have to fit right, no wrinkles,” Ken Clements says.