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Married photographers reflect on 20 years of doing business in Towson

The home of Coyle Studios, a commercial photography business run by husband and wife team, Mary Lou Coyle and John Coyle Jr., is easy to miss while driving along Fairmount Avenue.

But the pair have successfully operated a commercial photography and photo restoration business out of the yellow, 1920s house near the intersection of Joppa Road for two decades.

The East Towson business celebrated its 20th anniversary July 19 with an anniversary party for customers past and present at Charles Village Pub, in downtown Towson.

"This is our way to thank customers that have supported us," Mary Lou Coyle said. "We've been through a lot, but my clients have really stood by us."

The studio has specialized in commercial photography for businesses since 1996, producing material for annual reports, advertisements and marketing materials for clients that include Musselman's apple juice, Royal Farms and MedStar Franklin Square Medical Center.

Mary Lou Coyle's specialty is the restoration of old and archival photographs, a craft she has painstakingly perfected over long hours in the studio, she said.

"We love the same things and we're both artsy fartsy, but we're totally different," Mary Lou Coyle said of the couple. "I love being studio-based; John loves hanging out of airplanes. He loves being in the car traveling."

The pair bought the building at 516 Fairmount Ave. at auction in 1997. At the time, they were business partners who had begun working together the prior year. The relationship blossomed later, Mary Lou Coyle said. The couple married in 2001.

In the years since, the team has added two staff members and the occasional freelancer to their roster.

Though not much has changed on the exterior of the property, the Coyles have renovated the interior of their office bit by bit, Coyle said.

Low doorways and tall ceilings common to the decade in which it was built are still present in the home, but the Coyles recently replaced the furnace and boiler after it took its final, dying breath, and there's fresh paint throughout the building.

"You can't tell from the outside but this building has had a lot of work put into it," Mary Lou Coyle said. "In a weird way, I feel like I'm keeping it from being developed, but it's definitely a labor of love."

Though most of the company's commercial clients are based in the mid-Atlantic region, John Coyle Jr. has also photographed celebrities and luxury hotels overseas in addition to day-to-day shoots of businesses, products and events.

Mary Lou Coyle offers customers hundreds of custom framing options, along with the digital restoration service.

Pushing ahead

The partners in business and life say they have dealt with a number of obstacles in their personal and professional lives.

After being told they could not have children, the Coyles were surprised with the pregnancy of their son, John Coyle III, who is now 12 and has a rare disorder that affects his spine and gastrointestinal tract and has required multiple surgeries and constant medical care.

The elder Coyle has also battled health problems. Most recently, melanoma metastisized in his lymph nodes and doctors warned he had just five months to live. However, the couple pushed forward despite the skin cancer. Coyle was declared tumor-free in 2003.

"Everyone told me to pack it in and close the business," Mary Lou Coyle said. "Instead, I went out and bought more equipment and told him he'd always be a photographer as long as he had eyes to see."

The couple has also dealt with increasing competition from national craft retailers that offer cheap framing, they say, something that is not unique to their Towson-based business.

"I'm not sure there are a lot of people in the area who do the kind of work she does," customer Morris Segall said of the work Mary Lou Coyle did to restore a personal collection of photos of three generations of his family that were taken between the early 1900s and mid-1980s.

Some photos were dog-eared or ripped. Others were stuck inside of cabinets, on top of furniture and tucked in books. One turn-of-the-century photograph of Segall's grandparents had started to turn black from age, The Owings Mills resident said.

Segall said he has brought his work to Coyle Studios for more than a decade because of the couple's skill, professionalism and attention to detail.

"They're marvelous people and they really know their craft extremely well," he said. "They were able to do substantial restoration work and really salvage heirlooms going back to 1908."

Towson also has changed during the couple's tenure downtown, from being "somewhat suburban to urban," Mary Lou Coyle said. The studio, which looks like a home except for one small sign on the exterior, has been broken into twice.

On the other hand, the downtown area has also seen an influx of small, independent businesses in what Mary Lou Coyle calls a more "walkable, downtown Towson," which she believes is good for business.

"In addition to being a part of the Towson community for a period of time, their proximity has allowed them be a part of every nonprofit that touches Towson," said Tim Bojanowski, president of the Towson Chamber of Commerce. "They're incredibly generous in donating their time to the Baltimore County Education Foundation and other area nonprofits. They're what Towson stands for."

The Coyles toasted their two decades with crushes, cocktails, appetizers, along with about 30 clients at the Charles Village Pub.

"The support was overwhelming," Mary Lou Coyle said. "It feels like a blink but when you're surrounded by people who have supported you for 20 years and they come together that's just really neat."

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