Creative Somerville Series: For the Love of Letterpress and Local Makers

Mia Scharphie is back today with a re-cap of last month’s Creative Somerville Series. And just in time for this post, free tickets are now available for our next event on July 22 at Aeronaut Brewing with Relish Management, the organization behind the farmers markets, Fluff Fest and more. Get yours today.

June was a pull-out-all-the-stops fantastic month for the Creative Somerville Series. Our speaker, Mike Dacey, founder of letterpress studio Repeat Press, joined us as a shining star in Aeronaut’s week-long celebration of its first year of business. Dacey was part of Aeronaut’s “Neighbor Night,” which he fit in with perfectly, given his role as a founding member of Fringe, a Union Square-based shared work space, hosting over 15 local businesses, and his growing involvement in the Union Square planning process.

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Learning Letterpress

Dacey’s story starts with his suburban upbringing. Like many young men who grew up in the 1990s, he got interested in skateboarding, and from there, its graphic culture.  Dacey (pictured above) realized that someone was creating the images that appeared on his boards, making this his first glimpse into the field of graphic design.

Dacey went to Hampshire College, in Western Mass., that was by chance, located at a major hub of an almost lost art, wood type printing, due to the region’s historic paper mill industry. Dacey took advantage of Hampshire’s open-ended curricular opportunities and sought out an apprenticeship with a local printer. “I think I emailed every letterpress shop in the valley and said, ‘Can I come hang out?’” he said.

Dacey was fascinated by the craft and he was ahead of the curve on the current explosion of interest in letterpress. He described walking into shops and getting looks from the middle-aged printers, “‘What are you doing here?’” This is where old men hang out.”

Dacey eventually found someone to apprentice with (this mostly entailed putting letters back into their boxes, he said), but who let him play around with his own creations as well. After school it was a no-brainer to continue the work and try to build a letterpress business. He bought his first press (being ahead of the curve meant he could afford it) and set up in South Boston.

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A bowl from Canteen & Co., available for purchase at Creative Somerville.

Repeat Press and Fringe

Dacey found a space to set up his studio and started printing as a side hustle. He printed for local bands and honed his craft—including eventually adding contemporary letterpress using custom plates to his skill set, instead of just using existing wood type blocks.

After a short interlude in Philly, Dacey returned to Boston and eventually moved over to Somerville motivated by friends and cheap rent. Business was picking up, and among other things, Dacey’s band friends started getting married and asked him whether he would print invitations. At some point, the workload became high enough that Dacey quit his job and make Repeat Press his full-time gig.

When Dacey speaks about Fringe, and why it worked, he speaks with passion and purpose, “A big thing that sets Fringe apart from other co-working spaces is that Fringe was founded because people needed space to work. It was never about making money. People have more ownership over the space. The community aspect is something very different from other spaces around.”

Fringe generates what Dacey calls “internal foot traffic.” Members not only pool resources and advice, but they’ve built a small “’ecosystem”’ in which clients who are brought in to work with one member, often find themselves being introduced to and hiring other members.

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Dacey relayed the story of Cuppow, a product brought to life by the Fringe ecosystem. A drinking lid for a mason jar, the idea was architected by one member, who went to another for engineering and manufacturing advice and help. Soon, many of the Fringe businesses pitched in, helping with branding, packaging and more, thinking, as Dacey recounteds, “if we can sell 500 of these, everybody gets paid and it’ll be funny. They sold 500 units in the first few days.” Cuppow has taken off and is now sold in stores nationwide.

And while at the end of the summer, Dacey will be the only founding member of Fringe still in the building, none of the businesses based there have closed because they went under. Dacey said that the members who’ve left have moved out of the city or had other life plans that took them away from Fringe.

The Future of Fringe

When asked about what will happen with Fringe as development increases in Union Square, Dacey said told us that the future is not as certain as he’d like it to be. Fringe has a lease that is renegotiated every year, instead of a more typical multi-year commercial lease, which means a lot of uncertainty for the businesses based there. Part of Somerville’s creativity, he muses, was that its cheapness made it easier to take risks. “Somerville used to be a place where you could start something without a lot of money,” he said.

Dacey said in plain terms that new construction is just not consistent with the rent levels that businesses like his need to survive and thrive. He has and continues to participate as an adviser to the planning committee for Union Square to contribute the perspective of the local maker-based business community.

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Elyse Andrews, Mike Dacey and Mia Scharphie at Creative Somerville.

Creative Juice

When asked about what he’s creatively interested in these days, Dacey was clear that it’s relationships, and not just craft that is driving him. As the excitement of letterpress and his own business have become more moderate over time, more of his passion comes from the Fringe community.

More than a few local business owners see him as one of their core sources on business issues. During the Q&A session, Fringe member Erin Heath, co-owner of Forêt Design Studio complimented him on his business advising, and Dacey told another audience member to be confident in charging fair compensation for her work. “You shouldn’t feel bad charging for your time when you like what you do. You shouldn’t feel guilty for that, you should feel lucky.” If there’s anything he’d tell his younger self about running a small business, he said to not be afraid to make investments in resources or help. “Don’t be afraid to pay people for stuff you don’t want to do, like taxes,” he said, and after a pause, added, “do your taxes.”

When asked about his dream project, Dacey similarly said that for him it “is more of a relationship than a single project,” and cited his relationship with local branding studio Oat. What he’s most excited about in his life now, are his friends, many of whom he works with on a daily basis. And why he loves Somerville? “You have all things about a city but it feels like a community, a neighborhood.”

Thank you Mike Dacey, happy first birthday to Aeronaut, and happy neighbor night to all.

CSS Relish July squareToday’s post comes from Mia Scharphie, a multidisciplinary designer, researcher and community advocate who works at the intersection of design, entrepreneurship and issues of social equity. Mia co-curates the Creative Somerville Series, is a co-founder of Proactive Practices and founded the Build Yourself+ Workshop. Mia will be sharing her Creative Somerville Series re-caps on the Beat after each event.

Free tickets are now available for Creative Somerville’s next event on July 22 at Aeronaut Brewing with Relish Management, the organization behind the farmers markets, Fluff Fest and more. Get yours today.

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