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 their 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 given his growing involvement in the Union Square planning process in Somerville.
Mike’s story starts with his suburban upbringing. He got interested in skateboarding, and from there, with its graphic culture. He realized that someone was making the graphics that would show up on his board and got interested in graphic design.
The college he attended, Hampshire, in western Mass, 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. 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 says.
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 says) but who let him play around with his own creations as well. And 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.
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 skillset, instead of just 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, his band friends started to get married and ask him i he printed invitations. At some point, the workload was high enough for Dacey to quit his job.
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.
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 recounts, “if we can sell 500 of these, everybody gets paid and it’ll be funny. They sold 500 units in the first few days.”
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 out of business or grew out of the space, notes Dacey. rather, they moved out of the city or had other life plans that took them out of Fringe.
The Future of Fringe
When asked about what will happen with Fringe as development increases in Union Square, Dacey tells us that the future is not as certain as he’d like it to be. They’ll have a lease that is renegotiated every year, instead of a 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 says.
Dacey says in plain terms that new construction is just not consistent with the rent levels that businesses like his need to survive and thrive. He’s joined in as an adviser to the planning committee for Union Square and the new green line stations to add in the perspective of the local maker-based business community.
When asked about what he’s creatively interested in these days, Dacey is clear that its 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 Q&A, Fringe member Erin Heath, co-owner of Forêt Design Studio complements him on his business advising, and Dacey tells another audience member to be confident 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 says 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 says, and after a pause, adds, “do your taxes.”
When asked about his dream project, he similarly says that for him it “is more of a relationship than a single project,” citing 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.
photo credits: Somerville Beat
The Creative Somerville Series is a series of ‘fireside chats’ with local creatives & entrepreneurs in design, tech, food, social impact, and other fields–celebrating the creative and entrepreneurial energy that makes Somerville great. The Creative Somerville Series is not your typical power point and Q&A. Our fireside chats are about getting to hear someone’s story, learning about how they think and create, and sharing ideas in an intimate setting. Cosponsored by Somerville Local First and The Somerville Beat.