For the Love of Letterpress and Local Makers: Mike Dacey of Repeat Press

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.

Learning Letterpress

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.

CSS 061715 Mike DaceyThe 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.

Creative Juice

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.

CSS 061715 crowdMore 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.

RSVP here for tickets for our next event on July 22 with Mimi Graney and MaryCat Chaikin, founders of Relish Management.

‘Ecological Wealth’ and Neighborhood Action: Portland and Living Cully

I was in Portland for the first time last summer and it was charming. It had the feel of a logging town that had grown without loosing its roots–it had bridges crossing rivers, backed by tree-topped ridges, and a downtown that was small, artsy and independent.

Portland has become a beacon for young environmentalists and artists–anyone who’s seen Portlandia knows the hype. But as Tony DeFalco and the alliance he works with, Living Cully point out–this movement is pursuing only a double bottom line–that of economy and ecology. The social bottom line is being left out….

I was in Portland for the first time last summer and it was charming. It had the feel of a logging town that had grown without loosing its roots–it had bridges crossing rivers, backed by tree-topped ridges, and a downtown that was small, artsy and independent.

Portland has become a beacon for young environmentalists and artists–anyone who’s seen Portlandia knows the hype. But as Tony DeFalco and the alliance he works with, Living Cully point out–this movement is pursuing only a double bottom line–that of economy and ecology. The social bottom line is being left out.

While a civic interest in livability and a growing ‘natural capitalism‘ economy are building a more vibrant urban fabric and economic opportunities in Portland, poor populations and populations of color have been left out of the city’s rising wave of wealth and ecological vibrancy. I heard DeFalco speak last week at the Design for Equity Summit hosted by the Bruner Loeb Forum and Enterprise Community Partners.

Living Cully’s goal is to build ‘ecological wealth’ for residents of Cully, one of the poorest neighborhoods in Portland. They do this work on two fronts. Firstly, they build their own ecological assets through community projects, and economic and environmental development projects. In a part of town where only 24% of streets have sidewalks on both sides, this can mean everything from building rain gardens in residents backyards, to building larger-scale parks. This means also identifying opportunities for ecological generators to be economic generators.

The second front Living Cully works on managing the pressures and opportunities presented by the growth of the rest of the city. Gentrification was a central topic in last week’s Design for Equity summit. One of the key ironies is that when marginalized communities take it upon themselves to improve their communities, improvements often attract higher income populations which put financial pressure on existing residents.

As Portland’s fortunes grow, Cully is extra vulnerable to gentrification, but rather than just taking a “not in my backyard’ approach, Living Cully is working proactively at the municipal level, giving Cully agency in larger conversations about the city.

This means making sure Cully doesn’t get left out of urban-scale projects like bike-sharing programs, and that development in Cully, whether its infrastructure construction or new businesses, share the wealth through hiring locals.

Living Cully also produced ‘Not in Cully,’ a roadmap to prevent displacement as Cully gentrifies. ‘Not in Cully’ lays out a proactive set of strategies to keep existing residents in the neighborhood through housing affordability policies, and making sure their fortunes rise with the neighborhoods’–through helping existing businesses remain in the neighborhood as the commercial landscape changes, and helping families become more economically self-sufficient.

I am so impressed by the work of Living Cully and they way they’re deploying the concept of ‘ecological wealth’–a term I’d never heard of before. It shows that ecological assets are not just an extra. They’re not something that should be reserved for the wealthy. Ecological services help us live better, longer, healthier, happier, and they also build wealth when built and maintained strategically.