After a somewhat uncertain year, Paperworks Studio has reopened under the Utopia Foundation in Traverse City. Now this card making business not only has a retail location in the back of Great Lakes Bath and Body at 110 E. Front Street in downtown Traverse City, they also have big plans for the future. Although they won’t have a production facility until early 2015 the retail side of the business and the positive response from the community has given long term Paperworks employees Mimi Spaulding and Brett Sutton a lot of hope for the future of this business. MyNorth’s Eliza Foster sat down with Mimi Spaulding and Brett Sutton to talk about where Paperworks is going, what the community response has been like and what they are doing differently this time.
Can you tell me about the origins of Paperworks?
Mimi: About 22-23 years ago at the Traverse Bay Area Intermediate School District the Adult Work Center (a center based program for students age 16-26 with pretty significant disabilities) we had a teacher named Tim Coffey. He’s an amazing man and he was kind of given the assignment to recycle with his severely multiply impaired students. After a few circles around the building to get all of the recycling from the Career Tech Center he really felt like his students were being viewed as garbage collectors and he didn’t really like that association. He’s not an “artsy” person by any stretch of the imagination, he’s a good old man’s man, but he decided he was going to do something with this recycled paper and that it could be something beautiful, so he started looking into making paper.
Mimi: His students were working on following through on things. Their impairments were such that it was a lot for them to be given instructions and follow through on something, like “push a button.” so he started linking these buttons that would turn on and off blenders and on and off the radio and things like that, called adaptive switches and if they did it, it helped them increase their skills. He incorporated paper making at a very rudimentary level and started making these cards and this paper and the students in his classroom would take it home. Students started getting noticed for their paper and they started getting kudos and pats on the back and it just became kind of a cool building project.
Mimi: Brett was there from the very beginning as well with Tim Coffey, working with the students to make this paper. Eventually, a few years later it ended up being popular enough that Tim and Brett pitched it to the school to be the onsite work activity to teach the work skills. I entered 18 years ago and we started to see that there was a demand for the product and these kids started having skills because we started incorporating the program throughout the whole building. They had skills but there was no place for a lot of them to take these skills once they exited the program at age 26. So we asked ourselves could there possibly be a business here? Could there be an after year’s business here? where individuals with these skills and these talents could go to work for a paycheck and they could create product that might create a demand. We were already seeing it on a smaller scale could there be a possible link for a product with a high demand?
Brett: And not just our students. It could be someone who is disadvantaged in some way or is a victim of a car accident. Really anybody that was saying I don’t have a job. It’s not rocket science, but it does take skills.
Mimi: So the evolution was there’s absolutely a demand for the product there’s absolutely a need for this type of work for individuals with disabilities, disadvantages, again not just our graduating students. So they found a home and we found a great work force and over the years it has gone through three stages in this after year’s program. It was an independent nonprofit for a couple of years and then we had to close that down and re-evaluate that we needed more support and then we went to partnership with Goodwill for 5 years and then they decided that they were going to get out of that business and now we are moving full force ahead with the Utopia Foundation as our umbrella. We are under their direction, we are revamping how we are going to do business, the products that we sell, the products that we can move forward into production that will really be new fun, creative things, not just cards— we are thinking way outside the card box. New designs that are fresh and alive, those are all under development now.
Can you talk a little bit about the paper making process?
Brett: You can make paper out of anything that you can break into individual fibers.
So does that mean fabric?
Brett: You can make it out of fabric like jeans. That is probably about 35-50% denim. (shows a sheet of denim paper)
Do you have to pulp this up?
Brett: Yes, old technique was for cloth fibers and the students would actually just build a pile outside behind the shop and they would let it sit there for a year and then they would peel off the outside layer of it and the stuff underneath had rotted. Then they would start beating on it with hammers and break all of those rotten fibers into individual pieces and then wash it and draw a sheet of paper from that.
Okay, is that still the method that you use?
Brett: Ahh no, we use this thing called electricity now. You have to have water. There’s no way to make paper without a a good clean source of water. Then because they were at a stream or a pond they started incorporating water wheels and using that instead of hammers so you didn’t have people having to sit there and beat the pulp and you didn’t have to wait a year for it to rot and you could start using wood fibers and grass fibers.
Mimi: Really anything. They use elephant dung in some areas and a lot of indigenous things like a banana tree, the bark, the leaves and the banana’s.
Brett: Anything that has a cellulose fiber is fair game for making paper pulp.
So how do you decide what you’re going to use? Do people donate items to you?
Brett: It’s what’s at hand. For example, we used to have a crab apple tree at the school. And two weeks out of the year these beautiful blossoms would be falling off the tree. So we would have this limited run two weeks of the year and the kids would go out and grab the flower petals and we would throw them in with our pulp.
Mimi: Brett has done a beautiful job coming up with recipes, so we know what’s in the denim. We know what’s in the standard shimmer base. He’s got that down to a science but we have had quite a few larger companies donate in the past. Woolrich donated wool and Lee Jeans was a big partner. Locally, we source recycled fibers that can’t be sold, like sheets and blankets or jeans from secondhand stores where the jeans are too far gone to sell on the rack.
Mimi: We do a lot of inclusions. Anything from coffee to floral, to metallic fleck to shimmer just for different effects. So there are different uses for the paper and different feels. Wedding invitations versus a general man’s card are going to be two totally different papers.
Do you do special orders? Are you fully up and running?
Mimi: We are taking the helm. We will get some help back in January but we feel like we’re surrounded by support between the Utopia Foundation and our retail partner (Great Lakes Bath and Body) here who has been giving us some great advice and guidance. The Utopia Foundation offered all sorts of support through marketing and communications, we feel like if we need more support we will get it. We also have wonderful volunteers which I cannot fail to mention because they have helped us turn around a lot of the inventory that we had to reprocess and reconfigure to get it on the shelves and have it be ours instead of inventory.
Brett: We can’t make paper yet, we have not set up our paper making space yet. Now what we do to make paper is we have a Hollander beater with a big rotating drum, it’s got about a 7 horsepower motor on it.
Mimi: Basically it gets made into a pulp and then the pulp gets pulled through a window screen with a mold on it and then the mold gets removed and it dries. We have a very innovative way of drying that we have finessed over the years. And then the sheets get to a point where you can actually handle them and they are malleable and not just a goopy pile of pulp and those get put on a glass sliding door. They get brushed on a window so they don’t curl and the next day they are dry and ready to go.
Mimi: About 12 hands touch that paper through that process is what we’ve come to and then there’s the packaging end of it and the design end after it’s made into the paper.
So you have people making the actual paper, but you also have people working on creating the cards.
Mimi: Yes, then everything gets made into the different products like boxes or cards or packaging for companies. What we are looking into are some other products that are going to be really fun and we are trying to design some new out of the box things.
And you said you haven’t hired anyone back yet.
Mimi: Our production facility will be open we hope by the middle to late January-ish. We are waiting to enter our space because the current tenant is not out of the space yet. Until we have that facility we can’t hire because we don’t have any space for them to work in. We are ready to hire them back and we need them, we are going to need their production help.
Can you talk about some of the people who have been positively affected by Paperworks?
Brett: I get phone calls every week and this has been for 6 months now, telling me what they are doing right now and some of them are doing nothing and some of them have taken on jobs that they say they just hate going to, but they go every day. I tell them I am so proud of you because that would be an issue with us at Paperworks and they learned that this is my job and I need to be here. And if I am not here I am not getting money, I am not contributing and to be able to pat them on the back and say, “you like going to Paperworks right? You used to miss days, right?” That you are going everyday to a job now that you don’t like is growth in your life and you can take that with you for the rest of your life. That’s job ethics and that’s gone from a lot of people now.
Mimi: We have so many that are just so positively impacted by the confidence and the growth. We have one young man who had been involved with Paperworks when it was at the school and he aged out of school and went to his home community and had a job there, kind of very part time, but he really ran into some issues with depression and he was really struggling. He kept telling his mentor how much he wanted to go back to the days when he was involved with Paperworks. This mentor of his reached out and got him reconnected to Paperworks. He came back to work as an adult at Paperworks Studio and his whole outlook changed. He is upbeat again and he is looking forward to things and he was pretty crushed when it went by the wayside and fell apart. He has made sure that he is one of the first people that will get hired back.
Mimi: We get repeated calls, they want to come back, this is their job. There’s the train of thought that the ultimate goal is to train these individuals and then have them get different jobs in the community and be propelled. And that’s fine if that’s what they want to do, but some of these guys want to stay at Paperworks Studio. What I keep saying is how dare we impose our view that they should grow and do something else if this is what they are good at and it’s making them happy? We are excited now to have a model now that if they want to stay and they’re pulling their weight and they’re meeting expectations then guess what? They’ve got a job and we need to make sure we keep that available to them by doing a good job on our end by selling products and creating products that are going to sell and being dynamic.
Brett: It actually helps that I don’t have to be training every person to do every job when we have skilled labor sitting there and they’re doing it just right that somebody else coming in can learn from them and they get a pride level in passing on the knowledge and the skills that they have. We have a quality control person sitting right there saying no, no that’s not how you do it. and I don’t have to do that.
Are you going to hire more people than you had before?
Mimi: We are going to hire back in phases so we’ll probably do three phases of ten. So, we’re going to start with a group of ten and maybe a month later we’ll add another group of ten and then probably a couple of months down the road before summer we would hire the last group of ten for 2015. We’ll have to see what our capacity is as far as our sales go. We really want to be mindful of our bottom line and not take on employees that we don’t have the orders to support their payrolls. We just don’t want to shoot ourselves in the foot again. We want to do it very smartly and if that means we are a little cautious up front for the long term that’s what we’ll do. We anticipate needing at least those 30. They’re not all going to be able to work thirty hours a week. These are individuals who might have stamina issues and they might max out after a while. Transportation issues are real live problems that our guys face. Success for them might be 8 hours a week.
Brett: Our new location is right on a BATA route and it’s right on the TART Trail.
Mimi: We are excited to have our first retail location ever.
How is the retail location going for you guys?
Mimi: It’s going great, we are loving the connections. The synergy is something. We had an interview and Lynn’s (owner of Great Lakes Bath and Body) got her loaves of soap and I’ve got some paper and it was so funny, I didn’t even realize it but she had these marbled beautiful soaps and I had these beautiful marbled papers and she had coffee soap and I had coffee paper, we are sitting there going this is just too crazy. Handmade, high quality, everything is touched by old techniques and good intentions. The snynergy is so here. They make everything on site. If this were big enough we would move in here too, it’s been great. The connection to downtown has been wonderful and we’ve been having a ton of great feedback from people that have always wanted to see us be part of the community. The visibility when the tourism really hits is going to be huge for repeat business even if they aren’t visiting again they will order again. We’re excited.
Are you going to sell these cards at any other retail locations around Traverse City?
Mimi: We had before we had a retail location. I think we have to re-evaluate how that’s going to look. I think in Traverse City we will probably decline any other business having our stuff as far as on the retail floor. But outside of Traverse City we are going to re-establish with some of those local communities. We need to re-engage with all of those previous customers.
So you kind of have to start over.
Mimi: Absolutely. Start fresh.
Brett: Having the retail location takes away some stress. Marketing has always been a problem and they always knew we were at Aeropark at this place that was hard to find, so we had to have our cards at places like Tom’s and Ace Hardware so that it got noticed for individual card sales. 110 E. Front Street as Paperworks Studio is pretty great.
Mimi: I am so excited to get new products. Everything is new, we are entering a new year, we are entering in this new direction, there’s a whole new energy and we’re excited to propel.
Can you give any spoilers on what your new products might be?
Mimi: Sure. If everything falls into place we are going to be introducing a fun children’s Valentine’s kit that will be partial DIY, but really give them the tools to make some stellar Valentine’s so that they’re not the run of the mill Valentine’s that you can buy at the store. It will be a really creative activity they can do for one afternoon and have them ready to go for their class. So that’s one thing we will be doing, hopefully rolling that out in mid-January. We are working with some local artist’s to do some an artist’s card series. We want them to be presented in a way that they can actually become works of art. We are going to present a little easel inside so that they can actually sit on a shelf. For those same images we are hoping to do limited runs of larger art that will be printed on our paper.
Mimi: Way out of the box we are in discussion about biodegradable urns for humans and pets. There’s a company in town called Stardust Memorials that we are in discussion with. They already sell a ton of biodegradable urns but they have to source them from China and they don’t like doing that, so Brett has been working with them for a while. Those are the types of things we are looking at, lampshades and more on the art end as far as making sure that artists know where to find our papers to use for their own work, buying full sheets and that kind of thing.
And you can buy products online ?
Mimi: Eventually yes, our shopping cart will be introduced probably March or so. We have to make sure we have a good stock of our inventory, we want to be responsible about that too and presenting everything else.
Any additional thoughts?
Mimi: Traverse City has got loyal people. It’s so unique and we are so lucky to live in the community that we live in— we definitely feel that.