We survived a sea change in technology, and when the boat crashed onto shore we managed to land on our feet. By Bill Vaughn
DURING THE 1980s my wife, Kitty, and I made a decent living and had a rocking good time selling typesetting to ad agencies all over Montana and publishers all over the world. We were leasing the top floor of a two-story brick building built in 1896 at ground zero in Missoula, near the intersection of Higgins and Broadway, where we entertained clients on the deck we’d built facing the Sapphire Mountains, and hosted huge drunken parties and art shows in the ten rooms of this eccentric old suite.
When we gave up our lease and moved the business to Dark Acres in 1990 desktop publishing was just launching its ultimate revolutionary battle against the traditional methods used to prepare things for the printing press. Like gringos holed up in the Alamo, we resisted this assault as long as we could. But we were fighting with weapons that could no longer carry the fight—two ponderous Compugraphic typesetting machines that each cost $40,000 and weighed half a ton, along with a processor we filled with developer and fixer that printed long galleys of type in the same manner that snapshots are printed.
Kitty had become a master typesetter whose work was in great demand by designers, and I was composing the relatively simple type that went into the making of books for academic publishers. But when it became clear that our dinosaurs couldn’t do a fraction of the things a personal computer could do for a fraction of the cost, the people who had bought our type began to make their own. They weren’t as good as we were at this antique and arcane craft, but they were good enough. None of them knew what a florin was, nor a ligature, nor a swash, but since their clients didn’t know anything about these elegant typographic niceties either no one much cared.
Our client list dropped to almost nothing. Throughout that first year at Dark Acres I wondered at the end of every month how we were going to pay the mortgage, even though it was only $500. The Christmas invoices, all three of them, added up to $90 (in December only a year earlier, typically a slow month, the business had billed out more than $8,000). I woke up in a sweat at night terrified that we were going to join that hapless two-thirds majority of small business that go under, and I might be forced to go to work for somebody else. Since we’d moved everything we owned to Dark Acres and had no intention of commuting anywhere—an attitude that would probably limit our chances of getting full-time jobs—we began to investigate how people in the Squalor Zone exploited their land to make it pay for itself. Maybe we could log all the pine on the place, stable outside horses, rent out the back forest as a staging area for paintball wars, or build a pitch-and-putt golf course in the front meadows. Maybe we could become farmers and try to make money with a specialty crop like mint and ginseng. Or marijuana.
In the end, though, all this monkey business seemed too risky or too invasive of our splendid isolation. We finally decided that since we’d already shown prescient good timing by giving up our office downtown and by letting go our valuable but expensive employees and their pricey health insurance premiums, we would look for other ways to cut costs. Maybe if we pared our expenses to the bone our good credit would carry the business long enough to give us the time we needed to begin bidding on contracts with publishers to design their books and periodicals, and with local business to create their brochures and other business materials, even if we had to steal work from the ad agencies that used to be our clients.
So first, at our nightly gin rummy game (loser does the dishes), we reduced the number of olives in our Martinis from two to one each. Then, although we owned one of our typesetters free and clear, I called Compugraphic, and announced that we intended to cancel the lease-to-buy contract for the one we were still in the process of paying off.
“Cancel it if you want,” the man in Boston said. “But you still owe us $33,000.”
“Okay, look, I’ll make you a deal. It’s Bob, right?”
“Robert,” he said, ice in his voice.
“Robert, you send me a bill of sale for this machine. And I send you $3,000.”
There was a pause. “How about this, instead? We come and repossess our machine, charge you for our trouble, and bill you $10,000.”
“Where did you get that figure?”
“Sir, if you read your agreement you’ll see that the penalty for defaulting is twenty-five percent of the lease price.”
“Well, then I guess you’ll just have to come and get it. Although we keep our gate locked and I don’t think this is the sort of neighborhood you guys want to visit.”
“And why is that?”
“Well, people here don’t much like outsiders,” I said.
“Are you threatening us?”
“Sir, no, sir. But look up the address. You will see that this here ain’t the city. Good luck finding a cop to come out here and help you.”
When I hung up Kitty shook her head.
“What?” I said.
“You are so full of shit.”
Two days later Robert called back. “Let’s talk.”
Here was his deal: Compugraphic would sell us the machine for $20,000 cash. I countered with $6,000. After two weeks of back and forth we finally settled on $10,000. Although I still felt like I’d been screwed, we somehow managed over the next three years to wring that much value out of the thing, mostly because of sales to a local publisher who couldn’t figure out how to use a computer, and so made his books the old-fashioned way, by pasting our galleys of type on pieces of board his printer converted to negatives and then into plates for the press. Meanwhile, because we were forced to change from a mom-and-pop business that produced typesetting to one that designed printed things, we bought desktop computers ourselves and fled the Alamo to join the enemy.
Finally, our Compugraphics broke down, within days of each other. The same part in both typesetters had burned out, like mirror twins whose gall bladders fail at the same moment (an clumsy analogy I use only because Kitty and her mirror twin, Carol, suffered just such a breakdown when they were in college). I called our repairman, a semi-genius who’d become a regular visitor. Although he once drove 200 miles in a blizzard to discover that the fix required a 25-cent fuse, this time the problem was fatal. The parts were now almost impossible to get and the machines just weren’t worth his trouble to repair. He told us about a weekly newspaper out in the Missouri Breaks that had bought a model just like ours for a case of beer.
So one gusty spring day Kitty maneuvered the horse trailer next to the shop and we rolled our machines up a ramp and into the back. Then we drove to Pacific Recycling in town and backed the trailer to a mountain of junked stoves, burst water heaters and rusted lawn tractors. Adoring them when they made us money, and despising them when they were sick, our typesetters were the last connection between our old life in town and our new life in the boondocks. When we put our shoulders against them and pushed, they toppled into the mud with a satisfying crash of broken glass and twisted steel.
COPYRIGHT © 2006 BILL VAUGHN
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