Paperworks Studio in Traverse City had a record year in 2013 selling its handmade greeting cards. It just it wasn’t enough for the business to break even. Paperworks was created 20 years ago to employ people with disabilities doing creative work. It has been widely praised for enriching the lives of its employees but the current owner is looking for someone else to run it.
Paperworks Studio made more than a 100,000 Christmas cards last fall. Brian Lewis, directs sales and says that eclipsed what the business was doing just a few years ago.
"In October we shipped $62,000 worth of cards,” Lewis says. “That was really what we did for all of 2010.”
These cards are printed on handmade paper produced in a shop in Traverse City.
The process starts in the wet room where half a dozen workers take pulp made from recycled fiber and mix it with water. The slurry is spread onto screens to drain. The wet sheets are later vacuumed and then laid on a window overnight to dry.
Rob Burdinie is one of the paper makers. He says after the sheets of paper dry they need to be weighed to make sure it came out to the specifications.
“It can’t be too thick or too thin, it has to be perfect,” says Burdinie.
This program started out at the Traverse Bay Area Intermediate School District. More than 20 years ago a teacher there was helping students with disabilities, some severe, make paper with pulp beaten in a kitchen blender.
The ISD also had a work program back then making a strap called the Snugger that held your glasses on your head. The Snugger contract came to an end and handmade paper became the new retail product.
Eventually TBA-ISD spun off Paperworks Studio as its own organization. It had its ups and downs and even closed for a bit around 2007. In 2009 Goodwill Industries of Northern Michigan took over the program.
The CEO of Goodwill, Cecil McNally, says despite the tremendous growth in sales, they still lost 160,000 dollars on the business last year. Even if it made money, McNally says Paperworks doesn’t fit Goodwill’s strategy for workforce development, which he says is to train workers who then go out and find other jobs.
“It tends to have a fairly static number of employees,” McNally says of Paperworks. “We’re not teaching people and training them and moving them out and bringing other people in. “
Goodwill announced in November it would look for a new owner for Paperworks and is now in talks with Grand Traverse Industries. GTI also employs people with disabilities. The organization run a cleaning service and manufactures items like plastic bags and toothbrushes.
While GTI seems like a natural partner, advocates for Paperworks stress Paperworks is not a factory. The employees there are referred to as artists, since the cards are hand crafted. Mimi Spaulding is a teacher who has been involved with the operation since it started. Spaulding says Paperworks’ employees have direct relationships with the people who buy the cards, like brides who ordering custom wedding invitations.
“Retailers selling the product are inviting them into their locations to explain to their customers how the product is made,” says Spaulding. “So it’s not a part going into a part and being shipped off.”
We might soon find out if GTI will be a good fit for Paperworks. Goodwill says it is close to a deal and an announcement is expected this week.