The Utopian Perspective Thrives
In Work of Co-op Printer, Historian
By Edward Shanahan
Worker-owner, printer, local historian, Steve Strimer is best described as a gentle radical - no anger or cynicism, just a nice mix of rootedness and optimism.
Known to many of us as one of the exceedingly friendly employees and owners of Collective Copies, the copy shop in Amherst and Florence, Strimer seemed to have anticipated his future with uncanny clarity.
He also had a little luck along the way, but that could be the result of hard work as well. As someone once observed in another time: “The more I practice the luckier I get.”
It was 40 years ago when Strimer, then 15, visited the Amherst College campus for his brother Robert’s graduation. Looking over the sweep of the campus, young Steve from Delaware, Ohio, quickly decided this was where he too would attend college. And he did, having applied only to Amherst and later graduating in the class of 1972.
Facing graduation, he had concluded that "I was never going to have a normal career as an Amherst College graduate. I learned I never wanted to work for anyone, and I did not want to be anyone’s boss.”
Additionally, recalls Strimer during a recent interview: “I decided I didn’t want to go anywhere, the valley was the only place I wanted to be.”
Thus, fairly early, the die was cast, or perhaps we should say the type set: Steve Strimer won’t be a wage-slave boss and he’ll make his way in the Five College community.
On top of that, Strimer has emerged as a good citizen, steeping himself in the history of Florence and leading walking tours of the village to illuminate the rich utopian society that struggled to flourish here in the 1840s. He also is chair of the Sojourner Truth Memoiral Statue Committee.
As someone who worked with Strimer in the production of his book “The Hurrah Game: Baseball in Northampton, 1823-1953,” co-author Brian Turner of Florence is a Strimer fan. “Steve is a generous colleague, a pragmatic idealist. He has adhered to his socially progressive vision, in effect living out his ideals through his work at Collective Copies, while also creating real things of real use to the real world, such as the 350th celebration chapbooks.”
During an interview, Strimer, now 55 years old, conveys the sense of openness, enthusiasm and, God forbid, idealism, that come out of his experiences as a young man. He still has a shrinking pony tail poking out from under his Red Sox cap, and his quick smile and laugh are disarming. He might fit the stereotype an aging hippie. Maybe so, but it would be good to run into more Steve Strimers.
As a college student in the late 60s and early 70s, Strimer dabbled in the theater, majored in studio art, and on a less academic level demonstrated against the Vietnam War, marched in Washington and was at Woodstock, an experience, he says, from which he has never totally recovered. "This was the whole view of a world as one place.”
Just two days before our interview, he had returned from Columbus, Ohio, where he attended a similar music festival, which takes place annually and is “like being at Woodstock again, but with a new generation.”
With college behind him, Strimer started figuring out how he could stay in the valley and not work for anyone, but, first he had to find a job, and that meant he became an employee.
So in 1973, he went to work for the Daily Hampshire Gazette, first in the mail room bundling papers for news carriers, and then in the the press room. Eventually, he was working in the camera room taking photos of pages from which offset plates would be made. This nurtured his interest in typography. “I was really happy to have Peter Curtis (Gazette cameraman) as my mentor, he was a meticulous craftsman.”
He recalls that the same day he was hired by the Gazette, he was offered a job at National Felt Co., which might have led him in a different direction. “I really feel fortunate I got to work at the Gazette; they were great people.”
As his interest in printing matured, Strimer began to move out on his own, cutting back on his work at the Gazette to set up his own Aldebaran Press in 1977. It was Peter and Charles DeRose, co-publishers of the Gazette, who signed the loan that enabled Strimer to buy his first press, and also let him “burn” plates for his press at the newspaper.
Aldebaran (right eye of the bull in the constellation Taurus) Press was based in a communal house in Haydenville and was set up to publish an astrology journal, a subject Strimer had been studying since 1969.
But eventually Strimer’s philosophy of work and economics forced some decisions. Since he didn’t want to have a boss, or be anyone’s boss, he was in a situation that was as he says “a Catch 22. What do you end up with? You start up a worker cooperative.” And that is how Common Wealth Printing, a four-person company, evolved, eventually moving from Haydenville to a building at 47 East St. in Hadley in 1982.
The company mainly did commercial job printing for local and regional customers and by 1990, at its peak, had $650,000 in sales along with 14 worker-owners.
By 1997, disagreements were starting to show, said Strimer. “The printing industry became more capital intensive, and the company was disinclined to make the necessary investment,” he explained. In addition, Strimer felt the structure of the work force was becoming more hierarchical, especially his role, and less egalitarian. At almost the precise moment he was considering leaving Common Wealth Printing, Strimer got a call from Stephen Roy, who invited him to join Collective Copies, a worker-owned business that had started in Amherst in 1983 in the wake of a bitter labor dispute involving workers at Gnomon Copies.
About this time, the copying business was becoming more competitive with traditional printing operations, the result of advances in digital technologies.
In 2000, Collective Copies, seeking to diversify, opened a branch in Florence (in the space, I should point out, occupied by my former bookstore, Bookends). Has it worked out, I ask Strimer. “Oh Yeah,” he replies emphatically.
Strimer described the decision-making process at Collective Copies, which has 13 worker-owners, “remarkable” and more collegial than at his previous cooperative. Workers have similar job descriptions, despite different specialties. “There is no first among equals,” he says. “It was just what I was looking for.”
There also is a strong sense of community ties between the business and its clientele, as any visitor to the Florence shop quickly detects. And the company donates 10 percent of its annual pre-tax profts to the various communities it serves.
Working in Florence has enabled Strimer to pursue more aggressively his emerging appetite for local history, specifically the history of the Northampton Association of Education and Industry, which was located in Florence in the 1840s and has been rediscovered thanks to a new wave of interest spurred by the recoveery of original documenst and because one of its members was former slave, Sojourner Truth.
A talk by Victoria Safford at the Unitarian Society some years back, titled “Long-Haired Men and Short-Haired Women,” about the “radicals” who started the Northampton Association, first inspired Strimer to plunge into local history. For Strimer, discovering the 1840s period was a kind of epiphany because it dovetailed so neatly with his own background in the political and social changes of the 1960s. It also tapped into his own experience in worker-owned enterprises.
Florence in the 1840s was a “center of reform,” he says, as reflected by the association’s commitment to equality for women, full opportunities to vote by women and African Americans and an egalitarian economic order.
Besides Sojourner Truth’s presence, regular visitors to Florence were the abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison and Frederick Douglas, the legendary black leader.
Strimer worked closely with Florence resident and historian Paul Gaffney, Florence resident Fran Krumpholz, and drew on the works of local historians Allison Lockwood, Jim Parsons and the late Alice Manning in deepening his awareness of Forence’s past. “You follow your interests; the ultimate motivation is life becoming one piece.”
As he has been taking citizens on tours of downtown Florence neighborhoods to summon up events, structures and personalities from the past, he has realized that Florence has “some of the best preserved architecture” from that period. In so many communities older homes have been torn down and neighborhoods completely remade.
Strimer also functions as a kind of social detective, piecing evidence together to identify the precise home that Sojourner Truth owned on Park Street, nailing down the house at 191 Nonotuck St. as the place where two fugitive slaves lived, and tracking down some 20 sites possibly related to the Underground Railroad’s activities.
It is the inter-relatedness of Strimer’s choices, which seem accidental, that continue to surprise and sustain him. “Worker cooperatives encourage individuals to cultivate their deepest interests, to become their higher selves.” That can sound a little lofty, even utopian, but that is precisely what worker ownership and egalitarianism celebrate.
Which brings us to Strimer’s much praised work as designer, typesetter, and production guru of five of the six local volumes or chapbooks published this past year by the 350th Committee to mark the city’s latest birthday.
Because of modern digital and laser technology, the books had all of the “production values” of offset printing, while being done essentially by a photo copying process.
The challenge for Strimer, especially in an area claiming so many highly skilled and well-known printers, was “to maintain typographic integrity” in producing these several volumes. “You have to care how letter forms look, and care about typographical convention and still achieve design flair,” he said. All the while, he was aware of the many unseen printers’ eyes peering over his shoulder during the year-long project.
Strimer donated his labor for the project. “I looked at it as an opportunity to be a designer, to get to work on putting words and images together.” It was so successful that Strimer is now spending a day a week on book publishing, working with authors and artists on editions of limited numbers.
In the end, Strimer returns to the liberating effect a worker cooperative has had for him and others. Given the success of Collective Copies, he said, requests are coming in from others seeking advice about setting up and running their own cooperative. That will entail a trip to San Francisco in November to serve as a consultant to a group trying to organize there.
“Copying is one of the industries that is uniquely set up” to function as a cooperative, says Strimer. When there is no boss, “the workers get to divide the boss’s profits, so the workers work more efficiently.”
And like any good visionary, the unusually clear-eyed Strimer sees the worker-owner movement not only continuing but growing.
Still in the future for Strimer is a possible book of his own. “At some time, I’ll have to write the story of Florence and the Underground Railroad. “
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