Something about working for Liberty Graphics seems to make its employees want to stick around. General manager Sam Bartlett was in high school when he started with the company in 1986. Laurie Foy, who manages the outlet store in Liberty, has been on the payroll for 26 years. Beverly Kocenko, manager of the company’s Old Port shop, cofounded the T-shirt design and printing company 44 years ago, with her friend Tom Opper.
“We act as a family,” Foy says. “It’s a community, and we look out for each other.”
That feeling of mutual responsibility took on a new significance in May, when Liberty Graphics became an employee-owned cooperative. The sense of community stems from the company’s Maine roots, says Opper, who sold the business to his 25 employees, and it may ensure the cooperative’s success down the road.
Tom Opper, Liberty Graphics’ founder (and, until recently, owner) is a fan of T-shirts but ambivalent about shoes. Water-based inks are mixed and applied at the company’s print shop, in the village of Liberty.
“I think there’s a natural neighborliness in smaller communities, and it’s a characteristic that people bring to work with them,” Opper says. “The people at Liberty have passion for what they do. Some companies don’t survive when they change hands, but these hands are experienced.”
Opper’s experience with T-shirt design began when he and Kocenko founded the company in 1977. His design philosophy stems from a piece of advice he once received from a man who printed flags: the design on a shirt should be easily recognizable, simple, and readable from a distance, like a flag. Certainly, it isn’t hard to pick out a Liberty Graphics tee. The shirts’ designs are bright, colorful, and earthy. The natural imagery tends towards the totemic: starry skies, butterflies, wild blueberries, fiddleheads. In the 1990s, the company printed shirts for the Nature Company retail chain and New York’s American Museum of Natural History. For more than 40 years, they’ve printed the popular T-shirts for Maine’s Common Ground Country Fair.
“I remember an old fellow, a writer named Lew Dietz, said to me, ‘That’s a fad isn’t it?’” Opper remembers. “I said, ‘I don’t think so, Lew.’ And that was 40 years ago.”
Liberty’s retail footprint now includes stores in Liberty, Portland, and Camden.
Liberty Graphics is still expanding: a third retail location opened in Camden in May. And Bartlett thinks the transition to collective ownership can prompt innovation. “It gives us a good base to continue what we’re doing, but it will also allow for new employee-owners to experiment and have a say in what happens here,” he says. “It will allow them to set the direction. Getting more input and brains involved should benefit us, and it sets our employees up for the future — as opposed to having just any other job.”
The company’s core values and procedures will remain unchanged, Bartlett says — particularly its longtime commitment to printing with water-based ink. Unlike plastisol ink, common in screen printing, water-based ink involves no plastics or chemical solvents, and Opper says it produces brighter and more spectacular colors. As far as he knows, Liberty Graphics was the country’s first T-shirt printer to use it.
For his part, Opper isn’t settling into retirement just yet — he’s still in the T-shirt biz, but on the manufacturing side. His company Liberty Organics makes blank shirts with organic, American-grown cotton. And to whom is he selling these eco-conscious tees?
“We only have one patron here, and we have no intention of selling to other screen-printing businesses,” Opper says. “Liberty Graphics is at the pinnacle. There’s no other company deserving to put ink on our shirts.”