‘It’s a sad day’

Daniel
Daniel MacEachern
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Dicks powers down a century of printing; company will focus on office supplies

It’s late morning in the Dicks and Co. printing plant on Empire Avenue in St. John’s. A myriad of presses and other pieces of printing equipment sit, unused, on the plant floor, with just one machine operating — a letterpress, punching tabs into light blue paper for a hospital.

In one corner, a large Heidelberg Perfector four-colour lithographic press — the workhorse of Dicks’ printing operation, which once accounted for 40 per cent of the company’s overall business but has since dwindled to 10 — is switched off, like most of the machines in the plant.

Where once the constant whirring and clanging of the machines raised a racket on the shop floor, today it’s more like a printing-press museum, employing just nine people when it once required dozens.

That’s why Dicks and Co. — which opened shop in 1840 as a bookbinding operation on Duckworth Street, and added its printing division in 1913 — is shutting down the presses, effective July 31, and will concentrate on its office-supply business.

“It was a difficult decision, but it was one that had to be made,” said company CEO James Austin, who has been with Dicks since 1951 and who trained on the company’s printing presses.

Austin said advancements in printing technology in the ’50s — mainly electronics — helped boost the printing industry through to the 1990s, when the introduction of desktop publishing marked the beginning of the end for Dicks’ printing business.

“That, together with electronic records-keeping — a lot of our printing was bill books, and stuff that people wrote for business, stores, a lot of that was then converted to electronic process,” he said. “All that new technology made it more difficult for the printing industry. People were doing their own in-house printing, for instance. We lost a fair bit of business, as did other commercial printing plants, as a result of people being able to quite easily do a lot of their own printing in-house.”

The same rapid advances that make desktop publishing accessible to many makes printing a more expensive commercial proposition, as printing equipment becomes more expensive and becomes obsolete much faster — making the once-common 10-year amortization of a costly printing press unfeasible.

It isn’t the first time Dicks has had to close off part of its business to adapt. The company closed its downtown bookstore in 1993, after a century of selling books, and the bookbinding division the company was built on has likewise gone by the wayside.

But much like the way the company’s expanding printing business kept the company going as demand for bookbinding waned, Dicks’ expansion into office supplies — which began in earnest in 1928, although company founder Robert Dicks’ wife Mary-Jane opened a stationary store in 1846 — is now the company’s main focus. And while Dicks will still be offering printing services by contracting out the work to other companies, its nine current printing-plant employees are being let go.

Company vice-president Wince Churchill had been planning to retire in November anyway, but he said he’s sorry to see the printing business close. He says technological advances in printing technology has squeezed on the personal know-how of press operators who knew exactly how to adjust equipment to get just the right colour in a printing job.

“Even the big presses, the larger presses like we have, you push a button and it does the function for you,” he said. “The pressman had to have the knowledge and the foresight and the eye to look at an image and say, ‘Whoa, I’m going to have to put so much magenta on that’ with his fountain keys and many other adjustments, but now with digital information and the digital plates and so on, you can pre-read your CMYK image that you’re sending to press, or the complete file … the press says, ‘Whoa, this is what we’re dealing with’ and makes the changes automatically.”

John Hanhams, operating the letterpress, said he was disappointed to find out the printing operation is being shut down. He says he doesn’t know what he’ll do after July 31.

“I’m not sure. I’ll definitely look around and see what there is in the industry,” he said.

Plant supervisor Eric Norris, with Dicks since 1975, said while he’s disappointed in the closure — he’s one of the employees being let go — he wasn’t shocked.

“Not really surprised, because over the years — I deal with Wince, and Wince shows me the bottom line every time,” he said. “I’m not into the financial figures of it all, but every month, we need to be better, we need more sales to be brought in. Over the years, I’ve always wondered when it would happen.”

Austin was with the company in 1969, when it moved to its current building on Empire Avenue. He said the printing equipment will be sold off, and the space will be used for expansion of other aspects of the business.

“It’s a sad day for me for sure. As a young man, I was trained to operate this part of our business, which in those days was a major part of our business. The day we had to make the announcement to employees was a very sad day for me, because it was what I did for a very long time,” he said. “I built the plant. This was my plant, I built it, laid it out, with the help of other people in this plant, and we built it. It’s a sad day.”

dmaceachern@thetelegram.com, Twitter: TelegramDaniel

Geographic location: Duckworth Street

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  • Brett
    February 26, 2011 - 04:50

    G. Moores: Technology is a tool that allows people to work more efficiently. Part of an employee's role is learn the new tools of the trade and make sure they grew in efficiency year after year. Would it not be better Moores to go back to creating bricks out of straw and clay? Using our feet to pound the materials together? Think of all the "craftsmen" we could employ in that manner. I am not looking for people to be laid off, but the mantra that technology is at fault, is ridiculous. All things being equal (subsidies) people should buy the best products for the lowest price. If a market dries up, you need to look for another one, not just sit around waiting for things to change when all the information and advances point to your end.

  • Marjorie Ahlgrim
    February 25, 2011 - 08:37

    Both of my parents worked at Dicks' in the 1920's. They left Newfoundland and moved to Boston and then to Brooklyn, N.Y., where I was born and also my two brothers. All the time I was growing up, they talked about Dicks' quite often. They had a lot of good memories from their time of employment there. I have made quite a few trips to Newfoundland, but only passed by where Dicks' was, but never got to go inside the building. However, I am also left with memories of a place I heard of so many times.

  • G. Moores
    February 25, 2011 - 07:14

    A very sad day. The Dicks operation has been run out of business. This unfortunately is another example of how technology continues to dehumanize and devalue work. Jobs in Banking and other volume jobs rely on technology and the hard working individual gets cast aside. It should not always be about money and profit. How about we spend a little extra for things and take some satisfaction is seeing someone build their skills, take pride in their work and support their families!

    • Mark
      February 25, 2011 - 10:54

      G. Moores wrote: This unfortunately is another example of how technology continues to dehumanize and devalue work. Isn't that an ironic statement to make while you're reading an online newspaper?