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Business and Economy

Employees Purchase Iconic Maine T-shirt Company

Liberty Graphics
Linda Coan O'Kresik
/
BDN
Tom Opper founded Liberty Graphics in the 1970s and this month, he has finalized the sale of the company to his employees. Liberty Graphics, a T-shirt company based in the village of Liberty, is known for its vividly-colored designs.

LIBERTY, Maine — Laurie Foy, the longtime manager of the Liberty Graphics retail outlet in downtown Liberty, is good at warmly greeting customers and welcoming them to the old-fashioned store.

But as of two weeks ago, Foy’s welcome comes with a brand-new feeling: ownership and pride. Foy, who has worked for the T-shirt printing company for 26 years, just became one of its owners. She belongs to a worker-owned cooperative that purchased the business from founder Tom Opper.

“It’s very exciting,” Foy said. “I think it feels freeing, in a way, once you become an owner of something. We now steer our own ship.”

Lots of people may know Liberty Graphics best for the high-quality T-shirts printed with glow-in-the-dark celestial designs, geometric patterns made up of sea kayaks and canoe paddles, intricately drawn turtles, salamanders, monarch butterflies and much more. The brightly colored T-shirts line the walls of the retail outlet, located in a former general store and gas station in the heart of Liberty village.

Opper, 77, and the company he started in the 1970s as an entrepreneurial member of the back-to-the-land movement, are both Liberty institutions. The rural, lakeside community may seem like an unusual place for a nationally known T-shirt printing company to put down roots, but after talking to Opper, it all becomes clear.

Or as clear as the eccentric, usually barefoot Opper gets, anyway.

The Connecticut native moved to Maine 50 years ago, part of a wave of young people who were seeking a different way of life. He found it. He settled on land in Liberty and became something of a jack-of-all trades.

“I dug graves, did a little carpentry, hayed in the summer. I was a longshoreman,” he said.

When local folks asked him if he would run a craft fair in Liberty, he agreed. That’s how he learned there was a niche that needed to be filled.

“I was looking for someone to make T-shirts for the craft fair,” he said. “I couldn’t find anyone. So I decided to do it myself.”

Opper wasn’t an artist, but he knew a lot of people who were, including Beverly Kocenko, a back-to-the-lander who co-founded the company with him. One of the first shirts they made was for the town of Liberty’s sesquicentennial in 1977. “150 Years of Liberty and Still Going Strong,” it read, with a graphic of a green fir tree on a bold yellow background. The shirt still hangs in his office.

“I recognized an outlet through which to express creativity,” he wrote earlier this spring in a brief company history.

So, he and up to a dozen of his artist friends would gather every Thursday night in his kitchen, talking and sketching designs. They made T-shirts for the Belfast Broiler Fest, for the Montville Field Day — a simple design of naked feet in tall grass — and more. Soon, he and Kocenko were on the road every weekend, hawking their shirts across the state and even beyond.

“We were filled with the excitement of hitting the market and running back to Liberty to replenish and repeat,” Opper said.

Liberty Graphics
Linda Coan O'Kresik
From left (clockwise): Traditional screen printing presses are used to make the T-shirts at Liberty Graphics, a company that has used only water-based ink in their printing process since they began in the 1970s; Customers enjoy rummaging through shirts at Liberty Graphics retail outlet in downtown Liberty; A black fly T-shirt made by Liberty Graphics.

The company was different because their shirts showcased Maine events and happenings. But it was also unique because of the printing process they used. Liberty Graphics calls itself America’s original water-based ink T-shirt printer, and that distinction is important to Opper. Water-based ink doesn’t need solvents and is better for the environment and the people who make the shirts.

“Ben Franklin wouldn’t believe this is a print shop,” he said. “Because it doesn’t smell.”

The nascent T-shirt business had the energy of capitalism and the egalitarian spirit of the 1960s, he said. And it started to take off. By the 1980s, they were selling shirts at national wholesale shows. Opper was filled with pride when the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, one of his favorite places to visit as a child, became the company’s first notable customer.

Then came the 1990s, which were big, especially for a little Waldo County outfit. The Nature Company, a Berkeley, California-based chain of retail stores that sold scientific toys, fossils, books, clothing and more, discovered Liberty Graphics. Opper also supplied shirts to other big clients including the San Diego Zoo, the Monterey Bay Aquarium and Yosemite National Park. The employee roll grew to 50 and they expanded the factory.

“The ’90s rocked,” he said.

Still, even with that growth, the company stayed put in Liberty. That wasn’t by accident.

“As we grew in a changing world, our home base had the stabilizing consistency of unchanging neighbors,” Opper said. “The neighbors were great. They encouraged our industriousness, gave us long term use of space when needed, and pitched in, helping us produce at times in the early years.”

But then the retail landscape began to change. The Nature Company was bought in 1996 by the Discovery Channel, which then closed those stores about a decade later. Other major clients outsourced their gift shops to for-profit ventures that changed their buying patterns.

Liberty Graphics was in a contraction period.

But as befits the company’s scrappy roots, they fought to remain profitable. A decade ago, Kocenko had the idea to open a second company store in Portland’s Old Port, which has been a good location, Opper said. The company sells an average of 100,000 T-shirts a year, mostly through wholesale retailers.

Nearly two years ago, Liberty Graphics employees began to talk to Opper about the potential of buying the company through a worker cooperative. Of the 25 current employees, lots have been with the company for decades, according to Rob Brown, the director of Business Ownership Solutions at the Northampton, Massachusetts-based Cooperative Development Institute. He has been working with Opper and employees on the transition.

If they hadn’t been able to purchase the company, it seems likely to him that another buyer would not have had the same loyalty to Liberty or even to Maine.

“They’d be buying it for a brand, and a client list and the reputation,” Brown said. “They have a national reputation. Liberty Graphics could be anywhere, literally anywhere, in the country.”

But thanks to the worker cooperative, the company will stay in Liberty, where its roots are.

“This is a great opportunity to have such an iconic business with a national reputation remain here in the region,” he said.

Opper, who does not intend to just put his feet up in retirement, will retain ownership of Liberty Organics, which makes blank T-shirts from American-grown and American-grown organic cotton.

“I think businesses often should be continued as they have been,” he said of selling the company to the workers. “I couldn’t ask for a better situation. I wouldn’t have wanted a different group of people.”

One of those is Sam Bartlett, the general manager, who began working there as a high school student in the summer of 1986. He’s weathered highs and lows, including the COVID-19 pandemic, which has taken a toll on the business. But an upcoming high is the fact that Liberty Graphics is about to open another retail store, this one in downtown Camden. He’s excited to begin the ownership transition, which he said will make people feel even more invested in the company.

“You’ve got to get through it, and once you get through it, you can look to the future,” Bartlett said.

The story appears through a partnership with the Bangor Daily News.