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Making A Mark In Print

December 20, 2006
By JANICE PODSADA, Courant Staff Writer

When Herman Todd buys a car, he buys the repair manual. And then, unlike most of us, he sits down and reads it.

When Todd wanted to learn how to screen-print T-shirts, he bought a how-to book for $29.95, read it, underlined passages with a pink marker - and then read it again, so many times that pages 39 to 104 came loose from the binding.

His reading paid off. This year, Todd, 50, expects revenue of $100,000 from his business, Living Word Imprints. His printing shop at 450 Homestead Ave. in Hartford's North End offers printing and embroidery services for T-shirts, school uniforms, banners, business cards and other items.

The former electrician started his business as a part-time venture 12 years ago in an 8-by-8-foot basement room, with $5,000 in savings. That was enough for a $2,500, four-color press, ink and a $400 dryer that could flash-cure one T-shirt every two minutes.

"I spoiled a whole lot of T-shirts that year. Out of a dozen, I'd ruin three or four." Still, he managed to rack up $4,000 in sales.

After a nine-year stint in his garage and basement, Todd decided three years ago that it was time to rent a storefront and go full-time. "You can't have people coming into your house."

In a neighborhood with stark brick buildings and chain-link fences, Todd's store is a brightly trimmed purple oasis that draws clients from all over.

"There's like a blight in this neighborhood because of crime and perceptions of crime," Todd said. "Most people don't want to come here to shop. I'm trying to help dispel that myth."

Before moving in, he remodeled the building's interior to accommodate his equipment. Working part time, it took him a year.

"I actually paid rent for a whole year before I was able to move in."

After joining the Upper Albany Merchants Association Inc., he was contacted by the University of Hartford's Micro Business Incubator. The 5-year-old program pairs students from the university's Barney School of Business with local business owners to provide whatever assistance is needed, said Margery Steinberg, the marketing professor who founded the program.

"Herman is very good at what he does - the printing business. But when you open a storefront, it's a whole new type of business, vs. working out of your garage," Steinberg said. "He didn't know much about marketing and merchandising. He had that wonderful storefront, but it didn't look inviting. A student worked to lay it out in a way that was user-friendly."

When students completed their internships at Living Word, they told others about the store. Many university groups, including several fraternities and sororities, now come to Todd for their T-shirts and sweat shirts, Steinberg said.

"Now they come into my office," Todd said. "They get to pick out the design, the fonts. We work together right here on my computer - as if we grew up together."

When Todd became a born-again Christian in the early 1990s, he wanted to communicate his faith to others, but knocking on doors and handing out tracts didn't appeal to him. He noticed, however, that people were broadcasting all kinds of messages just walking down the street - messages emblazoned on their shirts.

"I'm realizing you read everything that's on their chest," said Todd, who emigrated from Jamaica in 1979.

The shirts he didn't spoil, he sold. Within a few months, church groups and people planning family reunions were seeking him out to design and print their shirts.

As orders increased, his basement seemed to shrink. Todd bought another how-to book, this one explaining how to build or expand a garage. In 1997, he turned his garage into a workshop and purchased a $3,400 conveyor dryer that could dry 300 T-shirts an hour.

"My production increased by at least tenfold," he said.

That same year, Todd got his first big order, printing the senior week T-shirts for Hartford Public High School.

"I've been printing their graduation shirts ever since," Todd said.

"I'm glad we got him," said Michael McCausland, the school's senior class adviser and graphics teacher. "He does good-quality work, gives a fair price and he's always on time. I wouldn't hesitate to drop his name to people."

Todd may be able to pick up a book and learn just about anything, but he can't do everything. It took a former customer, Natasha Bordon, to recognize that. Bordon, who now works for Todd, walked into the store this fall, saw he was swamped and asked for a job.

"I came in to get my sons' uniforms and it was really hectic in here," Bordon said. "I told him, `You need help and I'm available.'"

On a recent morning, Todd and Bordon were running back and forth between the front counter and the back shop.

"He's the nicest boss I've ever worked with," said Bordon, hunched over and squinting as she rethreaded one of 90 needles on the shop's new embroidery machine, which can stitch up to six shirts at a time. "He's got a good working spirit."

Before Todd spent $48,000 on the Tajima embroidery machine, he bought - guess what? - a $200 how-to book on how to digitize images to work with the machine's software.

Now he can print and also embroider logos on shirts, jackets and school uniforms for organizations such as Mothers United Against Violence, Bear Steel Erectors in New London and Annie Fisher Elementary School in Hartford.

What's he reading now?

"I just finished a tutorial on how to build a website," Todd said. "I've learned that program. I'm ready to build. I've got a book for everything."

Contact Janice Podsada at jpodsada@courant.com.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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