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Jason Thompson from RAG & BONE BINDERY
 
 

S U B N A V I G A T I O N
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Jason Thompson
Rag & Bone Bindery
Pawtucket, Rhode Island
by J March 1, 2004

View samples of their books at www.RagAndBone.com

Interviews:
Gregg Anderson
Cristina di Chiera
Erik Gould
Kathleen Griffin
Elizabeth Keithline
Scott Lapham
Rafael Lyons
Julie Manso and Carl Dunn
the Men of Letters
Rag and Bone Bindery
Howie Snieder
Herb Weiss
Cliff Wood
May Yao

First, a little background info on the company, if you would:
I started the business in 1991 binding blank journals one at a time in my bedroom and selling them in the streets around Brown & RISD in Providence and to a few retailers who took pity on me. The books were well crafted and though I don't have an art or design background – or a high school diploma for that matter – the books were smartly designed and I think customers appreciated my honesty and dedication.


Exchange Street, Pawtucket

After the first year I moved to the Distillery Artists Building in South Boston where I first rented a live / work loft and later a second space for just the bookmaking operation. I didn't really consider it a Bindery at this point. I sold books under the name "Bookbinding By Jason Thompson" and still did not have any equipment other than brushes, scissors, bone folders and basic tools.

Both of these spaces needed renovation prior to moving in. The loft was raw space, we sanded the floors ourselves, painted the ceiling, built a few partitions. We hung windows around the kitchen area as a decorative partition. The space was the former laboratory for the Distillery. There were unique built in shelves, two bathrooms and lab tables. Even an asbestos shielded freezer – which we stayed away from.

This building was the spiritual launch for Rag & Bone Bindery. I sold enough books throughout these first years to live comfortably. Friends would help out when big orders came in. I didn't consider bookmaking a business as such, more of a lifestyle – a way to pay the bills, be creative and spend time with friends.

We moved back to Rhode Island in 1993 and rented a live / work loft in the Imperial Knife building in Providence – above CAV and Art Supply Warehouse. We built partition walls and a sleeping loft but not much else other than a new coat of paint and a good cleaning. I built work tables and fabric racks for my then girlfriend, now wife, and her hat making business. I was making books on one side of the studio, she was making hats on the other and we were living in between. The space was beautiful, exposed brick, natural light, hardwood floors, and high beamed ceilings on the top floor overlooking downtown Providence. I was using the name Rag & Bone Bindery at this point and had clients covering New England and New York.

I hired my first full-time employee (who is still with the company today) and eventually outgrew the space. Our next studio was at Blackstone Studios, Phyllis & Morris Nathanson's building in Pawtucket. Again this was a raw space, we sanded the floors, built partitions and work tables. We were present when one of the buildings on the Nathanson's property was demolished. This was the largest of the three mill buildings they owned which was unoccupied usable due to structural problems. It was torn down piece by piece over several weeks outside the bindery windows. It was very exciting when the chimney, which was last to go, finally got the big push, crumbling to the ground in a blast of bricks & black dust.

At this studio, surrounded by other full time working artists and artisans, we attended our first national trade show and wrote orders to keep us busy for what ended up being several months. Rag & Bone employed five full-time artistans including my wife, Ilira Steinman, who sold her hat making business to come aboard as my business partner.

Business was good and we soon found ourselves outgrowing the 1,200 sq/ft studio. We needed to start carrying an inventory - finished books we could pull off the shelves instead of making every book to order - but we just didn't have the space.

This is when we met Bill Forman, previous owner of One Allens Avenue, formerly at the corner of Allens Avenue and Eddy Street in Providence, Rhode Island. The two of us hit it off right away and soon Rag & Bone had a beautiful new 5.500 sq/ft loft with windows on two sides, a private entrance, our very own loading dock and just a single neighbor downstairs – we could make as much noise as we wanted.


the Allens Ave space

Once again of course, this was a totally raw space. We were the first modern tenants in the space which was used as storage for years. Bill Forman and his crew removed all the debris, removed the electrical wiring, sanded the floors, built walls where we wanted them and re-wired the electricity and placed lighting to our specifications. When finished we had a kitchen, break room, storage room, inventory room, offices, a shipping area and the main floor where production took place

At first there were still only five of us, so we had plenty of room. Soon, as the economy grew stronger and we began to penetrate more markets, specifically the west coast, we were barely able to keep up with orders. Eventually there were eleven of us and we quickly filled up the space. We bought new equipment and hired our first office manager.

Unfortunately soon after we moved in we heard rumors of plans to reroute the highway which passed just outside our windows, a change that would require the demolition of our building. We had plans to make this our permanent home and were devastated by the news. The process eventually took years, but there was no recourse but to move. The federal government was generous when it came to taking our space by "eminent domain". As tenants we worked with a company called Cinnabar hired to assist with the relocation and to facilitate disbursing relocation funds, which turned out to be substantial.


Our temporary space at Thurbers Ave

Though we needed to relocate to a temporary space at 134 Thurbers Avenue in Providence in 2000, the relocation funds helped us to purchase the two story, 10,000 square foot mill building we now own on Main Street in Pawtucket. The city of Pawtucket assisted us through their Revolving Fund, supplying gap financing as well as part of our renovation budget.

We took possession of the building in June of 2002 and began the renovation soon after in August. The demolition was completed by myself with assistance from Rag & Bone staff on a few days for large tasks, such as removing some of the machinery and motors in the building - some attached to the first floor ceiling. With ropes and leverage we were able to clean out this equipment. I tore down interior partitions, removed two generations of lighting & electricity (getting zapped twice...) eventually filling three thirty yard roll-away dumpsters.

Nassa Flooring Company removed and re-poured two concrete floors (one in our Inventory Room, the other in a separate production room). West Shore Construction sand blasted the interior brick walls, ceiling and wood beams. Sandblasting creates the most incredible mess you can imagine. We could only clean-up during the day the electricity was turned off during the sandblasting process - as well as the heat, this was November.

After the clean-up the floors were sanded and refinished. Sanding hardwood floors creates an instant improvement. Once cleaned up, the floors were beautiful, especially in the wide open spaces. Contractors then built a few interior walls, around our shipping area, inventory room, basement entrance and storage area. At this point H & R Electric spent four weeks re-wiring the first floor (at this time we have not yet renovated the second floor, it is still raw space). After lighting and power were installed we finished painting the new walls and essentially moved in and started up production simultaneously.

I served as general contractor, interviewing subcontractors and scheduling the work. The work was challenging. Having run a company for 13 years helped in regards to making decisions, sticking to schedules and having confidence telling the contractors what to do, what not to do and at times to do something again.

We now have plans to renovate the second floor of the building as a residential loft. There are approximately 3,000 sq/ft to work with. The sprinkler system is functional, the roof leaks in a few places. The exposed brick walls are sanded in half the space, painted in the other half. Sandblasting creates such a mess that we really can't sandblast again while there's a working bindery downstairs. We'll work around this limitation by repainting the brick or building interior walls around the brick.

There are partitioned offices on this floor which will have to be removed, along with most electrical work. Heating pipes surrounding the perimeter function well however supplemental heating will have to be installed for interior rooms (bathrooms, bedrooms, etc).

We look forward to the challenge of restoring pride in the building which has good 'bones' simply in need of loving care. We consider ourselves stewards of the building more so than owners. The building has stood three times longer than I've been alive and will probably be here long after we're gone. During our tenure we'll try to treat it with respect.

How helpful was Providence in getting you into a new space? How does that contrast with the experience you had with the city of Pawtucket?
The city of Providence wouldn't return our phone calls. Perhaps it was our size - 15 employees - or maybe because we were being evicted officials may have assumed we would be difficult to work with, or maybe because of the Cianci trial attentions were elsewhere, but we couldn't get a meeting with anyone from the Providence Economic Development offices.

After a point however we stopped looking at Providence. The city of Pawtucket, specifically Herbert Weiss, courted our business by providing information on available spaces. Herbert Weiss was tenacious in his efforts to get us to Pawtucket and in the end we wouldn't have found the space we have without him. He was also an advocate for our company when it came time to ask Pawtucket to assist financially with our relocation.

Why did you feel the need to own a space?
It has been our dream to own a live-work space for our family and Rag & Bone Bindery. We have dozens of books on loft renovations and tape every episode of Lofty Ideas (HGTV). We attend open studio events not only to see art but to get a peek at other artists loft spaces. We have renovated four loft studios for Rag & Bone and rented a few to live in. But we always wanted to own a small mill building to create the space to fit our lifestyle. Financially too the move made sense.

Why rent when you can own?
The cost is about the same for us.

Has it worked out the way you would have hoped?
I'd have to say it's working out. As I had hoped? I don't really know. I wish the bindery had more design to it. It is, after all, a work space, however I always pictured a much more funky (and cleaner) loft space for the bindery. It's nice to not have to worry about neighbors - the only noise here is what we make. We don't worry about our machines bothering neighbors.

Would you recommend owning a structure to other people?
Yes! If you have the vision and the resources, by all means. These old mill buildings need life in them - work or live space - either way, without tenants and owners it's a slow death by eventual demolition or fire - as seen in the Greenhaulgh Mills.

There seems to be little middle ground. Mill buildings with new owners committing to bringing the space back to life are inspiring. Considering the amount of space mills have to offer, the natural light, character and often low cost for acquisition, any artist should consider the opportunity. This can be seen here in Pawtucket.

What little tid-bits of advice could you give to other art-related businesses on how to go about getting their own space?
We only did this once, so from our limited experience: look at everything. Visit an area you're interested in and find all the Mill buildings you can, abandoned or otherwise, and take a good look - inside if you can. Follow the rivers too, older mills are often near water. You can sometimes find mill buildings for sale through real estate listings and I recommend looking even if a building is out of your price range. After walking through dozens of mills, you should get an idea of what mill buildings go for per sq/ft with their own particular amenities. As with any endeavor in life, education is key. Especially so if you're considering spending a life savings.

Don't be afraid to ask a million questions, you never know what you will learn. If you find a building you like, knock on the door or just walk right in if it's an occupied commercial property. The more you see, the more you'll learn. Research local newspaper archives for information about buildings and previous owners. Visit local historical societies. Ask neighbors.

When you find a building you're serious about, study the building with an expert. We brought along Bill Forman, former owner of One Allens Avenue, to visit before we considered making an offer. Next an inspector made a thorough review of the building. With his report in hand, we felt comfortable that we knew what was good and not so good about the building which helped when making the offer. By visiting as many properties as we did, we were confident we knew what to look for and that the building suited our needs.

After acquisition, our own plans for the building changed. Initially there were two tenants on the second floor (artist work space) and we planned to renovate three more studios. Once we occupied the space, however we realized that the flow of the building would be better suited for just Rag & Bone and living space for our family. This meant no rental income to assist with mortgage, and we've had to adapt.

Other small inconveniences have popped up which come with commercial real estate ownership: a $1,000 plumbing incident, a leaky roof (expected, but still an immediate concern), snow removal, a large broken window in the entrance, a gas leak. The point is anything can happen, sometimes involving unexpected costs - be prepared and flexible. It helps to be handy - with plumbing, carpentry, etc. After being renters of many studio spaces over the years, we had to get used to the fact that there is no one to call for maintenance any more.

Our experience has been positive. Pawtucket has been supportive. We love the space. It looks better all the time. The economy is picking up, business is better than it has been in several years and we're eager to get to the projects in the building we've put off due to financial and time constraints.

Herbert Weiss, Pawtucket's Program Manager for Development Projects, is an invaluable resource for mills and rental space in Pawtucket: (401) 724-5200)

 
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