In 1948, when 16-year-old Norris Seldon got his job at Mimeoform Service Inc., racial segregation was pervasive in the country, the Berlin Airlift was underway, and commercial printing was done by a monotype machine that molded each letter in each line with hot lead.
Over half a century later, at the small Beltsville printing shop that Seldon now owns, the world has changed on the outside, but inside things are still pretty much running the same way, and on the same machines. There's the graphotype machine that embosses metal tags, the addressograph that prints envelopes with those metal tags, and a pair of 1955 Davidson machines that print by transferring ink from aluminum plate to a rotating belt, then to the paper. As modernized equipment swirls in the industry around it, Mimeoform holds its own because its loyal customers like the company's low prices.
"I didn't have printing courses in school, but I kinda liked working with presses, just like a mechanic likes working on cars" for its therapeutic value, Seldon said. Now, at age 67, Seldon is semi-retired and works about seven hours a day with help from his son, Kevin, the only other employee.
Revenue is more than $50,000 a year, which is not quite enough for Kevin, 36, to take over the business and make a living on it, said his father.
But they keep on and have no plans to quit.
Mimeoform's customer base hasn't changed much over the years. The company was founded in 1921 at 1320 F St. NW in Washington, and its clients were haberdashers, the Washington Federal Savings & Loan Association and groups needing envelopes, newsletters and even a cookbook Potomac Electric Power Co. used to publish. About 16 years ago, when the company moved to the converted garage where it is now, Mimeoform's customers followed.
"A lot of the customers I consider personal friends, because I dealt with them a long time," said Seldon, a Fairmount Heights native and graduate of Lakeland High School in College Park.
Mimeoform advertises a little in the local press, but most of its new business comes from referrals by old customers, he said.
The Potomac Rose Society Inc. in Washington, a nonprofit group for rose lovers, has been having its monthly newsletter printed by Mimeoform since at least the 1950s, since Joe Covey's family joined the society. "It's a really personalized service," and the turnaround is quick, said Covey, the society's president.
Last week, he sent in the newsletter on Monday, and Mimeoform printed 400 copies and had them out to the post office by Wednesday, Covey said.
Seldon said he takes on charity work, doing some printing for free, for organizations such as the Make-a-Wish Foundation, the fire station across the street and other charities that ask for small printing job donations. And Seldon adds a personal touch to his business with his standing offer of a free lunch to all of his customers. If they give him 24 hours' notice, he will cook them lunch, he said. "We can make chicken, fried or baked, or chili," which he makes himself, he said.
The pace at Mimeoform is slowing down to accommodate Seldon, who turns 68 next month and doesn't want to work at the frantic rate that he used to. Business and the machinery were really booming in the 1940s, when Seldon joined the company, owned by Jesse Eliott. The machines made a rhythmic racket--as they still do--that the owner alleviated with classical music on the radio, as Seldon still does. Now, tucked as they are in a 1,200-square-foot space in the back of a building on a tree-lined street, walk-in business is low.
Stores such as Kinko's "have a lot of money, and they can buy all that new equipment" operated by complicated computers, he said. Mimeoform doesn't have a computer; orders still are typed on an electric typewriter.
Most retail printers such as Kinko's and other on-demand printing shops are computer-operated, said William Farmer, a technical consultant at Graphic Arts Technical Foundation, a trade group in Pittsburgh. Technical advances in the past 10 to 15 years have been "extremely fast," he said.
"Clients are pushing that order," because most customers work from computers and want to print their material directly from disks, he said.
Seldon bought the business from the widow of a former owner, David Sickles, two years ago for an amount he won't disclose. "I always told him he basically runs it anyway, and maybe when the time comes, you should own it," Kevin Seldon said.
For Kevin Seldon, the print shop "is like a home away from home," and folding newsletters or licking stamps feels to him like working in his living room, he said. He's been coming to the shop since he was 10 and grew up, like his father, feeling "peace of mind" from hearing the clicketyclack of the machines.
"Some people like things the old-fashioned way" and resent change, "but I'm not against progress, not one bit," Norris Seldon said.
He'll still have customers like Ingeborg Carsten-Miller, a poet and resident of Calverton who has come to Mimeoform for eight years to get her booklets of poetry published.
"This is really something special," she said of the shop's ancient-looking setup. She's called dozens of other commercial printers and discovered Mimeoform's prices to be the best, bar none, she said. She can't afford to pay the overhead at huge print shops, she said, "so what happens to the little people who want little jobs?"
For now, they come to Mimeoform.
Seldon plans to work "as long as my health holds out," or at least the next few years. Kevin Seldon, who works a nighttime shift distributing office supplies and part time during the day for his father, says he'd need to do a lot of work to be able to increase Mimeoform's business enough to make a full-time job of it. "So when I give it up, it might be the end for Mimeoform," the elder Seldon said.
CAPTION: At left, Norris Seldon looks over copy hot off the press at his shop in a converted garage in Beltsville. Below, Seldon spreads ink on the rollers of one of his presses.