Welcome to 826michigan’s tenth anniversary! In 2015, we’re celebrating ten years of 826michigan by highlighting ten people who have significantly shaped our organization since 826michigan opened its doors in 2005. Follow along with former 826michigan Communications Coordinator Amy Wilson this year as she explores how the contributions of many individuals have contributed to 826michigan’s evolution: from a tiny operation to a full-fledged nonprofit organization serving over 3,000 young people in Detroit, Ypsilanti, and Ann Arbor.
“Our relationship with 826michigan has encouraged Thomson-Shore’s employees to talk more about how we want to extend our support for nonprofits and what we want to ultimately extend into the community. It’s allowed us to look within and determine what’s important to us. 826michigan has been able to show us how our money is extending our principles into the world.”
I spent five years of my life with 826michigan. I was a volunteer, then an intern, then an AmeriCorps member, then a staff member. In that time I did a lot of things: tried to organize the supply shelves in our basement closet (known, pretty accurately, as “the dungeon”); traveled to Detroit and Ypsilanti to help teach elaborate writing programs; processed checks after fundraising dinners; attended book release parties, large and small, for students from kindergarteners to high-school seniors; led workshops, watched other people lead workshops, volunteered in residencies, occasionally tried to remember things like U.S. history and organic chemistry as an emergency tutor; and wrote a TON of grants and other materials trying to somehow communicate what I was seeing and loving about this place. I don’t work at 826michigan anymore but I have enough tote bags, sweatshirts, fanny packs, posters, coffee mugs, and publications to last me a looooooooong time. And I still have this weird, and possibly eternal, urge to check the time at precisely 8:26.
What I’m trying to say here is, I’m a card-carrying 826michigan Fan 4 Lyfe. And I spent much of that time at 826michigan as someone whose literal job it was to think really hard about our work so that I could explain it through grant proposals, newsletters, press releases, etc and so forth.
With that context I hope you can understand how I sometimes might get the idea that there are no new angles from which I could see 826michigan.
But about that I am always wrong! Let’s meet Kevin Spall, this month’s Ten for Ten honoree, who offers a fresh perspective on what we do.
Kevin is well-known to us at 826michigan as the president of Thomson-Shore, an employee-owned full service book manufacturing, printing, publishing, production, and distribution company located in Dexter, Michigan. An artist in his own right, Kevin is thoughtful, generous, and articulate about the importance of creativity in business and in life.
He says, “I grew up in upstate New York, a suburb of Rochester. I was always very partial to art growing up, so my long-term connection to print is through my connection to artwork in general. So I went to undergrad art school in Pittsburgh and my degree was in design, but after school I was unable to find a job in design. And my grandfather was in the printing industry in Rochester at that time, so I started my printing career right out of college and really took to printing immediately. The manufacturing side of art has been something that appealed to me, the mechanics of it.
I weaved my way through printing in various places. Washington DC, Cleveland. I transferred out to Manhattan and was in Manhattan for about eight years. I loved it but there were long hours, and I have a big family so we always thought about moving to a lower cost of living. I was contacted by a headhunter looking for someone to take over Thomson-Shore as president. Their president had just retired and they needed someone who had some particular skill sets around the business of books, the new technology of books, and who was interested in moving to the Midwest. We came out to Ann Arbor for a visit and we loved it, so we made the move.”
If you’ve seen any of 826michigan’s publications over the past five or six years, you’ve seen that Thomson-Shore’s books truly are art. You may also be familiar with their work through any of McSweeney’s recent publications – Thomson-Shore printed Dave Eggers’ 2012 novel A Hologram For The King and has continued to work with his publishing arm since then. How did this innovative, warm, mutually-beneficial, awesome (if we do say so ourselves) relationship between 826michigan and Thomson-Shore get started?
Kevin says, ”The funny story was, before we moved, I brought my two older kids (8 and 11 at the time) and we were walking down Liberty — and we saw the robot store! I remember peeking in the door and thinking, ‘wow, what is this place?’. I didn’t know anything about 826 or McSweeney’s, but we got snagged by that. One of our first trips to Ann Arbor we walked in to the Liberty Street Robot Supply & Repair and saw that they made books there, and I came back to the Thomson-Shore plant and told someone I really wanted to figure out how to make books for that organization.
We called 826michigan and we bid on the job, and we produced it. Apparently Dave Eggers was in town, and there was an event, and he saw the book that we produced, and he asked Amanda Uhle about it — she mentioned our plant was out here in Dexter so he came for a visit. That was the quick story about how we got together. The story really goes on from there. Dave and I have spent some time personally collaborating for some of his titles. I think Dave was looking for an opportunity to bring work back to the United States for his publishing arm, and we’ve had great success with that.
For me that first time at the robot store, it was the classic visual of that little kid at Christmastime peering in to the department store window. That’s the point of that store, to get people interested and get them to come in and be involved. It worked on us!”
Kevin speaks eloquently about what draws him as an individual to what we do at 826michigan: “I think the personal attraction of 826michigan’s work is the fact that it touches young people who, in many regards, would never have exposure to the kind of opportunity that 826michigan is giving them. Reading, and creative writing, and expression of themselves in a safe environment. That whole early development piece for kids, in particular kids who don’t have the opportunity to do that perhaps at home or at school, is a powerful impact on young minds. I love the fact that some of these students are writing stories in some cases for the first time, in which they’re using their mind in this new creative way. And they see someone react to this story. And ultimately it may be published and consumed by thousands of people. That whole life cycle of. . .lighting the match in the child’s mind to create. Personally it really speaks to me because of my creativity and my artwork from when I was a kid. It was something that was so important to me. I really lived within my own mind. That creativity brought so much to me personally and professionally. Going into areas where there isn’t much opportunity for reading and writing and comprehension and creativity — I just think there’s a tremendous amount of value that will come to those individuals, those students, and then if they get bitten by the bug that could affect limitless amounts of people.
I’m a really big believer in the idea that more people in business should have the ability to think creatively, not just sequentially. My creative background has made me sensitive to business issues, or customer issues, or market opportunities because I take a very wide view, a 360-degree perspective. Generally speaking I think having a background in art, creative mediums like writing, I really think that makes you sensitive to a broader issue. A creative is going to a homework assignment or an activity in science or math in a much more approachable way, particularly for a child, versus someone who may not be as sensitive around the whole creative feeling of communication.”
And explains how working with, and giving to, 826michigan has been beneficial for his company as well: “As business becomes challenging, and certainly since the recession, and just the book business in general is a challenged industry — Thomson-Shore has had to get very focused and particular about who we’re doing business with. When I look at our relationship with 826michigan, it’s a business decision — the company needs to say, we think it’s important to give money to an organization that is creating some benefit to the community. Seeing what 826michigan does and seeing the impact of their money being spent locally, particularly in Southeast Michigan, our employees have said, ‘this is a group that we want to be associated with.’ How that’s come back to us is, it’s encouraged Thomson-Shore’s employees to talk more about how we want to extend our support for nonprofits and what we want to ultimately extend into the community. It’s allowed us to look within and determine what’s important to us. 826michigan has been able to show us how our money is extending our principles into the world. It’s helped us to come together as a company. 826michigan is very active and very tangible in what they do. With 826michigan you can see how your money is being spent and that’s satisfying, to be able to see that so clearly.”
Hard numbers, softer stories, pictures and video, the books in which our students speak for themselves: there are many ways to communicate the impact that 826michigan has had over ten years in Southeast Michigan, and I know because I’ve tried most of them. What I’m learning through this project, through speaking with people like Kevin, is that there is just as wide a variety of ways in which 826michigan has affected people as there is in the variety of people who have affected 826michigan. From my experience as a volunteer, intern, staff member, alum I could never have guessed Kevin’s perspective as a businessman, artist, manufacturer. To me that’s one of the best feelings in life, to know something well and have it still surprise you. 826michigan Fan 4 Lyfe.
I’m honored to include Kevin Spall and Thomson-Shore, true-blue book people, in 826michigan’s tenth-anniversary celebration. Can’t wait to see what comes next!