Saying goodbye to a business rooted in seeds
by Teena Weaver Gordon
From the April, 2017 issue
I've just sent off the final payments and tax information for my family's business, First Impression Printing Company, which closed its doors last August after forty-four years. This officially ends a very long chapter in my family's history.
My father, Philip Weaver, was a four-year veteran of the Army Air Force and a graduate of Indiana University when he entered the print business through an interesting back door in 1951. He and his sister and brother-in-law launched the Vitality Seed Company in Fort Wayne, Indiana. In less than a year, he moved our family to Ann Arbor and the business into a chicken coop at 4940 Jackson Rd., across the street from the Mercywood mental hospital on land owned by a farmer named Bill Hanselman. Dad arranged with the Future Farmers of America to have chapters sell seeds from door to door as a fundraiser. By the early 1960s, he owned the business outright.
When the orders came in, Dad printed the seed packets on an A.B. Dick offset press. Then he and his employees (and his three kids) formed an assembly line. We'd fill each order individually by packing the seeds into little bags, boxing them, and shipping them back to the FFA clubs to distribute. Later, in the 1970s, Catholic school students in the Midwest also sold the seeds as fundraisers.
We spent the summer months camping in tents, touring national parks, and driving around the country in our station wagon, so Dad could set up his display at teachers' conventions and visit with the farmers who were producing our seeds. Dad checked out the seeds to decide which ones to buy and how much. He photographed the flowers and vegetables produced from those seeds and used those pictures in his Vitality Seed catalog. Months later, the farmers sent big forty-pound gunnysacks full of seeds to our Ann Arbor warehouse.
Dad printed everything in house except the catalog--and eventually he bought a bigger Heidelberg press
so he could print that, too. After a few years, he got tired of watching the press sit idle for nine months of the year, so he decided he should start printing for others during our slack time. First Impression Printing opened for business in 1971.
The City of Ann Arbor was one of our earliest customers. My brother Terry was an engineering student at the U-M at that time, but Dad brought him in to help with the printing business. It went so well that Dad bought larger presses to handle larger print jobs. Eventually we printed everything from business cards to four-color magazines along with our own full-color seed catalogue.
In 1972, Dad and Mom went on an overseas vacation, and when Dad came back, he decided that since everything had been going fine without him, he'd move Terry into the manager position at First Impression.
In 1976, when my older brother Steve decided to leave the Air Force and I was pregnant with my first child, we both came to work for Dad in the seed company. Meanwhile, the print business grew so fast that we decided to add onto the back of the building, giving us 3,000 square feet for additional equipment and storage space. By the summer of 1980, we had outgrown our space again. By luck, the tenant in the building behind ours had to move, so we took over that building. At that time, I moved over to First Impression and worked with Terry.
Printing was very profitable. Our golden years ran from 1985 to 2001; we had 900 customers, and we printed the programs for the Ann Arbor Symphony Orchestra and for the Wild Swan Theater, as well as a lot of the city's publications and the Ann Arbor Observer's office supplies. In 1985, First Impression was doing so well that we bought a quick-print business in Howell and ran it along with our own. We also had a satellite office on Airport Blvd. In 1986, First Impression added 2,000 square feet to the back of 4109 Jackson Rd., bringing our space there to 8,000 square feet.
By then the seed business was struggling, because fewer Americans were planting gardens. When seed sales were no longer profitable, Dad closed Vitality Seed Company, and Steve came to work with Terry and me in printing.
Shortly afterwards, Steve and Dad started developing properties: duplexes and a six-plex on the west side of Ann Arbor, and then the North Delhi Hills and Glen Devon subdivisions west of Ann Arbor. Dad was also involved in renovating the Ann Arbor Country Club in Loch Alpine; one room in the clubhouse is named for him.
Then came the terrorist attacks on 9/11. They caused the largest downturn we ever had. Eventually our business gradually improved, but it was never really great again. When the recession hit in 2008, the printing business took a nosedive. Our sales dropped 35 percent. People started using the Internet more to save money, and our business never really fully recovered. It was harder and harder to find and keep customers.
After forty-four years running First Impression Printing, in January 2016 Terry decided he wanted to retire. We sold our presses (most of them went to South America); held a garage sale to empty out the office equipment; and sold our customer list and art files to Print-Tech, just down the road.
First Impression closed its doors for the last time on August 31. Our very first customer--Peggy Beals--cried when we closed; through four and a half decades, we had printed her manuals about improving cows' milk and goats' milk production.
Dad is ninety-one years old and living in Florida now. Terry retired. Steve is still very busy managing our family-owned rental properties. I went to work for Print-Tech, helping smooth the transition for our customers--including Peggy and her dairy manuals.
[Originally published in April, 2017.]
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