A tarnished brass bell clangs when you open the door at Prentis Printing. It’s probably been there since the Meriden shop opened in 1970. There’s a noticable contrast between the then and now that only gets thicker as you continue inside. The owner, Bruce Burchsted, regularly credits his former boss and mentor, John L. Prentis, pointing to Prentis' family photos which still hang in the shop. Timelines tracing the business’ origins sit to the left of the front desk and behind it.
Prentis’ photographs are now pinned above a state-of-the-art copier, though. The timelines, which go back to the 1960s, were printed and mounted in minutes—not hours as they would have been back then—using modern computer technology and electronics. They sit across from a row of Xerox machines so advanced that they would have put Prentis out of business years ago.
“This business is a constant learning process,” Burchsted says. “You keep reinvesting. You constantly keep doing new things—even at my age,” he laughs.
He’s 66 now and has been with the Prentis company for the last 48 years.
The company originated in New London in the early 1960s, mainly producing blueprints for architectural work. The old Bruning blueprint machines Burchsted used to operate weighed roughly three tons, were 15 feet in length, and had to be stocked with 300-foot spools of paper. When printing, more than 40 feet of material was wound around drums and towed through pools of chemicals inside the equipment. Paper jams, all too frequent, were a hassle to say the least.
“They were monsters,” Burchsted recalls.
Even making copies was a difficult process back then, Burchsted says. The photostat apparatus was about the size of the blueprint machine. What was essentially an oversized camera would capture an image on film and reproduce it through a lengthy, complicated developing process.
Copying continued like that until the mid-1970s when modern Xerox machines first appeared. Even then it took some time to perfect the technology so that it produced a consistent, quality copy.
The process is easier today. The new blueprint and copying machines are about a quarter of the size they used to be and work much faster. But now Prentis faces a different challenge--selling paper goods in an increasingly paperless marketplace.
“We’re starting to graduate away from paper,” Burchsted says, “but, of course, they’ve been talking about that for 30 or 40 years now.”
He does confess that the shop has lost some business in the transition, pointing to the standardized tests he used to provide for the Meriden Board of Education as an example. Those tests are all administered online now.
“How can you argue with it?” he says. “It’s cheaper, more efficient, and you get the scores right away.”
Prentis has managed to keep up with the changing environment though.
“In the last 10 to 15 years a lot of printers have gone out of business,” Burchsted says, “but we’ve hung in there because we keep changing.”
Prentis has started accommodating electronic and graphic design work that the shop would have turned away before. About 90% of his customers come in with their own designs—technology allows almost anyone to act as a graphic designer now—but Burchsted often needs to alter or repair the files. That type of work would have been farmed out to specialists a decade ago, he says.
Burchsted is quick to point out that Prentis Printing is not a graphic design firm, but he admits the company has looked to expand that part of the business recently.
“The mechanics of electronic work are there, but you have to figure out a workable business model. With paper you have a tangible item you can charge for,” he says, picking up a stack of recently printed flyers. “Ten cents per page or something like that. It’s different with [graphic design].”
Prentis may continue to adapt to new demands, but will soon have to do so without Burchsted. He’s already entered semi-retirement, coming in less and less now as he turns the business over to Michael Glynn, his son-in-law. It’ll be up to Glynn, who’s been with Prentis since 1995, to take this third-generation company into the future while keeping its timelines clean, its memories bright and its tarnished bell ringing.