BUCKSPORT — The story of Borealis Press began with an idea, several false starts and “no clue how to get things sold,” founder Mark Baldwin said, tipping back in his chair in the production room. Watery sunlight spills in from small, high windows at the north end of the unassuming building. An organized if unglamorous space tucked back on Main Street, Baldwin moved Borealis Press from Blue Hill to Bucksport last year, and the facility is as old school as many of the photographs that grace the company’s iconic greeting cards.
Baldwin incorporated his fledgling business in 1989 and started creating posters for kids the following year. He had The Ellsworth American print them up before snagging an employee to start their own printing business, using a single-color Miehle press.
Baldwin used those outside print jobs to pay the bills, and with his posters not selling, he turned to a new idea: books of coloring cards for kids, with a miniature, colored pencil pack attached. The black-and-white designs were drawn by local artists, as were the Proverbs of Hell greeting card line, illustrated by Brooksville artist Rob Shetterly and featuring quotes from English poet William Blake.
“I don’t know why it occurred to me,” he mused. “Somehow I thought we could sell cards with [Blake’s] Proverbs of Hell.”
Next, he tried using Mother Goose pictures and quotes. “I didn’t know anything,” Baldwin said. “It was embarrassing.”
His advertising consisted of running a 1-by-1-inch ad in the former publication Maine Progressive, with the tagline Printing for Thinking People, which brought renowned 20th century graphic designer Rudolph de Harak into his print shop. “Everything we do is Rudy-[based],” Baldwin said.
Baldwin then fell on the idea of matching interesting photos matched with interesting words and found success.
What makes the Borealis Press greeting card line unique — at least before other companies began copying the idea — is that the readers are often asked to find their own meaning between the photo and text.
“The idea was to get two things with nothing to do with each other and make a connection,” he said. “It’s not easy.”
A former street photographer who shot for magazines and his local newspaper, Baldwin said when street photography “went away,” Borealis Press became a major destination for these kinds of photos. But all those photos needed words, and Baldwin, who started as newspaper copyboy at age 16 and spent a decade as a journalist, found quotes and sayings — some which he made up on the spot — that each told their own story. And, since everyone at Borealis Press does a little of everything, Baldwin and Jeff Grenier are not the only ones wracking the creative sides of their brains over a chosen photo.
“You just stare at it and see what it says,” longtime employee Dede Johnson said.
Baldwin added, “We don’t have to connect with everybody. But it has to be true.”
The Borealis Press team is small in size, but mighty in impact, with Baldwin passing the card business reins to Jeff Grenier in recent years, while Heather Grenier serves as office manager and Johnson works on design and production. A few more employees round out the staff roster.
Jeff Grenier joined Borealis Press about 12 years ago, coming from the field of inventory taking, and his wife Heather “keeps everything cooking,” Johnson said.
“I walked into what already existed,” Grenier said.
“And he has a better sense of what will sell,” Baldwin interjected.
“Our hit rate is pretty good,” Grenier admitted.
While Baldwin winds down his involvement with the day-to-day operation, he still remains involved in editing and approval of new card lines.
Most greeting card buyers are women, Baldwin discovered early, which helped explain why cards featuring photographs of men, especially older men, did not sell. And because tastes change with the passing of time and cultural changes, card types that previously flopped sometimes found later success.
So how did a small greeting card company in Downeast Maine become a national and international success? Baldwin thought for moment: “I think every line we write and all the pictures and layout somehow all adds up to something people identify with … And there just seems to be enough people.”