LIBERTY — A 44-year-old screen printing business specializing in nature- and science-themed T-shirts has recently become an employee-owned cooperative.

Liberty Graphics, with its familiar saloon-style storefront in the center of town, and its screen printing operations located up the road at 44 Main St., as of May 1 is owned by the company’s workers.

Liberty Graphics General Manager and Art Director Sam Bartlett stands on the retail store’s front porch on Main Street, Liberty, June 24. Bartlett has worked at Liberty Graphics for almost 30 years.

General Manager and Art Director Sam Bartlett said the shift to an employee-owned business seems like a natural transition. Former owner and founder Tom Opper wanted to retire, and found selling the company a challenge. Bartlett said Opper knew the best people to run the company would be the workers. 

Many of the employees are local and have worked at the company for decades. Bartlett said he himself is closing in on 30 years. “Employees have been here a long time,” he said. “It seems like a natural transition to now own it.”

“He (Opper) knows the employees care about the final product and are vested in the company,” Bartlett said. “From his perspective, it is a good decision.”

Worker cooperatives are equally owned and governed by employees, Bartlett said. Co-ops also earn money from the profits of their labor.

Opper founded Liberty Graphics in 1977 and has grown the company to include the retail outlet store in the village, along with a store in Portland, and a newly opened location in Camden.

Bartlett said the company sells a lot of T-shirts to national parks and nature-orientated operations like the Audubon Society. For decades now, the company has  provided T-shirts to zoos, museums, planetariums and aquariums across the country. Bartlett said it also sells its T-shirts internationally to vendors in Europe and Japan.

Opper will still be keeping an office, Bartlett said, with a side business he started, Liberty Organic T-shirts. “He’s become one of our suppliers,” he said, and noted the business purchases a small portion of organic T-shirts from Opper. 

Everybody at the facility had a choice to become an owner, Bartlett said, and of the 25 employees, 20 opted to do so. Most who decided not to become owners were part-time or seasonal workers, he said. After working at the shop for a certain amount of time, employees can choose to become owner/members.

According to Bartlett, there is no downside involved in becoming a worker cooperative, but it will mean designing a new organizational structure, along with creating a governing board. “I took over as general manager from Tom, and Rob Brown (from Cooperative Development Institute) is helping us rethink how we work and how to make it a collective.” 

For now, Bartlett said, employees are trying not to over-complicate matters, and “trying to govern ourselves properly.”

Dani Katsir

Dani Katsir, left, and Liberty Graphics General Manager and Art Director Sam Bartlett at the retail store June 24.

“We want to encourage a business culture where employees own their jobs and have control over their future, with the reward being the company’s success,” he added. “We would like to create a community atmosphere where everybody’s voices are heard. “Luckily we have been around for more than 40 years and don’t have to reinvent ourselves.”

Incidents where customers say they would like to replace a T-shirt their mom bought them when they were a kid are common, Bartlett said. “That continuity is helpful.”

Sitting on a bench on the store’s front porch, Dani Katsir said in the past 30 years he has clothed his entire family with Liberty Graphic T-shirt “seconds,” which are sold at bargain prices. “I have 60 to 70 still functioning T-shirts,” he said. Katsir, who is from Michigan by way of Israel, said, “For me, it’s an institution.”

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