New businesses prove there's still a market for old technology - East Valley Tribune: Business

New businesses prove there's still a market for old technology

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Posted: Thursday, October 4, 2012 8:05 am

Time waits for no man, and neither does technology.

That dash-mounted GPS you got for Christmas three years ago? It's already a relic.

Finally deciphered all the bells and whistles on your iPhone 3GS? Its great-grandson -- the iPhone 5 -- was born a few days ago.

Your new luxury sedan can parallel park by itself? Google has developed cars that drive by themselves.

But even in the sort of world where a couple of guys can launch a new mobile phone app and agree to sell it 18 months later for a cool $1 billion, there's still a market for the low-tech approach.

For three Knoxville, Tenn., entrepreneurs, building a business has meant leaning on technologies that date back to the 15th century, the Roman Empire and even (believe it or not) the 1970s. They're not offering lucrative stock options to their employees and they may not launch an IPO any time soon, but they're carrying a torch for a bygone way of life -- and in some cases, reviving it.

For instance, when it comes to the wedding invitation, there's still no substitute for the old-fashioned letter.

That's where Sarah and Ty Pattison come in.

The Knoxville couple own The Happy Envelope, a stationery shop that generates 75 to 80 percent of its revenue using a decades-old letterpress, the sort of machine whose basic technology has been employed for centuries.

With Ty handling the printing duties and Sarah the design, the company has built a client roster from all over the country. But even if you're familiar with the letterpress style, the Pattisons' work might not be what you had in mind.

While the company outsources some of its printing work for faraway clients, its downtown storefront is home to a Chandler & Price 10x15 platen press. Ty estimated that the machine was built between 1890 and 1920; the curved spokes on the wheel are emblematic of an older style, he said.

The machine does have some modern touches. A motor provides power, and instead of a traditional tray to hold the letters, Ty uses a photopolymer plate with an adhesive back that is attached to a type-high "Boxcar base."

So what's the appeal? A letterpress can print invitations on ultra-thick paper and the press itself leaves a texture, creating a tactile as well as a visual experience. "It has ... really nice crisp, crisp edges (and) crisp colors," Sarah added.

The seeds of Alice Sword's business, Kalligraphia, were planted at her childhood breakfast table.

When she was a girl, Sword's mother took a calligraphy class and while the two of them sat together, Alice would practice her own writing. She never had any formal training, but years of practice eventually led to a thriving solo business.

As the name implies, Kalligraphia specializes in providing handwritten, calligraphy-style lettering for envelopes, invitations and other documents that require a certain flourish.

While she learned the craft with a pen that used an ink cartridge, Sword now uses a traditional pen-holder and nib, which allow more flexibility and variability in the width of the lettering.

Time is probably the biggest challenge in her line of work, Sword said. "(Like) all things that are done by hand, it takes time," she said. "And there is only one of me."

Sword isn't averse to technology. There's a computer in her studio, and Kalligraphia has a Facebook page. But she knows that for clients, her work is valuable because it's done by hand.

"It takes some care. ... There's something about that that is appealing to people," she said.

Pat VanBuren was grief-stricken when her husband died, and she filled her time by socializing on a citizens band radio.

Using the handle "Main Mama," she got to talking with Bill Mincey, a divorce who went by the radio name of "Whittler." Eventually, Bill got Pat's phone number from a fellow CB enthusiast, and in May 1986 they went on a date. They've been together ever since.

The couple operate Bill's CB Sales, selling a wide variety of items for the CB community.

The CB craze has waxed and waned over the years, and the store has adjusted its approach to marketing to match the times. At one point the operators mailed a flier to members of a CB club, and they later shifted to eBay.

These days the operation is strictly word-of-mouth, and it relies partially on stocking items that aren't available at truck stops, such as a 102-inch "steel whip", a long, flexible antenna resembling a fishing pole.

In their heyday, CB radios played a similar role to 21st century social media tools like Twitter or Facebook, giving users an opportunity to socialize with their friends or listen in on the conversations of strangers.

But earning a living from the devices isn't so easy anymore. Asked how business was, Pat replied, "slow," and Bill said "terrible."

Citizens band broadcasting may yet enjoy a future resurgence, but even if it doesn't there's no denying its impact on the past.

As Bill put it, "I'd have never known (Pat) existed if it hadn't been for the CB radio."

Contact Josh Flory of The Knoxville News Sentinel in Tennessee at FloryJ@knoxnews.com.

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