Inside the building, the front office is far from the cookie-cutter workplace seen in corporate America. It’s more like an apartment. A vintage-looking table with a collage of superheroes covering its top is positioned in front of a worn, red velvet couch in the center of the room. It is easy to imagine someone sprawled on the couch with their feet propped up on the eclectic table. Band posters, a skateboard, pictures and a framed screen print are tacked up on the walls. Beside the print, shelves hold T-shirts, hats and other odds and ends. Tucked away in the far corner, a drum set rounds out the alternative space.
The two men sitting at desks that frame each side of the door are the only nod toward a traditional office. The space is quiet to facilitate productivity, but the chill, alternative music drifting in from the back workshop provides a relaxed ambiance, reminding everyone to have fun with their work. This is the base of The Merch, a screen printing and design business in Carrboro.
Owners Patrick Cudahy and Chip Hoppin opened The Merch in 2001 after working together at a screen printing shop in Durham. They originally wanted to support the music industry by designing shirts for local bands. However, they soon realized that their dream lacked economic feasibility, and they expanded to serve local businesses. Their T-shirt designs are influenced mainly by skateboarding culture and underground music.
Having lived in Chapel Hill for decades, Cudahy and Hoppin already knew many potential local clients for their design business.
“We do Cat’s Cradle, The Chocolate Door, the Local 506 and The Beehive,” Cudahy says. “You can just go up Franklin Street and odds are we might do their T-shirts.”
Cudahy, 39, wears a classic button-down plaid shirt and jeans. His laid-back style reveals remnants of his adolescent skateboarding days and his continued affinity for music. He still plays in a band called the Robes, which explains the drum set in the office.
Cudahy adds that although most of their business is in the Triangle area, they also work with Yep Roc Records, an international record label, which puts them in contact with bands that need shirts for upcoming tours. It is important in the screen printing business to know people and to always print quality shirts in order to garner referrals from past clients.
Most of The Merch’s revenue stems from printing pre-designed shirts in bulk orders for restaurants and other businesses.
“The majority of the time they have something they want done on a shirt,” Cudahy says. “Sometimes they need logos and design help, which is cool.”
Cudahy talks about the business aspect of The Merch in a matter-of-fact tone. As he speaks about the actual design involved in screen printing, he becomes more animated. He gestures to his first print, which hangs behind his desk, and says that he has been making screen prints since high school. His passion is clear when he describes creating a shirt. He is fascinated with the idea of taking nothing and turning it into something.
“That’s the cool part about this—you can just have the idea of a T-shirt and then create it,” he says. “You go from nothing to a finished product; what you have done is pretty cool.”
SCREEN PRINTING 101The Merch also creates original designs and sells some of its signature shirts in stores around town. One T-shirt bears a silhouette of a man hula hooping with the words “Carrboro Athletics” placed above it. Another has “Carrboro” written in a graffiti style over a picture of the Virgin Mary. Underneath the Virgin Mary the phrase “Cakalack del Norte” is written.
These shirts accurately represent the tongue-in-cheek humor that is characteristic of The Merch’s designs.
Hoppin, 36, is also obsessed with the endless creative possibilities of designing T-shirts. He has even taken his six year old’s monster drawings and printed them on a T-shirt.
Sporting a black hoodie, sneakers and black plasticframed glasses, Hoppin appears youthful and carefree. Like Cudahy, he still plays in a band. He describes his music as “smarty pants college rocky stuff.” When speaking about his business, Hoppin is articulate, but does not lose his sarcastic tone and easy laughter.
Hoppin wanted to start his own business in order to be his own boss, but now he believes that this concept is a charade. He explains that even as an owner you must answer to your customers. One problem Hoppins and Cudahy often deal with is when customers wish to buy only one shirt.
“People think screen printing is like walking into a Kinko’s and just having things run off,” Hoppin says. “We give the quick screen printing 101 class to every customer that comes in and says, ‘Oh, you don’t do just one shirt?’”
Hoppin believes in giving the customers an explanation for why they cannot print only one shirt instead of simply denying their request. He explains that he would have to charge a high price if they only made one shirt, as the screen printing process is very involved.
Cudahy and Hoppin have also had to learn business strategies on the job, as they are designers by nature.
“We’re going through a huge accounting issue right now,” Hoppin says. “We aren’t accountants. We are screen printers who are forced to do sales and accounting. It is a constant learning experience.”
Hoppin and Cudahy are the only employees at The Merch, but they do take on several unpaid interns. The interns do not have a regimented schedule; they float in and out as they please. The owners act as mentors and friends to their interns by teaching them the trade and allowing them to use the presses.
Sam Dalsimer was persistent in his quest to intern for the company, as The Merch did not need help when he first inquired. He has worked at The Merch for one year. For Dalsimer and another intern, Ryan Tickle, screen printing is about their love of art.
Working at The Merch has also allowed Dalsimer and Tickle to venture into the design world.
“I kind of have a little company going on with Tickle over here,” Dalsimer says. “It’s called Taco Life. It’s this T-shirt company. We are trying to make it a little more, but right now it’s for the homies.”
The quirky name originated when the guys were skateboarding outside of a Taco Bell. Dalsimer and Tickle say their line is inspired by their mutual love for skateboarding and graffiti designs.
In addition to The Merch, both owners have different business endeavors on the side. Cudahy has other clothing ventures, while Hoppin designs a line of Mexican wrestling masks. This offbeat business project got its start when Hoppin and a friend made masks so they would get featured on TV at the Duke University vs. UNC-CH game in the Smith Center.
When he wore it after that, people always wanted to buy it, so he started a business called Fanatic Masks with four friends. He got licensed to use the UNC-Chapel Hill symbol and often enjoys sporting this mask while driving the military jeep around town, advertising both The Merch and Fanatic Masks.
Because The Merch has remained small, the company cuts down on the miscommunication that plagues larger companies. Clients talk directly to Cudahy and Hoppin who then turn around and print their designs.
Cudahy and Hoppin have channeled their love of art and design into a business to serve other local businesses and bands. Few people can say that they profit doing what they love.