When alumnus Rob Miller moved a century-old printing press into the basement of his Muncie home in 2012, he had no idea it would become a catalyst for his wife’s second career.
“I took it apart and started showing her how to use it,” said Miller, a self-described “tinkerer” who graduated from Ball State in 2008 with a degree in computer science.
“So really, this is his fault,” Kim Miller said with a laugh, gesturing with ink-stained hands at the colorful posters, heavy machinery and boxes of type behind her. The materials make up the couple’s new business, Tribune Showprint, which paradoxically happens to be the country’s oldest continuously operating letterpress shop in America.
As proprietor, Kim runs Tribune Showprint’s presses from inside MadJax, a former downtown Muncie industrial laundry building-turned-makerspace where entrepreneurs and artists gather to network, share resources, and build their businesses. At Tribune Showprint, the Millers print posters for carnivals, festivals, and fairs across the country. “So far, it’s been a pretty great place to call home,” Kim said of the space.
Everything they dreamed of owning
The Millers’ journey into printmaking started soon after Rob brought home the couple’s first press, one he’d found inside the Muncie warehouse where his employer was relocating. “I bought it because I knew Kim liked printmaking in college, and so I thought it might be something she could get into.”
An elementary school teacher at the time, Kim had been on the hunt for a creative outlet to ease the stress of her job. Today, in addition to operating Tribune Showprint’s presses, she maintains a screen-printing business she started in 2014.
When the pair first started tinkering with the press, looking for replacement parts, they discovered a small, close-knit community of printmakers who are active online.
A few years later, when one of those printmakers, the former owner of Tribune Showprint, reached out on Facebook, Kim thought it was for help with a printing job.
“Then we showed up at the place” — a nondescript cinderblock building about 100 miles from Muncie, in Idaville, Indiana — “and were blown away. … All the equipment we’d ever dreamed about owning was there in one place.”
It turned out that what the owners wanted was for the Millers to buy the business — equipment, client orders and all. “We went home, and Rob convinced me it was something we could do,” Kim said.
‘The longest, quickest year’
In mid-May, the Millers finalized their purchase of Tribune Showprint, the name of which preceded their ownership. Then, with the help of “some really, really great” friends, as Kim described, they loaded 20-plus tons of materials — including two presses and hundreds of boxes of type — into vans and trucks for the drive back to Muncie.
Because the move happened during Tribune Showprint’s busy season, Kim had to immediately jump into running the business. “We moved in Memorial Day weekend and had the shop up and running Monday morning,” Kim said, estimating Tribune Showprint has printed approximately 15,000 posters in its first six months of operation.
“It’s been the longest, quickest year of my life,” she joked.
Rob helps his wife in the evenings but commutes to Carmel for his day job as a computer programmer. “This is a hobby for me, but a business for her.”
Great experience for students
It was serendipitous that while the Millers were getting Tribune Showprint off the ground, Rai Peterson and Sarojini Johnson, professors of English and art respectively, needed a community partner for their Book Arts Collaborative, a community press and book bindery operated by Ball State students.
Today, “The Book Arts Collaborative” as it’s known, shares space in MadJax next to Tribune Showprint. On any given day, the camaraderie between the enterprises is on full display.
“Rob and Kim Miller characterize patience, kindness and generosity. Before I even met them, in our initial phone call, they volunteered to loan us presses and to maintain them. But they’ve done so much more as this project has progressed,” Peterson said. “They end up teaching a good deal, continue to rescue presses to add to our shop and they’re always ready to discuss business matters and partner with us to make sound decisions. … It’s been a pleasure working alongside them.”
Kim echoes that admiration for her Ball State neighbors.
“I love having the students here. They get to see someone not much older than them running a business and that’s not an experience they’re not going to get anywhere else.”
One afternoon, she taught one of the students how to put away the wooden type she uses every day. “That’s always overwhelming for me, and not only did he ask to do it, he showed another student and then she stayed late to help. It was great.”
A destination for art lovers
In the near future, the Millers want to turn Tribune Showprint into an attraction for art lovers, giving tours of the place for visitors much like the ones given by Nashville’s Hatch Show Print, one of the oldest, best known historic letterpress shops in the U.S.
And while business is strong, “we’d love to add more carnivals and businesses as clientele, … maybe work with a few musicians,” Rob said.
Kim said the reactions of people who’ve already toured Tribune Showprint give her hope the shop can become regionally, even nationally, known. “A lot of them reminisce about how they haven’t been in a shop like ours since high school. It’s validating, because they tell us how cool they think we are for doing this.”
Since the days when letterpress printing was their basement hobby, the Millers have amassed 11 presses, more than they could have dreamed. Still, they’re hunting for more.
“We’ve got another we’re picking up soon from Milwaukee.” Kim smiled. “We never said we were normal people.”