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Choosing to Stay: Vineyard Businesses Want to Grow, But Not Too Much

Jenni Bick never thought her bookbinding business would require a two-story building and 16 employees. But she's found Martha's Vineyard to be a perfect location.

At Jenni Bick Bookbinding in Vineyard Haven, Juliette Bittner and Lauren Clark are sewing books together, punching holes through the leather covers and sticking pages in. The papers are all different colors and textures. Some are lined, others are printed.

"They have a variance of pages that you can write on and draw on and glue things into," said Bittner, who has worked here since she moved to the island five years ago.

Founder and co-owner Jenni Bick uses an embossing machine to personalize a book.

"It’s very pleasurable (work)," she said. "You punch the holes ahead of time, to line up with the paper pages, and then you just pull the string through and it comes out this really beautiful product."

Jenni Bick never expected all this. She's been manufacturing and selling hand-made notebooks on island for 23 years. But she thought the business would stay small.

"Well, I started making handmade books literally on my kitchen table," she said.

Bick owned an independent bookstore in Washington DC, 25 years ago with her husband, Robbie. One of the things they sold there was her own, hand-made, one-of-a-kind books. When she moved to the Vineyard, she brought her home-business with her.

"I thought that when we moved here, being a part of Martha’s Vineyard business would be a part of our marketing push," she said. "Turns out that it really wasn’t. Because we’re online, we’re in the whole world. Well, we grew. The kitchen table quickly moved out to the garage."

Her books look like pieces of art, and they sell from somewhere around $20 up to about $800. And while she doesn't rely on the Martha's Vineyard brand name for sales, she benefits from its available workforce.

"It’s so rewarding and terrifying that we are responsible for the livelihoods of these sixteen people who come in every day and give us their best, creatively and energetically," she said. "And it’s very rewarding that we can employ people on the Vineyard doing something which is not a seasonal, vacation-based business."

Juliette Bittner is one of 16 employees at Jenni Bick Book Binding, where she works in the art department.

Most of the manufacturing on Martha's Vineyard is done by artists and skilled craft people. There's not a lot of industry here. But the island has metal sculptors who make useful things like weather vanes and staircases. There are painters and sculptors, bread bakers and chocolate makers. Some small businesses rely on the Vineyard's well-known brand and the tourist base. Bick said the Internet has allowed her to escape the seasonal economy.

"We have individual consumers who are buying a single beautiful notebook for themselves, and we also have large groups that are ordering 100 at a time with their logo or their message printed on it," she said. "Those larger orders up to 100 or a 1000 at a time are definitely what keep the gears turning here, they're our bread and butter."

Co-owner Robbie Bick said if the business is to grow any bigger, they'd need to construct a new building or move off island. That's not the goal. The couple takes pride in the fact that something they built generates local jobs.

"Our current starting salary, the base salary, would be double minimum wage," he said. "We made a philosophic choice a long time ago, that we didn’t want to be just a warehouse."

"If you make something beautiful, if you’re trying to make the world more beautiful, you’ve got to start at home."

Across Martha's Vineyard, at kitchen tables and office desks, a small cadre of people are making beautiful things every day—pieces of beaded jewelry.

Giocchina Viaggio is one of about 10 people making jewelry for Edgartown jewelry maker Stefanie Wolf Designs. The part-time jewelry makers use style sheets based on Wolf's designs to guide them as they assemble the jewelry.

Jamie O'Gorman is the business's production manager. The company has a storefront, but it thrives mostly on its national wholesale business.

Jamie O'Gorman is the production manager at Stephanie Wolf Designs in Edgartown. The manufacturing business provides part-time, year-round jobs for a network of people who make the jewelry.

"Last year we made about 7,000 pieces of jewelry," she said, "bit by bit, just coming in week by week."

Because of the Vineyard's seasonal nature, O'Gorman said it's difficult to find year-round work. A typical jewelry maker gets paid by the piece and puts in about 10 hours a week—more if they want, and they can work all year.

"That’s why I think that it’s really important to keep our production here on the island," O'Gorman said. "We need year-round jobs, so we’re doing a little bit to help with that."

That makes owner Stefanie Wolf happy, too.

"I like being able to employ people, I know it’s sometimes hard to find a good job here," she said. "And I feel really blessed to have the amazing staff that I have. I like having my jewelry made here on the island, and I think it’s good for everybody"

Wolf moved to the Vineyard full-time six years ago, and, like Jenni Bick, she started off selling her work at artisan shows and local fairs and markets.

"For us it would be really easy, it might in fact be easier, to have the jewelry produced in New York, or even in China," she said. "I’ve had a lot of offers from people who want to help me produce overseas, or in upstate New York, there’s a company that will help produce high quantities of jewelry. "

Wolf said she's not interested in that. She also doesn't have a desire to see how big she can get.

"I’m looking to fill a few more positions," she said, "but I want to keep the business fairly small. I don’t think I want to turn ourselves into a factory, or get so big that we do need to produce overseas."

Wolf likes the size the business is now. And besides that, the Vineyard inspires her work. When customers are told about the special place where it was made, she said it makes a piece even more precious. To have it made overseas just wouldn't be the same.