Beginning in 1976, if you were a penniless poet in New Paltz who wanted some posters to put up around town to publicize your upcoming reading, or a small environmental organization in Gardiner or Stone Ridge who needed envelopes with your logo to do a year-end fundraising appeal, you knew where to go to get the best deal: Canal Press in Rosendale. Over his 43 years in business, owner Bob Freeston has always had a reputation for being supportive of local artists and not-for-profit endeavors. If there was a way to make your printing dreams come true at a price you could scrape together, Bob was the guy to make it happen. While the presses ran, you could hang out at the shop, talk politics and philosophy and how the world might be made a better place.
But that 43-year run is finally coming to an end. Canal Press will soon be closing its doors at 451 Main Street forever; a lot of the printing machinery and other accumulated remnants of four-plus decades of doing business have already been moved out the door. For most of those decades, the owner was also the only employee at Canal Press. “At its height, I had one part-time person,” he recalls. “My model for the business was to work nine-and-a-half hours a day and take seven weeks off a year.” Knowing that February and July were his slowest months, each January and June Freeston would remind his regular clients to get their printing needs fulfilled before he shut down for the better part of a month. He never started a family or owned pets, so he remained free to explore the world. “I did what I wanted to do,” he says, with the air of a man at peace with his own choices. “I like travel.”
Globetrotting won’t be a focus of his retirement, however. At age 75, he wants to devote his remaining years to the cause closest to his heart: promoting alternative energy technologies. For a long time now, Canal Press has only been open in the afternoons, so that Freeston could spend most of his hours – even when he’s on the premises – educating himself and others about a greener future. He was the co-founder of the New York Solar Energy Society and remains actively involved in spreading knowledge about emerging technologies for photovoltaics, wind turbines, energy storage and related topics. The organization works closely with architects and builders, setting up booths at industry fairs and conducting webinars. “Net zero construction is a priority,” Freeston says.
Times and technologies are changing, he knows, and the market for single-color or two-color offset printing has been shrinking for years. Many longtime Canal Press clients have taken their business elsewhere in search of four-color options. “I just do it to pay the bills,” he says. “The presses are 40 years old. The new stuff works for five or six years, if you’re lucky. I never bothered to learn the new technology.” There’s no bitterness in his voice; he has clearly found his business niche, worked it long enough to see the world and live on his own terms; he is now ready to pass on what remains of his client base to a younger, more competitive enterprise that can provide a broader range of services.
The entity taking the reins – although not the location – is Cornerstone Services, Inc., a New Paltz-based direct mail company, founded by a longtime customer of Canal Press, Sean Griffin. “He goes way back,” says Freeston. “I’m giving him my contacts, my customer base. A letter already went out introducing him. In return I’m getting a lot of help with the transition.” Griffin’s employees show up as needed to move heavy machinery out of the print shop’s basement, and he’s buying up much of the leftover Canal Press paper stock.
A Dutchess County native, Griffin started an “accidental career” in the financial sector, finding success in his involvement in a startup company founded by some of his former Union College fraternity brothers; he also worked for a while for Goldman Sachs. But he wanted to create his own business, and in 1998 opened Cornerstone Services in Wallkill as a means of “packing my parachute.” Not much happened with it for a while, he says; but “I started knocking on printers’ doors,” and developed a friendship with Bob Freeston that also served as his apprenticeship in the printing trade. “I instantly liked him when I met him. He’s very genuine, very consistent in how he conducts himself…Canal Press was one of the very few phone numbers I memorized early on, because I called him so often to talk over conceptual things. I learned a lot from him.”
Not only did Freeston offer sage advice, but he also sold Cornerstone some secondhand printing equipment, including a standing paper jogger that Griffin says they “still use every week.” When business gradually started picking up for Cornerstone, Griffin would job out some of his overflow to Canal Press because “I knew he did a good job and I could trust him.”
Printing is only one facet of the services that Cornerstone offers, and much of its work involves mailings for not-for-profits, municipalities and public agencies, so there’s already considerable synergy between the two businesses’ constituencies. “This is very natural,” Griffin says of the buyout. “Bob and I have been talking about this for two or three years. It seemed like a good fit. The Venn diagrams overlap with our customers…Bob wants to make sure the people for whom he’s working are not left untethered.”
Where those longtime Canal Press clients choose to take their future business is up to them, of course. But Griffin believes that the good vibes that Freeston generated in Rosendale and beyond will continue to reverberate. “It’s people like Bob who build communities,” he says. “He’s the definition of a solid citizen. Everyone is better in his presence.”