In a quiet corner of Silicon Valley you can find an original Heidelberg press, a marvel from the heyday of mechanical engineering, humming along daily to produce the sort of embossed, perforated and hot-foil-stamped stationery a Kinkos employee could only dream of.
"When I say craftsmen, I'm not kidding," said Cora Simon of the three longtime press operators at Simon Printing, which moved to Mountain View's Mora Drive 28 years ago. "They make the impossible possible."
The shop has found success in the high-quality printing niche as the printing industry declines. Nevertheless, it may be forced to close soon by unusual circumstances.
Simon Printing is one of 17 businesses on Mora Drive that have to close or relocate by April because of an agreement made 25 years ago to allow housing development on Mora Drive in 2012. The City Council approved a gatekeeper request Dec. 13 to allow the planning process to begin for a five-acre housing project there, and several offers have already been made on the property by developers.
The Simons say they can't afford to move to a new space within four months, saying the costs of moving their equipment and interrupting business would be "an overwhelming hardship."
"If we are forced to move with the economy the way it is right now, we'd have to close the doors and lock up," said Vernon Simon, who founded Simon Printing in 1960 in Menlo Park (his son Scott Simon now owns it). "We could not afford to make the move, even if we could find a place at a halfway decent price. The cost of moving, it just doesn't work for us."
"If times weren't so bad, this wouldn't have happened," said Vernon's wife Cora. "There was nothing we could do."
At the Dec.13 meeting the Mora Drive broker, Marty Chiechi of Grubb & Ellis, asked the council to allow businesses on Mora Drive to stay for 18 months, saying that's how long it would take to have a housing project designed and permitted anyway. The Simons say that would at least give them a fighting chance if the economy improves.
The request for more time was met with strong reactions that split the council down the middle.
"It seems to me if I saw a deadline date where this zoning would change I would have looked at a new location," said council member Tom Means while questioning Vernon Simon during the Dec. 13 meeting. Means, a San Jose State University economics professor, later added, "It's finals week at my school. I'm hearing all kinds of procrastination stories."
Council member Margaret Abe-Koga had a similar view. "I don't actually support 18 months, quite frankly, given that they've had 25 years," she said.
Council member Ronit Bryant was on the fence, saying "I would be inclined to give the businesses time to wind down, but on the other hand, there have been 25 years so I'm still somewhat open on this one."
Mayor Jac Siegel and council member Laura Macias were the most sympathetic.
"To give more time here I don't think anybody is losing anything," Siegel said. "I don't see the downside, I really don't."
"We talk a lot about supporting small business and here we have Mora Drive," Macias said. "It just seems to me that perhaps we don't need to rush into building yet another apartment complex. If we have some small businesses there maybe we should allow those small businesses to continue to have employees and to live their lives. I'm willing to hold off on Mora Drive. It's not like we can't find anywhere else to build apartments."
The council will vote early next year on whether Simon Printing and the other businesses will be given more time.
An irreplaceable business
When the land Simon Printing sits on becomes housing, it is unlikely to ever see industrial uses again. Similarly, if Simon Printing is forced to close, it is unlikely that such a business would ever be re-created. It was built on the money the business made when the printing business was booming. Vernon Simon remembers when the printing industry was one of the largest industries in the area.
"The offset presses in the back are really high end machines, multi-million dollar machines," Vernon Simon said. "We bought those when the economy was quite good. If we didn't have them paid for we could never stay in business."
The operation also runs a pair of "Original Heidelberg" presses, marvels of early 1900s mechanical engineering and one of the most versatile presses ever built, also known as "the Prince of Presses." It was with a Heidelberg that pressman Kim Reeves was printing some business cards on Tuesday made from thick paper stamped with a special die that left an imprint on the card. The machine can be configured almost infinitely, doing everything from stamping gold foil onto paper to cutting it in any shape with a die.
Many of the jobs Simon Printing gets call for an experienced hand. One of press operators, Mark Stovall, has been with Simon Printing 22 years.
Vernon Simon can recall the large printing operations that slowly went out of business in recent years, operations with hundreds of employees and huge presses. "That's just the nature of the industry," he said.
"We have a specialty niche," he said. "There's nobody else in Mountain View that can do what we can."
Vernon said the business has run almost entirely on word of mouth and has never had a sales person. "There is a real demand for nice quality, corporate identity printing," Vernon said. Simon Printing has produced business cards from high-tech companies to brochures for wineries.
Vernon is now 82 and has long since retired from the helm, giving the business over to his 41-year-old son Scott, who has a degree in printing management and has brought the company into the digital age. "His dream is to continue the family business with the same integrity it was built on," Vernon said.
But Vernon still comes into work every day, making deliveries and helping in any way he can "without taking a dime." Similarly, his wife runs the front office without pay.
"We are trying anything and everything we can think of to keep our business going," Vernon said. "We don't want our son and his family to be put out of work."