Fireball Printing: Renovating Upward in East Kensington
If you are an artist, designer, or small business owner in Philly, you’ve probably heard of Fireball Printing. This small business specializes in custom print jobs of all kinds: from postcards and stickers to large-format projects and archival art prints. Co-owners and husband-and-wife duo Paul Yavarone and Catherine Dentino have a mission to provide the makers of Philly with great printing services that won’t break the bank, or your patience (the name Fireball is a reference to how quickly they can turn around orders).
Fireball’s renovated warehouse space in East Kensington has a unique feel, sort of an Ouija-board-meets-control-room aesthetic. The design reflects their mission: a little bit gritty, and a lot cutting edge. The front desk area is full of sunlight, plants, and a long wooden counter etched with a skull, tiger, and a pair of ice cream cones. The room is full of exposed ceilings and salvaged oddities, but walk back into the huge production space, and it’s clear how Fireball can print custom orders so efficiently. The workspace is humming with top-of-the-line equipment and several employees, all surrounded by racks of paper stock ready to turn into gorgeous printed material.
In the Beginning
Ask Paul and Catherine when Fireball Printing came into existence, and a solid date becomes hard to pin down. Paul first started printing show flyers in the early 2000s, using his experience working in print shops to support friends and fellow artists. “First I had a copy machine in the dining room of a house I lived in on Front St. I just started printing posters for the Barbary and bars and DJs. My idea, in the beginning, was to do prints for my friends who were artists because I was starting all these art events,” Paul says.
For years, Paul had been producing a series of art events called ‘BIG ART SHOW.’ These music-and-art shows traveled throughout the eastern US, and Paul hosted monthly events in Brooklyn, Baltimore, Philly, and Asbury Park. He helped the participating artists make affordable prints of their work to sell at the shows, and became the go-to guy for printing. Pretty soon, venues were coming to him directly for print jobs, and Paul began to spend more of his time filling orders. What started as a way to support his friends suddenly looked like it could be a sustainable business (with early names like ‘I Print Fish’ and ‘Repro-Rama’).
Setting up Shop
In 2008, Catherine came on the scene and quickly became a partner in the new small business. Her organizational expertise added some method to the madness, even as she was simultaneously pursuing a Master of Arts and Cultural Management from Pratt.
The couple’s vision was to fill the void between larger offset printing companies, which are expensive and can take time, and the quicker, DIY copy machine aesthetic that many artists were using at the time. They wanted to be able to offer the artists they knew higher quality art prints that were still accessible.
In the flux of creating a new business, the couple took on a lot of challenges. Catherine says, “For a long time the problem wasn’t finding business, it was keeping up. It took us a long time to learn how to scale. We would work like 12-hour days and not really pay ourselves. One of the hardest parts of starting your own business is getting it to the point where it’s financially stable.”
“Originally, I would get the orders, I would print the jobs, finish them, pack them up, and the second half of the day I would deliver them,” remembers Paul.
During this time, Fireball rented space from The Loom at Richmond Mills, a large multi-purpose loft space in Port Richmond. It was there that the business really got its legs, with the addition of bigger printers, organizational processes, and new employees. The couple opened an art gallery in the back of their shop and continued their love of showcasing local artists and hosting friends. It felt exciting to be making their own way, says Paul. Even with the challenges, Catherine says, “It still felt better than working for somebody. It felt like we had control over our lives.”
Finding a Community in East Kensington
In 2010, Paul and Catherine began looking for their first home and called on friend and Solo agent Jeff Carpineta. Jeff encouraged Paul and Catherine to consider investing in East Kensington and got them excited about the energy of the neighborhood. Jeff has deep roots in East Kensington, owning a home there, sitting on the board of the Civic Association, and founding the Kensington Food Co-op grocery store, just 2 doors down from Fireball. A 5th generation Philadelphian, a photographer, and a musician, Jeff has made it his mission to help artists and new businesses find their place. He’s also opened the doors for nearby Little Baby’s, Pizza Brain, Threshold Wellness, and Jerry’s on Front.
“Artists and grassroots start-ups aren’t always the most important clients for some real estate agents, he says, ‘but they are part of the soul of a community, helping them is a joy.”
With Jeff’s help, Paul and Catherine eventually found their home on Dauphin St in East Kensington. During their home inspection, Catherine remembers, Jeff got down on the dirt floor and squeezed into a tiny crawl space in the basement, just to check it out for them. “There were all these signs that he wasn’t just an ordinary realtor,” says Paul.
At the time when Paul and Catherine were looking for their home, there were over 500 pieces of vacant land in East Kensington. They have witnessed a lot of changes in the neighborhood in the last few years. The long-time residents of the neighborhood, mixed with new businesses and residents make for a dynamic community that the couple are happy to call home. Not only does their business keep growing, but their family has as well- they now have a toddler, Henry, who attends a local preschool near their home.
A Place of One’s Own
By 2015, it became apparent that Fireball Printing was ready for its own building. Jeff took them to look at a bunch of different places, including some real fixer-uppers: an abandoned church with falling plaster and icicles lining the interior walls, and a warehouse listed with “roof damage” when actually there was no roof at all. Eventually, they found the perfect fit: an old table pad company on Coral St, just a few minutes’ walk from their home. Paul and Catherine were excited at the prospect of keeping it local in East Kensington.
But first, this new space needed a lot of work. The warehouse was filled with stacks of table pads and cutting machines from the 1920s, weighing several tons. Looking beyond the old machinery, Paul and Catherine envisioned a 2nd-floor office and a co-working space. But their biggest desire was to make a light, airy workplace their employees could enjoy coming to each day. Paul wanted to avoid the “fluorescently-lit dungeons” of the printshops he experienced earlier in his career.
As in any renovation project, securing financing can present challenges. Some local smaller banks, Port Richmond Savings, and PIDC, were willing to take a chance on Fireball and allowed them to move forward with the renovations in 2018. Paul and Catherine really wanted to invest in quality for their new space, and Jeff recommended Solo client Red Oak Development. At Red Oak, Ken Schapira and Anthony Giacobbe were willing to work with them for their unique needs and added many signature custom touches.
Ken was a great partner and problem-solved for Fireball throughout the process. Catherine remembers the day their long-awaited Indigo printer arrived, the biggest most expensive printer on the market. “When we first got that giant Indigo press, when they first showed up, we realized that the door to the production room was too short. It was a crisis. There are forklifts and trucks, and we’d been trying to get this press for years. Paul called Ken, and he said “Ok, I’ll be right there.” within an hour he and his guys had the doorframe out, they cut a chunk of drywall out, and we got the machine in. And then they put it back. It was amazing.”
The group effort paid off, and Fireball moved into their new home late last year. The beautiful new space will be a great place for the business to grow, and–they hope– a place for the community to gather. It’s inspiring to see how what once was a copy machine in a living room has grown to include a warehouse renovation and investment in the local economy. Solo has been proud to partner with Paul and Catherine in their journey, and we can’t wait to see what the future holds.