As a kid, I would swing open the back-alley door of Dodd Printing & Stationery, in Fort Madison, Iowa and run down the back stairs. The smell of ink, at first overwhelming, then comforting, would dominate the room. Strolling through the print shop, with its seemingly ancient machines, I would find my parents, and perhaps my dog, working to give me everything I ever needed. Some version of this story could be told by my father, his father, his father, and his father. Dodd Printing & Stationery has been in my family since 1877, when Ulysses S. Grant was President of the United States.
On June 30, 2017, Lynn and Neal Dodd (my parents) sold our family business to Matt and Betsy Hayes. This was in some ways a deeply unsettling moment. Our lives and identities are so intertwined with the business. We watched countless parades from the storefront, and gloried in the playroom that was called the box room — literally a room full of empty paper boxes and packing peanuts. We saw my dad nimbly avoid cutting his fingers off in the paper cutter over and over again and interrupted my mom as she poured over the finances.
The story of Dodd Printing is a reminder of the importance of small businesses across America. Small businesses provide stability, purpose, financial capital, and most importantly, social capital. Though the monetary value of Dodd Printing would never compare to its more corporate counterparts, our business afforded my brother and me access to corporate, political, and academic society in Iowa and neighboring states. We both earned the chance to attend prestigious universities, enjoy internship programs, and launch our careers. I live in Chicago and work in the tech industry, and my brother, Luke, is a marine biologist living with his wife and newborn son in Helsinki. We didn’t leave the business and Iowa because we had to. We left because Dodd Printing gave us boundless options, and our chosen dreams pulled us away.
Dodd Printing was small, but the impact of businesses like ours is big. According to 2013 data from the Small Business Administration, small businesses still provide 48% percent of jobs in the United States. There is ample opportunity for government to support small business through progressive approaches to taxation, relief from health care expenses, and programs specifically supporting women and minority owned businesses which, despite improvements in recent years, continue to be underrepresented. Ultimately, Dodd Printing owes its continued success to its customers and the community that embraces them. Many of the other businesses in Southeast Iowa eschewed the corporate printing and office supply-buying experience for the customer service and loyalty of Dodd Printing. By ‘shopping small’ they made a big impact on the economy of Fort Madison.
Dodd Printing & Stationery is still strong and with the Hayes’ investment will continue to bring prosperity for those that pass through those squeaky saloon style doors each day. That American institution gave me so much and I will never forget the dedication and sacrifices that went into building it into what it is today. I’m biased, but Lynn and Neal Dodd are not only the best parents on this planet but they are also titans of industry and should be celebrated as such. Perhaps the next time you find yourself faced with the choice to buy big or small, you’ll remember that our communities are full of people like my parents – small business people who earned the chance to give their children big dreams.