On the outskirts of downtown Kitchener, in the back recesses of a converted industrial building that’s now home to a handful of tech start-ups and one killer coffee shop, Curt Crossman and Joe Zimmer of Civilian Screen Printing are busy doing their part to uplift a community – one t-shirt at a time. Meanwhile, across our region in a cozy studio space tucked behind storefronts somewhere in downtown Guelph, Graeme Deroux of Alpine Print Company is doing much the same. 

Three industrious spirits repping two local businesses with one shared goal: to make something good out of all the bad this pandemic has brought about. Aiming to shine some light in the darkness. 

‘What we’re trying to do here is much more than sell a bunch of merch,’ remarks Curt, Founder & CEO of Civilian, as he spreads
an ample dollop of jet black ink onto one of several screens mounted to a rotating screen- printing machine. ‘It’s about engaging the community. Keeping local small businesses in folks’ minds. And helping offset the massive financial blow brought about by this global pandemic – even if by only a little.’ 

I watch as Curt lifts the screen, revealing a coral t-shirt embellished with a black Four All Ice Cream logo. Underneath the brand a pithy tagline reads: ‘Stay Home. Eat Ice Cream.’ Sound advice, I think to myself. Across the studio, Curt’s Civilian colleague, Joe Zimmer, 

Curt, Civilian Screen Printing

packs completed tees into cardboard boxes– ready to be shipped. I recognize many of the logos on the shirts as Joe arranges them: Abel’s on Queen. Death Valley’s Little Brother. Berlin Tattoo. Pin Up Arcade Bar. Short Finger Brewing. A pang of sadness overcomes me as I silently recall visits to many of these favourite regional destinations. I spot a slick Arabella Park Beer Bar-emblazoned piece that I decide I’ll cop when I get to my computer. At – the online home of Civilian’s KW Awesome Small Business Initiative. 

The strategy is simple enough. Civilian invites local businesses to collaborate with them by submitting a t-shirt design (with help, if need be, by Kitchener’s Him & Her creative firm). Civilian then produces and posts online the freshly-printed tee. All shirts cost twenty-five bucks, with half of the proceeds going directly to the business featured. And local delivery – done by the Civilian crew – is only three dollars (or free with orders over seventy five bucks). 

‘The response has been incredible,’ Curt tells me. ‘In under two months, we’ve printed
over fifteen hundred tees and raised almost twenty thousand dollars for local businesses, as well as an additional sixteen hundred for the Foodbank of Waterloo Region.’ Fantastic. ‘And the initiative’s success has allowed us to re-hire a full-time position after initial layoffs.’ Even better. Curt adds: ‘When this pandemic hit, our revenues plummeted upwards of eighty percent. The KW Awesome Small Business Initiative is allowing us to keep the lights on – while helping others do the same.’ 

It’s a brilliant concept, really. And one that,at first glance, seems uniquely fitted to Kitchener – a city where industry, technology, and community-mindedness seem to meld effortlessly at every turn. And yet, just down highway seven in the Royal City, a project that shares remarkable similarities with Civilian’s Small Business Initiative has been heating up social media channels. A couple weeks after my visit to Civilian, I find myself at Graeme Deroux’s Alpine Print Company to find out more. 

Graeme, Alpine Print Company

The morning I arrive at Graeme’s shop, downtown Guelph seems especially empty. A sign of the times,
to be sure. I locate Alpine’s entrance off a walkway between closed Wyndham Street shops and strike
up a conversation with the young entrepreneur. ‘We made an effort to address this new state of affairs
in March, as soon as we saw what was happening,’ Graeme tells me. ‘We set up a pre-order webstore featuring tees designed by local artists, illustrators, and designers – including Gillian Wilson, Blake Stevenson, Robert Peterson, and a bunch more awesome talent.’ (Alpine’s Instagram account displays the killer merch.) He continues: ‘Folks were given until late April to order a tee for twenty-five bucks, with ten dollars from each sale directed to a local business of the customer’s choosing.’ Alpine’s project, then, ended up helping three core groups: the artists who designed the tees, those small businesses who received money from each sale, and Graeme’s studio too. 

‘We ended up selling five hundred and thirty two tees,’ Graeme notes as he mounts a screen into Alpine’s large rotating screen-printing machine that takes up most of the real estate in the small studio. ‘Literally hundreds more than I expected.’ I watch as Graeme lowers the screen onto a fresh maroon t-shirt, spreads gold ink over the fine mesh with a dedicated squeegee, and lifts the screen back up. Emblazoned on the tee: ‘Support Local.’ A tagline – or battle cry – that’s more important now than ever. And something Curt and Joe and Graeme are living by – one t-shirt at a time.