James Marks is sitting in a black, plastic swivel chair at the end of the counter in his downtown Ypsi storefront company - VGKids. His feet are kicked out. His mop of hair falls over his eyes and every few seconds he pushes it out. He's watching the sky dump six inches of snow on Michigan Avenue, where just two days prior the thermometer broke 50 and coats were being left in the car.
"I wanted to change the world," the 29-year-old unflinchingly says, recalling the only thing he really wanted to do after graduating high school. "And it's still my plan."
It's not very often that changing the world and screen-printing go hand-in-hand. There aren't many instances where printing a shirt, a bumper sticker, or a record sleeve means more than just that. But, for Marks, VGKids is more than a design and screen-printing endeavor, it's more than ink and cloth and vinyl, and it's more than a livelihood. It's the desire to make an impact – even if it's simply with a t-shirt.
So, how does VGKids change the world? It's even simpler than printing a t-shirt – it's working locally for local clients. Hardly a new idea but less common than you think in the growing global marketplace.
"By staying local we're more visible," he says. "We're part of the community here. Downtowns are the future and I like to think having places like (VGKids) help raise the bar, bring the level up a little bit like New York or L.A.
"You're gonna get attention in a place like this," he says. "New York is saturated. But here, it's a big fish in a small pond. I think people take it for granted, living in this area."
And they've gotten attention, both locally and nationally.
In the last year, VGKids' production has increased more than 60 percent. On top of that, Marks has thrown down a hub on the west coast. He didn't go to the bigger markets of San Francisco or L.A., like he could have. Instead, he decided on a little bit smaller of a market and a lot more character – Oakland, California.
"The Oakland shop is interesting," he says, "we want to do the same thing we are doing here, we want to bring it to another level within the community."
VGKids didn't start as VGKids, though. And he didn't start this business in Ypsi.
Marks graduated from Clarkston High School early. It was 1997, he was 17. He waived college and, with an inheritance he received when his mother died, decided to open a vegetarian grocery in Pontiac called the Vegetarian Grocer. Looking back, he smiles: "We didn't have the knowledge or the confidence to run a successful business like now. We were hopelessly unprepared to start a business. We were naïve."
At the time, Marks was entrenched in the independent, underground hardcore punk scene. And the Vegetarian Grocer – or VG as it was known – became one of the focal points of the scene.
"But I believe in naivety," he says. "Nothing great can happen without it." Marks believes the thought process can get too weighted down with "what ifs" and "I don't knows." Thinking too much can destroy passion, ideas, and change. "Sometimes you just gotta do it," he says.
The kids that hung out at the market, Marks included, became known as the VG-kids. They weren't only attracted to the VG because of its alternative fare, but also because of its alternative atmosphere. They started putting on shows in the basement, putting out records of local bands, and, of course, screen printing – all D.I.Y..
The Vegetarian Grocery lasted two years due to mounting debt.
"Reality set in, the reality of trying to run a business that young," Marks says. "But lessons were learned. It was a bizarre little experiment."
Marks moved south, to Ypsi. He saddled up his screen printing presses, bottled the experience, and left the rest in Pontiac --the grocery, the records and shows, and the scene. He opened up his little screen-printing shop on Pearl Street, across from Déjà Vu, and called it VGKids. He married a girl, had a kid, and grew a business. He grew it so quickly that he had to move into a bigger storefront with a bigger production space. But he stayed in Ypsi.
"I think there's a stigma that if someone stays where they grew up, it's because they couldn't get it together to make it on their own," he says. "Leaving becomes a rite of passage, showing that you can cut your teeth in a new town and build a life for yourself out of nothing.
"I had some influential moments when I was 17 and 18 that made me value the concept of putting energy into where you are instead of just heading for greener grass."
Marks lives two blocks from the store. He can walk to both the storefront and the production shop. He can walk to the library, to grab a cup of coffee, or to the park – all the while running into people he knows, people he considers friends. These experiences would be lost if he had to commute.
"Being in a downtown environment, you're a part of something, not just another anonymous car on the freeway," he says. "There's some important human nature at work here. We are much more compassionate to people we know. If we never have to get to know one another, we become afraid of people who aren't 'us.'"
So, VGKids has a spot on Michigan Avenue. Their production facility's a half-mile away, Marks is even closer, and their clients, though some are national, are mostly in Ypsi and Washtenaw County. VG prints flyers and banners for the Ypsilanti Public Library, they do work for Arbor Brewing, EMU and U of M departments and student groups, local coffee houses, parks and recs, and they even did work for the Ann Arbor Film Festival.
But still, most of their business is what Marks has been doing for a good portion of his life, printing t-shirts. If it's not broken, so why should Marks fix it?
He wants to push out further though. Being local is a huge part of what VGKids is all about, but that doesn't mean Marks doesn't have desire to expand. He's always seen VGKids as a national service provider with local roots. They plan to grow, he says, with no intention of losing their local mindset.
A women walks into the store from Ypsilanti's newest blizzard. She stamps her feet.
"Whew," she says. "I made it."
Marks greets her and a worker pulls out a rolled up banner. The two of them unroll a large green sign for Greenhills School, an independent school in Ann Arbor.
"It's beautiful," she says, rolling the banner up and heading out into the snow.
Marks smiles and returns to the black, plastic swivel chair. He extends his feet out in front of him again. He pushes his hair from his eyes.
"As far as the company may pull me in the future, Ypsi will always be my home." he says.
Terry Parris Jr. is a Ferndale-based freelancer, reporter for Hamtramck's newspaper the Citizen, and is Concentrate's Talent Crunch editor.
PhotosJames Marks at VG Kids production facility-Ypsilanti
Storefront of VG Kids-Ypsilanti
Inside VG Kids- Ypsilanti
Tee Shirts on Display at VG Kids-Ypsilanti
All Photos by Dave Lewinski
Dave Lewinski is Concentrate's Managing Photographer