It started because everything else stopped.
That’s how Kevin Carle, co-owner of Calimucho Screen Printing, explains the motivation behind the launch of last year’s Together We Are Stronger fundraising campaign, an eight-month t-shirt promotion that raised more than $75,000 for local small businesses, nonprofits, and independent artists. The program was so successful that Carle and Calimucho co-owner, Raul Morales, are preparing to launch a second annual version this month.
“We came in [to work] that Friday [in March 2020] before the shutdown, and we had about four jobs to run that were all event-oriented,” explains Carle, “and we had a choice to print, knowing that those events weren’t going to happen and those people were going to be sitting on stuff, or call our customers and see what they wanted to do. And they all canceled their jobs.”
The ramifications of the COVID-19 pandemic hit Calimucho quickly. In the span of five hours that Friday afternoon, the screen printing company’s entire job slate disappeared. While grocery stores were running out of toilet paper and dine-in restaurants were scrambling to convert themselves to takeout only, the guys at Calimucho, like most small business owners during the early days of the pandemic, were fearing for their future.
“[We were] just wondering what was next,” says Morales. “It was real really fast. We thought we were going to be another one of the businesses to fall by the wayside.”
It was only three years ago that the two friends and business partners decided to open a professional workshop on the corner of 15th and Centre Street after running the screen printing business out of their homes for 14 years. The duo had already developed a positive reputation in the community, establishing themselves within the local indie music, art, and skateboarding scenes to become the new go-to business for custom-printed t-shirts and posters. They didn’t want to see all that hard work and goodwill go to waste.
Since printing services are considered an essential business, Calimucho was able to stay open, even though the last thing people were doing at this moment was ordering custom t-shirts in bulk. For some reason, the guys needed to prove why a screen printing service would be considered essential during a pandemic. And how could they turn that importance into revenue to save their business?
As fate would have it, the answer would come via an email.
The Roman philosopher Seneca once said, “Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.” For the Calimucho guys, luck arrived in the form of a group email with other screen printers.
“We were all on a group email that was pretty active at that time,” explains Carle, 42, “and one of the shops that is very forward-thinking wrote the whole group and said, ‘Hey, we started this community store where we’re giving $10 for each shirt [sold]. Nobody’s putting up the money; we’re just giving money.’ And they said, ‘I highly suggest you do it.’ Then another shop did it from that group, and I was like, ‘Hey, how’d that go? I think we’re going to do it.’ And they’re like, ‘Do it now.’”
The idea was simple. Calimucho would produce custom-designed t-shirts for local small businesses, nonprofits, and artists and sell them online for a limited time. Each shirt would sell for $25, with $10 going to the respective entity for each shirt sold. The entity would help promote their shirt the best way possible, while Calimucho would handle the materials, printing, fulfillment, and shipping costs. The rest was profit.
“It started as COVID relief. The [initial idea] was to reach out to people closest to us who were hurting, too. Artist friends and other small business owners,” explains Carle.
“And musicians,” adds Morales, 43.
“When you run a business like ours, you become friends with a lot of other businesses, and a lot of them are bars, restaurants, bands, and events,” continues Carle. “They all lost at the same time. So, it was like, how can we do this together?”
The first people they approached were Todd Congelliere and Isaac Thotz, musicians and co-owners of The Sardine, the music club and bar that was shut down immediately at the start of the pandemic and only recently reopened for outdoor dining. (See San Pedro Today, March 2020 cover story.)
“They’re one of the first because they’re near and dear to us,” says Carle, a fellow musician. “We did a shirt that was a play on one of Todd’s old pro skateboard decks.”
Carle and Morales went to the shop that first weekend in quarantine and put together a list of people on their whiteboard that they thought needed help, including artists they knew were also out of work. They sent an email to that list, explaining the details and calling the campaign Together We Are Stronger to show solidarity with San Pedro’s small business community, which has noticeably struggled throughout the coronavirus pandemic.
“We created an email to explain what we were doing, that we were going to sell shirts for $25,” remembers Carle. “They cost about $3 and some change [for us] to buy, and cost about $3 to $4 to ship. We’ll give you guys $10 for every shirt sold. We’ll keep the rest, which was like about six bucks.”
The response was immediate and positive.
“People really liked the idea,” says Morales. “The people that got it quickly were on board.”
The initial launch began with six original t-shirt designs. By the time the campaign ended in November, they had produced more than one hundred.
FINDING THE FORMULA
The Together We Are Stronger online store launched on April 1, 2020 and was an immediate hit. A poster designed by artist Mean Machine featuring the campaign’s first logo was suddenly plastered all over town and on social media. The more people asked about it, the more awareness was being raised.
By mid-May, the shop was slammed. The duo hired two part-time workers while they were busy learning new skills, like how to create and run an online store and develop a fulfillment system, all on the fly. Both features have become staples of their business today.
“May is when it was like, whoa, this is crazy,” remembers Carle. When we launched the store, we thought that maybe we’d sell $10,000 worth of shirts total sold, at most. And within the first week, we had sold like $20,000 worth of shirts or something. It was nuts.”
Local businesses like Colossus Bread, Hollywood Dolls Beauty Salon, and The Sardine, and nonprofits like the San Pedro Heritage Museum, San Pedro Meals on Wheels, Marine Mammal Care Center, and the Cabrillo Marine Aquarium gift shop all got in on the action and had shirts produced.
“I have been a Calimucho fan from the beginning, staying connected with everything they were printing on social media,” says Angela Romero, founder of the San Pedro Heritage Museum and a San Pedro Today contributor. “When they came out with the Together We Are Stronger campaign, I thought it was such a cool community-minded project. A win-win for them and for artists. When I saw that they opened it up to nonprofits, I wanted to get involved just to be a part of such a positive collective.”
According to Romero, her nonprofit earned “a couple hundred dollars” off their shirt, which featured the old Lochmann Farms Drive-In Dairy logo.
While the campaign’s initial success was a welcome surprise, things were about to get even crazier. By the end of May, the country’s social climate had changed. While the coronavirus pandemic was still ravaging the country and L.A. County was still under quarantine, George Floyd’s killing on May 25, 2020, in Minneapolis, Minnesota, while in police custody, sparked a summer of social unrest, protests, and riots. Soon, the Together We Are Stronger tagline was being adopted by independent artists who began designing t-shirts for various social causes and nonprofit organizations, including Doctors Without Borders and Black Lives Matter.
“That’s when Together We Are Stronger turned into something else. That’s when it wasn’t just COVID relief; it was social causes now,” remembers Carle.
“We were getting approached by artists who had other organizations they wanted us to support, aside from the money going to them or a business,” adds Morales.
PRINT & DESTROY
As summer turned into fall, and with no end to the pandemic in sight, the guys at Calimucho decided they needed a break. They concluded the first Together We Are Stronger campaign as one does in the age of COVID: with a livestream online event.
“We missed live printing, for one, where we like to go out in public and live print at events,” explains Carle. “That aspect of our business that we loved doing was taken away. So, one day, we’re sitting around having beers after work, our printer Anthony was like, ‘Hey, why don’t we do a livestream, live screen printing?’ Kind of like a joke.”
That joke turned into Print and Destroy, a livestream event over Twitch and Zoom that featured more than 50 segments, including live screen printing, Claymation, as well as pre-recorded music performances by local bands, like punk rock legend Mike Watt and his Secondmen.
“It was beautiful. A month leading up to that, we set up recording gear [in the shop] and recorded live sets of bands,” says Morales, adding that they were extra cautious and followed all COVID safety protocols while recording.
Print and Destroy aired November 13, 2020, on the company’s third anniversary. That week, they were able to raise $15,000 in donations for local artists.
“It was ambitious of us. We had never done anything like that,” says Morales. “Big thanks to Rob Crawford and April Jones, who helped out a lot. Tito, as well.”
“We did it like old school telethon style. People weren’t able to call in, but we had a live host. All the videos were pre-recorded content,” explains Carle.
The event concluded the first Together We Are Stronger campaign, raising more than $75,000 for local small businesses, nonprofits, and independent artists.
A year later, and 2021 looks a lot different than 2020, especially for Calimucho. While vaccinations are ramping up and hopes are high that the end of the pandemic is near, San Pedro’s small businesses, as well as its nonprofits and local artists, are still hurting. Knowing how much the first campaign helped their friends and others in the community, it was a no-brainer for the Calimucho duo to bring back a new edition of Together We Are Stronger for 2021.
This year’s campaign, which will again launch online on April 1 at calimucho.printavo.com/merch/together-we-are-stronger-2021/, will feature custom-designed t-shirts, as well as posters and merchandise. The new logo for 2021, featured on this month’s cover, was designed by artist Boss Dog. The online store’s content is constantly changing since t-shirts are only sold for a limited time, so it’s worth visiting often. At this month’s launch, organizations supported include Mental Health America of Los Angeles and Save Music In Chinatown. The list will certainly grow larger as the year progresses. And for those who missed out on last year’s shirts, they’re offering a Mystery Tote bag that includes three overstocked t-shirts from 2020 and a tote for $25.
Before the pandemic, Calimucho was just a screen printing company. Today, in addition to t-shirt and poster orders, they’re running multiple online stores and doing fulfillment, something they never thought they’d add to their list of services.
“Something we talked about for years that we could never wrap our head around was how do we make screen printing part of the community? How do we make it give back?” says Carle. “I feel really lucky that it presented itself, that that’s how we do it now. Now we know how to give back to the community. We like to give back. So, if we can do that with people, let’s keep doing that.”
He adds, “We have our community here in San Pedro that we’re very proud to be a part of, but the screen printing community is big and giving, and that really showed itself.” spt
You can find all the Together We Are Stronger merchandise at:
calimucho.printavo.com/merch/together-we-are-stronger-2021/. Follow the campaign on Instagram @togetherwearestronger2021.