At the corner of cutting edge and vintage sits Rust Belt Love, a unique graphic design enterprise that perfectly marries the art of design and the (almost) lost art of letterpress printing.
Owned and operated by Alyson O’Connor, Rust Belt Love is one of a small group of small local businesses to call the Market Arcade on Main Street in downtown Buffalo home.
The company’s relationship with the Market Arcade (built in 1892 by renowned architects Wicks and Green) began in 2014, when Rust Belt Love was among the first businesses to participate in the Queen City Pop Up program, which gives small businesses a rent-free month in a high-visibility downtown location, just in time for holiday shoppers.
“We gave the Queen City Pop Up program a try back then,” said O’Connor, “but we weren’t intending to open a permanent retail space. We ended up falling in love with it.”
The client mix in the Market Arcade was different then. Four years ago, there were more offices and not-for-profit organizations in occupancy there. Now, the retail businesses are taking over, which hearken back to the Market Arcade’s 19th century roots.
In 2014, Rust Belt Love was also evolving. O’Connor said, “We had been designing wedding and event invitations and selling them online for a few years.” When the shop opened, O’Connor expanded her line and began carrying a few art prints and greeting cards. A big part of the business became the landmark prints based on Buffalo’s architectural gems.
“We saw a better response than we thought we would in having a retail space. The Main Street community was excited to see retail return, and people were excited to see Market Arcade turn back to what it was. The 600 block of Main Street had just re-opened and it was an exciting time to be there,” she said.
If running a retail store wasn’t part of O’Connor’s plan, it quickly became her destiny. She’s an alumna of New York City’s Fashion Institute of Technology, where she earned a degree in illustration. Where some art schools prepare you to work in the fast-paced, frenetic advertising agency environment, “most of my instructors were lifelong freelancers,” said O’Connor, so early on she was exposed to being an entrepreneur. While she did some agency work for a while, that spirit stayed with her. “This was in my wheelhouse all along,” she said.
In addition to its distinctive location, Rust Belt Love brings another unique element to the marketplace: O’Connor’s designs are printed on a 100-year-old letterpress. Where most designers are emailing files to high-speed digital print machines, outputting her work on this classic letterpress gives O’Connor’s work a subtle beauty which adds tactile, in addition to visual, interest.
“My husband and I took our first letterpress classes at WNY Book Arts Center. Letterpress printing starting making a resurgence here about 15 years ago.” They acquired a letterpress and her husband, a self-taught pressman, is now a full-time partner in Rust Belt Love. For now, the press runs in the couple’s home, but eventually, O’Connor plans to move the press to her store so her clients can see how their work is created.
O’Connor credits the Queen City Pop Up program for helping motivate her to grow and develop her business model. “The support we have from the city and the pop-up program was great. These people love supporting small business and creating a sense of community around it,” she said, especially around Main Street.
O’Connor expanded into a larger space in the Market Arcade in September. She said it was an exciting-- albeit scary--transition to sign a lease. “It feels permanent,“ she said. “We were very lucky that we went through the Queen City Pop Up program, where we had support that helped us create a relationship with the people at Sinatra and Company (managers of the Market Arcade). They are very welcoming that we are a business that had never rented space before. There are always growing pains when a business grows, but there are people who really want to see you succeed.”
She’s proud to be back in her hometown, raising a family (she and her husband have two children), and operating a business that blends her talent with her passion for our region. The company name is an homage the region and its broad resurgence.
“We love Buffalo and the Great Lakes area,” O’Connor said. “We’ve traveled all over the world and the best people we’ve ever known are from rustbelt cities. We love the vibe here. People are nicer. We feel very fortunate that we’re able to have a small business here. And we love how people love small business.”