Jessica Leigh Hester is a former senior associate editor at CityLab, covering environment and culture. Her work also appears in the New Yorker, The Atlantic, New York Times, Modern Farmer, Village Voice, Slate, BBC, NPR, and other outlets.
J.C. Casey treats his store like a pub.
“Hey,” a guy calls out, spreading his thumb away from an index finger. “How much for a stamp about this big?”
J.C. Casey doesn’t miss a beat. He rattles off dimensions and prices; 3”x3” is $64, 4”x4” fetches $87. “Any size and shape you want,” he adds. He recites preferred resolution and file formats. He fields the question a lot.
Nearly every day, Casey presses gummy sheets of rubber into Bakelite molds to fashion custom designs. His narrow store, Casey Rubber Stamps, opened in New York City’s East Village around 13 years ago. Before that, he worked on the west side.
The shop is a jumble of rubber scraps, cardboard boxes, and shelves upon shelves of stamps crafted from pictures in old books or drawn from lead type blocks. Pre-made designs are cheaper, topping out around $9, and Casey’s lost track of how many are jammed into the skinny shop. “My style is old-fashioned,” he says. “Nothing cutesy. We might be cool, but we’re not cute.” There are insects and anatomical sketches, plus trippy riffs on Alice in Wonderland. Any more than a handful of patrons, and they’ve got to squeeze sideways to fit themselves in.
Casey has caterpillar eyebrows and bushy mutton chops scrambling halfway to his chin. When I visited, he pulled his white hair back into a ponytail, though some strands escaped, and tucked reading glasses into the neck of a loose, striped t-shirt. Like the rakish owner of a perfectly worn-in dive bar, it’s hard to imagine the joint without him.
One recent afternoon, a man who lives down the block sorted through the stamps with one hand, clutching kombucha in the other. He brandished a crosshatched molar and mandible for a dentist friend, and chatted with Casey about the music lineup at a local pub; they both stop by to listen to bluegrass and jazz. “The only difference between here and the pub is that I drink more in the pub,” Casey says. He lobs quips at anyone who comes in, punning in an Irish brogue.
Casey says that the shop survives because it fills a niche; he’s one of only a handful of stores that still makes rubber stamps, which many of his entrepreneurial customers use to brand their logo on coffee cups or labels. Many art stores sell polymer—it’s quicker and faster, but the ink doesn’t cling as well, and stamps made that way break down with use. Casey’s skewered a sliver of it to the wall with a thumbtack.
“We have very little relevance in modern society,” he says, chuckling. “We struggle on. I won’t be buying my chateau in the South of France anytime soon.”
Though it’s hard to keep any small business afloat, Casey faces particular challenges as his supplies vanish. Casey says he dealt with about eight suppliers a decade ago; now, his options have evaporated to just a fraction of those. “It’s harder and harder,” he says. There’s only one supplier of the molding material left; for rubber, he often relies on Akron, Ohio, the “rubber capital of the United States.” He can’t stockpile a supply, because rubber has a shelf life of 90 days; it hardens and loses its elasticity.
Casey wonders if he might be a little too much of the store’s appeal. “Small stores should not be personality-driven,” he says. “If I drop dead tomorrow morning, it would be hard for the business to keep going, which is wrong. It should be able to continue without me.”
But beyond the admittedly strong hook of stopping by just to talk to him, Casey’s shop taps in to many city dwellers’ desire to step away from computers and get a little messy. A handful of stamps are scattered atop a rickety table outside, inviting visitors to give them a try. Many do. “We want to give people a tactile feel,” Casey says. “They never get their hands covered with ink.”