Mark-Makers

I n certain contexts, “rubber stamp” is a pejorative, used to describe lapdog officials who, for all intents and purposes, cede their power to other institutional figures—like a legislature that passes an executive’s preferred bills without serious examination, or a judge who approves warrant applications regardless of merit, or a board of directors that invariably follows a CEO’s lead.

The rest of the time, rubber stamps are rather useful. They confer authenticity, from endorsing and signing checks to certifying an architect’s blueprints to marking passports with authoritative travel records. They quicken life’s paperwork, saving us from handwriting every approval, rejection, filing note or return address. They allow libraries to track holdings and remind borrowers to bring stuff back. They let clubs and bars know who’s already proved their age or paid the cover.

Across all of these contexts they promote order and efficiency, and when you think about them that way, it’s easier to see why A. D. Perkins—founded by Arthur D. Perkins in 1876, which, according to staff, makes it New Haven’s oldest operating retail business—eventually branched out from fabricating rubber stamps, its sole flagship service for decades, to what it seems fair to cast today as a co-flagship product: interior signage.

Now affixed inside buildings throughout the city, signs created within A. D. Perkins’s narrow Elm Street storefront put numbers on rooms and names on offices, guiding us to our meetings and appointments. They tell us which restroom is which. They indicate what’s expected of us. (“No smoking.” “Please close door.” “No loitering.”) They pinpoint fire exits and extinguishers and explain emergency evacuation plans. They warn us when jeopardy’s afoot, often in red for “danger” and yellow for “caution.”

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Balancing out all this order- and efficiency-making is the business’s eminently human character. It’s visible before you enter, courtesy of two outdoor signs that, to appreciators of a certain organic urban aesthetic, are exquisitely aged. Across the top of the facade in tasty dueling fonts, “Perkins / Rubber Stamps and Marking Devices” stands out in rust-tinged white relief against a weathered green background. Set above and perpendicular to that is a tricolor neon sign whose tube-lighting letters, spelling “Perkins Rubber Stamps,” were always getting busted by the sidewalk tree that’s grown up next to them. Eventually, the business just stopped bothering to fix them.

Once inside, the first thing you notice is innumerable colorful signs and engravings taking up the entire left wall. Also on the left is a dusty display of sample products Perkins can do, including engraved awards made of stainless steel and crystal. To the right, a service counter extends back toward an office area. Shelves lining the wall behind the counter hold boxes, inks and pickup-ready orders lined up in long rows, each order resting within its own old-school brownie pan.

Company president and frequent behind-the-counter presence Jay Smilovich, who’s been with Perkins since 1977, doesn’t know exactly why he and his staff of six use brownie pans for this purpose, only that they’ve done it that way for quite a while. Forthright and good-natured, he’s the driving force behind the business’s day-to-day operations and long-term vision, though he repeatedly credits owner Nancy Schroff, who comes in three days a week, with giving him the freedom to advance the business in the direction he thinks it needs to go.

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That direction has apparently led Perkins to a very healthy place. While the rubber stamp industry is contracting overall, Smilovich and Schroff say they’re doing better business than ever, in part because, as regional competitors are failing, Perkins is picking up their clients—and then keeping them with good, reliable service. “People know that if they call and need something by a certain time, they’re gonna get it,” Smilovich says.

But A. D. Perkins isn’t just a rubber stamp. Referring to suspicious people who’ve inquired over the years about producing official-looking stamps or seals—the kinds that might help them commit insurance fraud, falsify immigration papers or doctor college degrees—Smilovich says he turns them away. “Maybe they can get it made somewhere, but we will never knowingly make something like that,” he says, adding, “You try to be vigilant. That’s the best you can do. I’ve been in the business long enough that I can smell it.”

On one occasion, he says, Hamden police stopped in to gather evidence against a bookkeeper suspected of embezzling from her employer. Smilovich went back into the files and found an order for a large stamp the employer had procured way back in 1960, which had the boss’s signature in one corner. Matching up the old work order with the stamp police had found, Smilovich says it became clear that the bookkeeper had removed everything but the signature and used it to write $400,000 in extra checks to herself.

Among other things, it’s certainly a testament to the power of a good rubber stamp.

A. D. Perkins
43 Elm St, New Haven (map)
Mon-Fri 8:30am-4:30pm
(203) 777-3456 | info@adperkins.com
www.adperkins.com

Written and photographed by Dan Mims.

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Dan has worked for a couple of major media companies, but he likes Daily Nutmeg best. As DN’s editor, he writes, photographs, edits and otherwise shepherds ideas into fully realized feature stories, helped in no small part by a small team of dedicated contributors.

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