They’re always in motion at this place, The Factory Workers building in Collingswood, NJ, and we’re not talking about fingers dancing across keypads, dispatching cell-phone text messages.
No, these hands are maneuvering a jigsaw during delicate woodworking cuts. They’re grinding metal pieces with a Bridgeport mill. Some are the hands of pros, others the hands of hobbyists, but all move to the beat of creativity while making everything from coffee tables to jewelry, and they do it in a cavernous building that debuted as the Collingswood Theater in 1920 with a silent movie called “The Riddle: Woman.”
The old theater, dead more than five decades, is Tom Marchetty’s place now. Fifteen months have passed since he opened The Factory Workers as an industrial utopia where, for a monthly $99 membership fee, artisans and craftsmen can use an array of heavy equipment to build homegrown projects.
“We live in a country where we used to make and build whatever we wanted,” Marchetty says. “These machine shops and programs are closing. There are kids today who don’t know how to hold a hammer. To say there are no wood shops in schools, no machine shops… that’s disgusting to me.”
And to think that he indirectly owes his new business to Gov. Chris Christie. Which isn’t an entirely good thing.
Rewind about five years. Times were good for Marchetty Machinery, the family business that had passed to Tom when dad Bill retired in 2005. The company serviced the equipment of industrial firms and many high-school shop programs, a key component of its business, but Christie’s cuts in education aid caused a lot of school districts to chainsaw those programs, Marchetty said.
When some districts staged a clearance sale on their equipment, he grabbed his wallet—“I bought stuff for cents on the dollar,” Marchetty says—and stockpiled the machinery under tarps on the driveway of his Cherry Hill home.
The stuff kept growing. So did the impatience of his wife, Amy.
“I thought if I could put this machinery in a location and rent it to other people to help me pay for the building and help them make things… that could be good,” he says.
This powerful arsenal grinds plenty of kilowatt hours. Every month Marchetty must come up with about $3,500 to pay his electric bill. In fact, when he bought the building at 13 Fern Ave., his big investment was $130,000 for an electrical overhaul.
To his relief, people started showing up at The Factory Workers to make things.
Bruce Faulseit works in an environmental research lab, but he loves woodworking, and his decision to become a paying member after the January 2014 opening has given him the tools and space to build furniture, children’s toys and decorative pieces.
It’s a hobby now. He’d love to make it a business later.
“For the average person,” he says, “this place is indispensable. There’s no way to have this kind of equipment at home. And it gives you the chance to see if you really like it rather than invest a lot of money in equipment to find that you don’t.”
Another member, Jeff Miller, says The Factory Workers has refined his metal work with a Bridgeport mill. Three mornings each week, before heading to his Stratford shop, Body Art Tattoo, he’ll stop by to craft the metal tattoo machines that he sells as a side business.
The electrically powered machine moves the tattoo needle to pierce the skin and inject ink. Miller sells about four of them each month, for about $300 a machine, on his website or at tattoo conventions.
“I wanted to improve on what’s out there and still pay homage to the tradition of tattooing,” says Miller, 31, of Runnemede.
He learns from other metal craftsmen. His quality machines have enticed buyers in Canada and China. All in all, he says, The Factory Workers is a great bargain.
“There’s a growing need for this. A lot of communities are trying to get back to the basics of locally produced goods,” Miller says. “It’s a good thing.”
Tom Marchetty is husky and chatty and personable. He loves the good-natured vibe among the people who hammer and drill in his workshop.
Marchetty has a beard and a white cap that is always on his head, so they call him Yukon Cornelius, the North Pole prospector who leads Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer to the Land of Misfit Toys in the Christmas special that has been on TV for, well, forever.
“I love the energy here,” he says. “We mess around with each other, we break each other’s balls, but we also motivate each other.”
His business plan for The Factory Workers is simple. He says we need to get back to “made in America.” Forget technology. We need to get back to thinking inside the toolbox.
“I’m very old-school. And I’m only thirty-seven,” he says. “Those guys I worked with while growing up around my dad’s business, they’re retired now, but they’re superstars. Dad had the best machine men, the best electricians. I’m blessed to have the skills he handed down to me.”
Marchetty feels blessed, too, that he found the big building in Collingswood.
It has been decades since the old theater was movie-star pretty. Now it’s as brawny and testosterone-charged as a construction worker opening his lunch pail on a 40th-floor steel girder.
But the place had changed long before Tom Marchetty showed up. Different uses like office space brought different renovations. Remnants of past grandeur—arched ceilings, carved moldings, even painted murals—still exist as evidence that the 1,200-seat theater was one fine place before the curtain dropped in 1962.
During his search for space, Marchetty was downright giddy after Cass Duffey, Collingswood’s director of community development, urged him to check out the 16,000-square-foot building. The old theater had been doomed to a sad ending. Foreclosure, bank ownership—it doesn’t get sadder.
“It was an unloved building with a lot of beautiful touches,” she says.
But finding some love wasn’t easy. Any retail space deal is a fortuitous merger of timing and need, Duffey notes. And entrepreneurs in need of an old movie house didn’t show up on Haddon Avenue every day.
“Tom just sort of landed on me one day. He has a big personality, probably big enough to fill that building, which is a good thing,” Duffey says, laughing.
“He was looking for a property to rent. I told him, ‘I know you’re not looking to buy, but here’s an option to consider.’ A week later Tom barrels into my office. ‘It’s great! Done deal!’ I thought, ‘Wow, that’s remarkable.’”
Marchetty will tell you that being old school also means favoring no frills, and the name of his place—The Factory Workers—reflects that. He could have opted for cute. Maybe call the place You Know the Drill, something like that, but if the name Marchetty chose sounds more 1915 than 2015, it’s because he wanted to make one thing quite clear.
“It’s not just a wood shop and it’s not just a metal shop. It’s a place where people can come to make anything,” he says. “The name is simple, it’s clear—we are the factory workers!”
These slowly growing public workshops are known as “makerspace.” But you also could call the resourceful Marchetty the dream weaver. He has converted rooms in the building to small offices ideal for start-up businesses, with monthly rents starting at $300, a reflection of Marchetty’s desire to help entrepreneurs chase the American Dream without living on brown-bag ham sandwiches to pay lofty rents.
Thirteen small businesses are renting space. They include a coffee roaster and a photographer. A small firm produces mobile power systems. Another is owned by three young women who sell their food products at farmers markets.
Marchetty’s success is tied to their success. He has bills to pay. He has gently rejected potential tenants.
The guy who wanted to make T-shirts, for example.
“Who doesn’t make T-shirts these days?” Marchetty says. “People come to me with quirky ideas. I feel bad that I have to shoot them down. Their bubble may have passed. I want to see them succeed.”
So far there has been plenty of success here. The tool guy and the old theater seem perfect together. And who knows?
Yukon Cornelius… oops, we mean Tom Marchetty… just might have the last laugh.
For information, visit www.thefactoryworkers.com or call 856-240-1584.