BCP Digital Printing, located in the bustling metropolis of Baltimore, Maryland, is possibly the only full-time, Black-owned book printing company in the United States.
Print entrepreneurs get their start in the printing industry in various ways.
Some are born into it, watching their family start the business from scratch in the garage and carrying on the family legacy. Others are marketing-minded and see a unique business opportunity in the world of print.
But the story of Paul Coates and his beginnings with BCP Digital Printing is different. His journey began with a relentless commitment to helping the incarcerated.
“The idea started with six or seven people who were ex-activists in the community. Some of them were labor activists, some of them were socialists, some of them were Black Panthers like me, and what have you,” explains Paul. “Coming out of the turbulent 70s, several people who were in organizations with me were in jail. Because a number of people in the organization got arrested all the time, I developed relationships with those incarcerated.”
Cultivating relationships is one thing, but you might be asking yourself how building relationships with people in jail turns into running a printing business.
Paul explains, “In leaving the Black Panther Party behind, I made a commitment to work at raising the educational level, the consciousness level, and the reading level of people who were incarcerated. I established a program that had three phases to it. One phase was a bookstore; the other was a publishing company, and then a printing company. All of it was intended to support people in jail with books.”
“You see, there’s a long tradition in the Black community that probably gets exposure through people like Malcolm X. Malcolm X went into jail with a very, very criminal mind, and he came out with a commitment to the Black community. He came out, actually, before he died with a commitment to a better world, a larger world,” says Paul.
“George Jackson was a similar person who went to jail when he was 18 years old, and by the time he was 32, he was literally known all over the world. People would come from different places in the world and interview him. Well, he got his education in jail. And that’s what we wanted; that’s what we felt we could do with people by providing them books in jail. And so, we built a program.”
Paul continues, “When people go to jail, they’re grounded, they’re settled, they’re focused like they’ve never been in their lives. And it’s the time at that point to say, ‘Hey, you belong to something larger than yourself. You have a responsibility in the community; you can do this, you can do that, and you literally can be rebirthed as a new person if you want to do that.’ I’ve worked with people who have gone through this process and come out of jail as new people.”
“That’s how it all started. We don’t do as much work in the jails as we were founded to do and what we thought we could do. This was a community organization; it wasn’t a business. About 10 years after doing this bookstore, publishing, whatever, I realized it was a business, and I began treating it more like a business,” says Paul.
“We opened our doors in 1995 as BCP Digital Printing a complementary business to Black Classic Press (www.blackclassicbooks.com), which is the niche book publishing company we founded in 1978.”
Currently, the business is run by Paul, his oldest son Damani Coates and his youngest daughter, Kristence Coates.
“They work at it with me every day, like so many other printers around the country,” beams Paul. “It’s not only been my children; it’s also my grandchildren who have come through and worked with me—literally, all of them. I have 11 grandchildren, and all of the college-age ones have gone to college because their parents had it in them and helped them. All this is because of a foundation built on books and learning, as far as I’m concerned.”
Paul’s passion and excitement for what he does are evident. From working with his family to impacting the incarcerated or helping new authors get their books out, his love for what he does daily is contagious. “I’m excited to know that, on the publishing side, I participate in helping people get access to information. On the printing side, I’m excited because I help people realize their dreams when it comes to printing their own books, whether they’re history books or children’s books. So, it’s a life of fulfillment for me. I’m always moving and on the move.”
When immersed in running a business, it can be hard to focus on the big picture and the legacy you’ll eventually leave behind. When asked what he wanted his legacy to be, Paul’s response continues to look forward and not back.
“I’m nearing the end of my career, but I feel like I’m still at the beginning because I’m becoming aware of so many new things and technologies. So, I’d like to have a model that other black entrepreneurs, particularly those who want to go into print, can look at. Before I’m finished with this life, it may include 3D printing, who knows? It may include something other than what I’m seeing now, and that’s what I want the legacy to be. I want my legacy to be one of discovery. When people talk about me, they will talk about me as having no fear, even though I know that I have fear every day. But you got to keep pushing the buttons,” laughs Paul. “If you don’t push the button, the elevator will never move.”
Action can be the cure for many things in life and business. Paul applies this same thinking to his company to ensure he avoids ruts and keeps things moving.
“It does no good in the middle of a rut thinking about how to get out. We have to take some actions, even if they’re the wrong actions. We’re engaged in constant motion, constantly thinking about sales and selling and new ways to sell whatever we sold last year or the year before. I’m curious about everything, and I think curiosity is the first place we start. Then, we got to just move on even if we’re doing the wrong thing.”
Taking action always comes with some risks. So, in closing, Paul offers some valuable words of wisdom.
“Our job is not so much about selling print as it is to make our customers aware of what is available to them and the benefits of it. They want to see us succeed, so we have got to get the message to them. We can’t be silent, and unfortunately, that’s a late lesson for me. Even when I thought I was effectively communicating, I wasn’t,” explains Paul.
“I think it all comes down to keep learning the industry that we’re in, keep learning and studying our customers, and evolve like the times around us that are evolving. Be curious about those things, examine them, and be in action.”
“Live your curiosity in action.” – Paul Coates, BCP Digital Printing
This article originally appeared in the March 2023 issue of NPSOA magazine. For more information on how you can become an NPSOA member and enjoy the many benefits offered there, contact Member Services at email@example.com or head to their website at NPSOA.org.