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Upward Bound

There's nothing like having one child in college and another about to enroll to get you serious about your business.

Bridget Morris is making a binder at her Bella Forte Books in South Philadelphia on Feb. 13, 2014. (AKIRA SUWA/Staff Photographer)
Bridget Morris is making a binder at her Bella Forte Books in South Philadelphia on Feb. 13, 2014. (AKIRA SUWA/Staff Photographer)Read more

There's nothing like having one child in college and another about to enroll to get you serious about your business.

Not that Bridget Morris wasn't passionate about her book-restoration work, which started 27 years ago but had long been more of a hobby, taking a backseat to her maternal duties.

"I was primarily a mom and secondarily a bookbinder," she said recently from her studio just off Washington Avenue in South Philadelphia.

But the reality of college tuition nudged this divorced resident of University City to take an online business course three years ago.

"It really, really helped me focus on the business part of Bella Forte and not so much the creative part," said Morris, 46, owner of what is now a flourishing bookbinding and letterpress business that has reached six figures in annual revenues and is on track to hit seven in the next five years.

Its specialties are clamshell boxes and elaborate, high-end commemorative books.

"My business is global now," with at least 10 orders a year from Australia, Sweden, and Austria, Morris said.

Her robust growth projections are partly because of a recent collaborative agreement with a Texas marketing and design firm that will serve as a pipeline of prominent clients for Bella Forte's work.

How Morris, with just two employees, can even handle such growth is in large part the result of a 160-year-old Philadelphia charitable organization, the Merchants Fund. It changed its mission seven years ago from aiding financially pressed merchants, often retired men, to providing grants to small businesses.

"What the Merchants Fund did for me is take me from the landing pad and fired me up and launched me," she said.

The propellant? An $8,500 grant in 2012 that enabled Morris to buy a special printer, helping her to avoid outsourcing and to print on book cloth, a new offering.

She also added a paper cutter and an embossing machine, which broadened her capacity. In the past, for instance, Morris could not handle a hot-foil stamping job that was larger than two inches high and four inches wide. Now, she can satisfy orders for stamps as big as 11 by 8 inches, essentially a whole book cover.

Another plus is that the machine is hydraulic and, thus, easier on the hands.

"I'm getting a little older, and I want to be doing this until the day I die, so I need a little bit of that pressure off me," said Morris, whose company's name - Italian for beautiful and strong - was inspired by her time studying bookbinding in Italy about 20 years ago.

Her equipment purchases were all deeply discounted, the machinery of an era largely extinct, once used by printers and bookbinders forced to close their businesses as much of their work became automated.

Morris is catering to a higher-end market that values the kind of custom, handmade work she offers - and that wows Patricia Blakely, executive director of the Merchants Fund.

Blakely called Morris' letterpress and custom books "absolutely luscious. A feast for the eyes."

Yet far more than pleasing aesthetics went into the decision to give Morris $8,500 she does not have to pay back, Blakely said. For at the root of the Merchants Fund's giving is a desire to help the city's small businesses grow, not just survive.

"When a company has to outsource production, it cuts the margin of profit," Blakely said. "By enabling Bella Forte to keep more production in-house, she increases her profits and her efficiency. . . . She is also training the next generation of makers with her relationships with the local art-school community. It's a win-win."

That's also how Victoria Marasco, founder of V2G Interactive in Austin, characterized her agency's new relationship with Bella Forte.

"We feel it will be a perfect match," said Marasco, a marketing/design veteran for more than 20 years. Her new firm works for a number of business clients in need of high-quality tribute books and customer-appreciation gifts.

"I have one aim in mind: to create the most amazing presentations possible, whether it comes through me or Bella Forte," she said.

The companies are still working out the details of their arrangement. What will be helpful to Bella Forte and its tiny staff, Marasco said, is that V2G will likely handle most, if not all, of the back-end work involving its clients' orders, such as consultations and product design. Bella Forte will create.

"Nothing replaces that handcrafted, one-of-a-kind piece when you really need it to be special," Marasco said.

It's a belief that frequently keeps Morris, a self-described workaholic, toiling from early morning to well into the night at her studio, located in a building - former home of the Medlar Biscuit Co. - that is full of reminders of Philadelphia's manufacturing past.

Said Morris: "I love that I am keeping alive a craft in a contemporary way."

215-854-2466 @dmastrull