Inside the former Collingswood Theatre, Tom Marchetty and Josh Longsdorf talk about assembling the cast of their new production.
"We've got a photographer, a printmaker, a guy who makes portable power systems, and a woman who's got her own clothing line," Marchetty says.
"We're looking for innovators," Longsdorf adds. "People who are passionate about what they do."
The 1,200-seat Haddon Avenue movie house, which was renovated decades ago for other commercial uses, reopened in January as the Factory Workers ("the Factory" for short). Marchetty bought the building, and he and Longsdorf are partners in the business (www.thefactoryworkers.com).
They rent "coworker" space to start-up firms and artisans, and plan to offer "makers' space" memberships to people who need to use (or want to learn to use) woodworking or metal-fabrication equipment.
Imagine a mashup of a shop class at Hipster High and a crafters club for fans of vintage industrial machinery, crossed with a high-tech business incubator and cool place to hang out. That's the Factory.
Choice architectural details (moldings, murals, the proscenium) remain from the theater, which was built in 1920 and closed in the '60s. The vibe is as funky as the partners' vision is ambitious: Glassblowing, winemaking, even an adult soapbox derby league (the guys are gear heads) are under discussion.
"We've got 14,000 square feet of space," says Marchetty, 35, who services industrial machinery for a living. "But the building's not big enough for everybody's ideas."
Sometimes called "fab labs," enterprises like the Factory are springing up nationwide, often in old buildings in urban neighborhoods or at colleges and universities.
There are 17 public or private makers' spaces in the Garden State. The Factory is the only one in South Jersey, although a facility is set to open in Bridgeton later this year.
"People call it a movement, but I'd go so far as to call it a phenomenon," says Stephen Carter, a director of the New Jersey Makerspace Association.
He notes that young entrepreneurs are embracing vintage as well as cutting-edge materials and machinery. The earlier "DIY" (do-it-yourself) trend is getting a boost from digital technologies that make even global marketing and retailing of new products affordable.
But while 3-D printers can be expensive, face-to-face brainstorming is free.
"The Factory is trying to do a couple of innovative things," Carter notes. "They want to bring back old-school craftsmanship with old-school equipment, combined with new makers' spaces."
On a recent "Second Saturday" promotional evening in downtown Collingswood, the Factory feels more like a family party venue. Kids run around, a band rocks, and Marchetty and Longsdorf are schmoozing.
Their enthusiasm is contagious. I'm exhilarated by the embrace of craftsmanship and creativity, the can-do entrepreneurship, and communal collaboration. The youthful energy feels refreshingly old-fashioned.
"If people are looking for a quiet place to work, this isn't it. It isn't an office. Offices are boring," says Marchetty, who lives in Cherry Hill with his wife and their year-old twins.
"You can't do this stuff in your basement," says Longsdorf, 32, a father of three who lives in Newtown, Bucks County. His Burlington County company makes rebar.
Betsy Cook, 42, designs and sews her colorful "National Picnic" brand of women's clothes at the Factory. "To have a place like this in Collingswood," she says, "is exciting."
Across the hall, Jason Halpern, the 26-year-old CEO of Gridless Power Corp. - who started the business in his Collinsgwood garage - is renting a double-wide space.
"We develop mobile power systems that can work with traditional generators, and can charge off solar," he says. "We do the electrical, mechanical, and graphic design, and some prototyping here. And we can make all the noise we want."