East Village rubber stamp shop keeps quality doing things the old fashioned way

Owner John Casey in his East Village shop. (Photos by Bob Krasner)

BY BOB KRASNER | In the beginning, there was a rabbit. John Casey, who emigrated from Ireland in 1967 at the age of 17, thought he was going to make some cash in the field of numismatics, but he left that endeavor behind when he discovered rubber stamps.

He created a design for a simple rabbit and never looked back, now spending seven days a week in his East Village shop at 322 E. 11 St., surrounded by his creations and taking custom orders for stamps that range from movie props (creating a repro of the legendary photographer’s Weegee stamp) to simple type (From the desk of ……) to a job that he calls “the goofiest request I ever got.”

That would be from the woman who brought in imagery of dead mice. The resulting stamp was then “used to create wallpaper!” he laughs, shaking his head.

“If it’s in black and white, I can make a stamp out of it,” states Casey. He looks for the best source material for his stock creations, such as the ancient volumes of “Appleton’s American Encyclopedia” and the 1876 catalogue that yielded the perfect tall ship illustration. “I’m very good at extracting detail, he says. “I have my tricks.”

Owner John Casey aka JC, holding a new version of the first rubber stamp he created.

Although those tricks involve a computer, everything else that goes into the production of his product is done exactly as it was decades ago. The process, six to seven hours long, could be easily shortened if Casey were willing to cut back on quality, but he is not. For one thing, he insists on using actual rubber rather than polymer, because that material “breaks down in a couple of years.”

The operation involves creating a plate from a negative which then gets pressed onto a bakelite sheet to create a mold. The mold then is pressed into a sheet of rubber in the Vulcanizer (how many people have tools with that cool of a name?) , which is heated to exactly 307 degrees. It’s been that way since the turn of the century, Casey informs us, when a conglomeration of rubber stamp makers met to set the standards.

The Vulcanizer, where the mold is created. Piled on top are sheets of bakelite.

The result is then cut and glued to wood blocks, usually by Billy Van Duyne, who has been assisting Casey for the last three years.

“It was supposed to be temporary, ” muses the former Graphic Designer/DJ. “But here I am.” He is, however, finishing up a mathematics degree which he plans to use in the field of data analytics.

Employee Billy Van Duyne preparing to cut the wood that the rubber will be attached to.

As for Casey, he’s not planning on going anywhere. He readily admits the issues of running a small business, telling us that “there’s always problems, like machines breaking down and always when you’re busy! But  you have to deal with it and try not to panic.”

Still, he comes in happily every day and has no idea when he last took a vacation. “I have no life!” he exclaims. “It’s like having a wife, except sometimes you can get away from the wife.” But, he continues, “I enjoy the store. It’s not a grindstone job. I enjoy the job, I enjoy the people. It’s like being at a pub, but I drink less.”

Formerly the shop was in the West Village, as was his place of residence, which is now nearby as well. In the East Village for the last 18 years, the tiny shop looks as if it’s been there forever. “Don’t make it look messy!” he implores, as we documented the scene and tried to stay out of everyone’s way. “Don’t worry,” said Van Duyne, “anywhere you stand you’ll be in someone’s way.”

Although he has his regular customers, he is quite aware of what is keeping him going.

“Business is definitely down,” he mentions, but “I’m a destination store. I’m in a number of guidebooks.” Right on cue, a customer with a distinct accent who has been listening to Casey speak asks excitedly, “Are you Irish?”

“Ah,” says Casey with a smile, “after all these years in New York I still sound like this.”

More info at www.caseyrubberstamps.com

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