John Gordon: Business suits him to a T

DRACUT — The cute little cartoon pooch peers out from the computer screen.

The message expressed above and below reads; “In dog beers, I’ve only had one.” The cartoon will undergo some minor changes before it ends up as someone’s T-shirt.

“I’m making that one for myself,” says John Gordon, owner of The Top Half, a custom screen-printing and embroidery company that has been steadily doing business in Dracut since 1995. “I don’t drink but I thought it was really clever. Somebody might see me wearing that and order 1,000 of them.”

Gordon has been working at The Top Half since the early 1970s when he was just a teen. His older brother, Anthony “Buddy” Gordon Jr., started the company in 1970 in the basement of his Coburn Street apartment in Lowell. The business quickly grew and moved to a storefront down the road near the corner of Lakeview Aiken avenues until 1995, when they put down stakes at their current location in Dracut at 1794 Bridge St. Unit 28 in the Bridgewood Plaza.

The company was incorporated in 1998 and the 50-year-old John Gordon took over as president and CEO in 2009 when Buddy retired.

“We put a premium on customer satisfaction,” John Gordon says. “That’s been our focus from the very beginning. That’s what Buddy taught me when I was just a kid. That’s why we’ve been able to stay in business.”

The bright and airy little shop, which has seven full- and part-time employees, caters to a wide range of clients, from a family looking for T-shirts for a reunion picnic to polo shirts for a corporate fundraiser, Gordon says every job is important and attention is paid to every detail.

Ashley Gordon, The Top Half’s general manager and Buddy’s daughter, is trying to come up with an exclusive clothing line, such as a “Dracut Line,” but Gordon says it’s difficult to break new ground.

“It’s tricky. It’s hard, but our attitude and our focus is to just keep doing what we’ve been doing since we started more than 40 years ago,” Gordon says. “Keep getting better all the time and keep the customer satisfied and good things will come.”

Q: How has the advent of the computer changed the way things are done at The Top Half?

A: “It’s been such a long time since we worked without computers I’ll have to stop and think. The difference is enormous. Huge. We had what we called a ‘camera room’ and we had to take a ton of pictures of whatever artwork we were using and change it to a negative and back again. We used all rub-on letters with a hundred different fonts. On the computer, we can change the style, the letters, the artwork all with the click of a mouse. It’s faster and better. Night and day.”

Q: Who comes into The Top Half looking to get their apparel printed?

A: “We are constantly trying to identify our target market but it’s tough. It keeps changing. We don’t do a lot of team apparel. We prefer big jobs. We’d love to do more. Bring ’em in. We do a lot of work for businesses that are having promotional events. We do clothing for road races, cancer walks, other types of fundraising walks, of course. Last fall we did a big order for Brestyan’s Gymnastics in Burlington, where (Olympic gymnast) Aly Raisman and Alicia Sacramone train. They had an invitational and we gave out shirts to the people who attended. Aly is going to London and unfortunately, Alicia didn’t make the team.

“When I brought down the first sample for approval, of course, I printed one for myself to wear. Aly signed it. We’ve done some other embroidery and screen print jobs for Brestyan’s Gym.

“We’ve printed for Life Is Good, the Boston Bruins, the NFL. Those jobs came through third-party vendors. We’ve done shirts for (radio station 107.3 FM) WAAF, Salem Sportswear, Champion, ADIDAS, the list goes on and on.”

Q: Sounds like business is good. Has The Top Half been able to weather the country’s recent economic downturn?

A: “To be honest with you, we’ve been slightly down for the last three years. Not bad. Just enough to notice, you know? The economy has been killing everybody but we’re holding our own and you know what? We’re still here. We have a lot of loyal customers who keep coming back time after time. They wouldn’t think of going anywhere else. They know when they come here, we’re going to do the job right and just the way they want it.”

Q: What is that huge piece of machinery toward the rear of the shop and what does it do?

A: “It’s a Barudan embroidery machine and it does exactly what it is told to do. No seriously, it does everything. You program it for a particular job and it’s all automated. We bought it a few years ago. It was a big investment but it was well worth it. Before we had this, we had to send out all our embroidery work.”

Q: How many T-shirts, or articles of clothing, would you guess you print in a year?

A: “Well, we printed 35,000 pieces in June, if that helps give you an idea. We can push out 700 T-shirts in an hour if we have to. We meet the demand, whatever it is. No job too big or too small. Satisfaction guaranteed.”