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Economy & Business

He built his T-shirt business in a tattoo shop. Now a St. Louis entrepreneur has his own space

Calvin Payne, 44, stands in his newly leased space for CQ Custom Designs in the Grove neighborhood.  11/18/16
Durrie Bouscaren | St. Louis Public Radio
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Calvin Payne, 44, stands in his newly leased space for CQ Custom Designs in the Grove neighborhood.

Weaving between an ensemble of printers and T-shirt presses kept in the back of a tattoo parlor, Calvin Payne fills custom orders from all over the country.

“These shirts are going to Tupelo, Mississippi. And those other shirts are going to Millington, Tennessee,” Payne said, pointing to packages sitting on the counter. “I do a lot of breast cancer awareness shirts… and these are my favorite, because I know that they go for a good cause.”

Payne started his printing business while working as a server at Sweetie Pie’s restaurant in the Grove neighborhood, buying equipment with his savings and learning how to use it with tutorials on YouTube. This month, the 44-year-old entrepreneur is moving CQ Custom Designs into his own storefront for the first time.

A newly-printed shirt to celebrate a little girl's 7th birthday sits on the press in Payne's shop. 11/18/16
Credit Durrie Bouscaren | St. Louis Public Radio
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A newly-printed shirt to celebrate a little girl's 7th birthday sits on the press in Payne's shop.

“I cry when I come in here sometimes,” Payne said, walking into the brightly lit space at 4248 Manchester Ave., complete with caramel-wood floors and a crisp, tin ceiling.

He had planned to lease just half of the first floor, built in 1904 and rehabbed this year. But the landlord cut him a deal to use the whole space.  

“Those windows just screamed for retail items,” said Guy Slay of Mangrove. “I’m super impressed with the guy. I think he’s going to be a tremendous asset to the Grove.”

For Payne, the space is the realization of a goal he first had more than 10 years ago, while serving time at the Jefferson City Correctional Center after a drug conviction.  

Payne and his fiance, Adrienne Gordon, prepare packages for shipping in their current space in the back of Outlaw Ink. Gordon takes care of the administrative side of the business. 11/18/16
Credit Durrie Bouscaren | St. Louis Public Radio
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Payne and his fiance, Adrienne Gordon, prepare packages for shipping in their current space in the back of Outlaw Ink. Gordon takes care of the administrative side of the business.

“I remembered that vision, laying in my prison cell in 2005. And I was like, OK, I’m going to do this,” Payne said. “That’s why I get so emotional. Just to come out, and work so hard… and five years later, I’m a business owner.”

Though Payne is still unpacking boxes in the new space, he plans on a grand opening next week. 

Follow Durrie on Twitter: @durrieB

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