Heritage Businesses in WNY / Keller Brothers & Miller
102 years hasn’t stopped the presses
John Salerno Jr., John Salerno, and Ralph Salerno
Photos by Stephen Gabris
401 Franklin Street, Buffalo
How old: 100 years
How many employees: 16
Back when every letter was painstakingly placed by hand into a printing plate to form words and sentences, headlines, and particulars, Keller Brothers & Miller began a printing legacy that continues to this day.
Keller Brothers & Miller has always been a family trade. It got its start in 1916 when Nick and George Keller and John Miller opened a printing business at the corner of Franklin and Chippewa. In 1922, what is believed to be the city’s oldest printer moved up the road to its current location at 401 Franklin Street, directly across the road from the city’s oldest tree (an American sycamore believed to be about 300 years old). That same year, Ralph Salerno joined the business, assumed ownership in the 1950s, and has passed it down to the shop’s current owners—his son John and grandsons Ralph and John Jr. The shop expanded in 2008 to an old livery stable next door, which the Salernos restored to its original 1890s façade.
The print shop exterior
At the turn of the century, just before KBM opened its doors, printing ranked among the top three industries in North America, behind steel and automotive. Buffalo and Rochester were the hotbeds of printing, as German immigrants landed in Western New York with their printing presses on Erie Canal boats and preferred not to lug them overland any further. The Pan-American Exposition in 1901 generated even more interest in the region’s press capabilities, and dozens of print shops churned throughout the two cities. In Buffalo, where a booming population got its information from newspapers, pamphlets, handbills, and posters, print shops were the essential conduit of commerce and communication.
For the shop’s first eighty years, Keller Brothers & Miller was known primarily as a political printer with a good roster of entertainment customers as well. Posters they printed for John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King, the Rockefellers, Muhammad Ali, and standout political figures from the past century of Buffalo politics line the walls.
The plans for KBM’s expansion; antique equipment
Today, KBM is a go-to printer for advertising agencies, manufacturers, unions, universities, chocolatiers, and cultural organizations in Buffalo and beyond.
From the street, the sparsely signed brick building is unassuming and easy to drive past. But inside, 14,200 square feet of print production space house machines the size of city buses, cotton thread-laced bindery equipment, smaller specialty presses, work tables where patient employees hand-assemble print packages, and a quantity of paper that is difficult to comprehend. The presses are a mix of digital and good old-fashioned offset, in which printing plates apply ink to paper in ways that digital machines can’t (they can accommodate metallic inks and varnishes, high-end and specialty papers, and larger sheet sizes, for instance). Even though Keller Brothers & Miller has been around for 102 years, the shop’s current production floor represents a collection of technology the shop has compiled only in recent decades.
A vintage shot of Franklin Street (with Buffalo’s oldest tree in the foreground)
KBM has adapted, and continues to shift its capabilities to meet customers’ needs. Even though digital devices occupy our eyeshare more than ever, printing survives because there will always be things paper can do that screens cannot.
“Packaging won’t go away; products still come in paper,” says Ralph. “More of the instructions are online, but there’s still a box or a backer. Postcards are still heavily used. Business cards and other marketing pieces with special applications have to be of a certain quality for face-to-face interactions.”
KBM has survived and grown for a number of very common-sense reasons, including a culture of strong work ethic and community involvement. It has never sacrificed quality for speed or price. “We handle every single job and relationship with respect, and it shows,” says Ralph. “We aren’t always the lowest bidder, but we win on heart every time.”