January 3, 2022

Remembering Josh and Rebecca DeVries of The Scarlet Letter Press

by Felicia Cheney

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Editor’s Note: If you have a story of Rebecca and Josh that you would like to share, please email Joey Phoenix at joeyphoenix@creativecollectivema.com

By Joey Phoenix (they/them)

No one is ever prepared for when pillars of the community are no longer there. These are the faces we see regularly, the ones who make our lattes, deliver our mail, build storefronts with wonderful clothes and housewares, paint murals that we walk by every day, create beautiful plates full of delicious food, and the people who are our go-to printers for just about everything we would ever need printed. 

Rebecca and Josh DeVries, owners of the Scarlet Letter Press in Downtown Salem, passed away on Wednesday, December 8, 2021, leaving behind a daughter whose own creativity matches and may one day surpass those of her parents. News of the DeVries’ passing shook the community as the ripple effect of their lives and the impact these two incredible people had on the city of Salem became more apparent in the days immediately following. 

Social media quickly filled with stories and firsthand accounts of those who had known Rebecca and Josh personally or who had worked with them professionally. For many, the line blurred as the couple frequently conducted impromptu counseling sessions and pep talks in the lobby of Scarlet Letter Press. 

They were always squeezing one more person in, fulfilling orders when more traditional print businesses estimated projects would take weeks to arrive. Because of their talent, creativity, and flexibility they became the go-to printers for hundreds of businesses owners and community members. But not only did they do these jobs with grace and skill, but they supported people through countless projects, people who often had no idea what they were doing or even where to begin. 

It was true for me as well. While I only knew Rebecca and Josh professionally there was something about interacting with them that fell into more than just business. Rebecca’s face would light up the room each time I walked in to pick up an order. Her kindness towards me was more than just general small talk and chit chat, she and Josh always seemed genuinely interested in whatever weird project I was working on. And they remembered so many details about my experience and made me feel so cherished and welcome. It inspired me, and I think it will for the rest of my life. 

I was driving home from Arizona when I learned of their passing. I didn’t have words then and I still mostly don’t for how this loss made and continues to make me feel. Do I have a right to grieve someone I only knew professionally? I didn’t initially have the tools I needed to process this loss. But the more people I talked to, and the more I read, the more I realized that I wasn’t alone in this confusion. I decided that capturing stories was the best way to honor them, these people who are irreplaceable. 

Salem is the kind of community where every facet of it is strangely intertwined. The degrees of separation are few, and almost every small business is more than just a place of transactional commerce. The Scarlet Letter Press, as Claudia Paraschiv uniquely put it, was a third space: an important meeting ground where ideas and joy and community existed apart from work or home. It was a small business, but it was never just that for anyone. 

Because my words are few, I’ve endeavored to capture other people’s stories that showcase the staggering impact that Rebecca and Josh had on the community. Many of these people weren’t in the couple’s immediate circle, and while I would love to hear and capture those stories as well (please email me at joeyphoenix@creativecollectivema.com if you would like to share), I felt it was important to illustrate the ripple effect at the very least. 

Rebecca and Josh DeVries touched countless lives, more so than any of us ever realized. These are some of the stories of the people they impacted. 

Editor’s Note: Their words are their own. Some of them have been edited for clarity/conciseness with permission. 

John Andrews (he/him), Founder and Creative Director of Creative Collective 

I have spent so many hours over the past decade talking to Rebecca about art, Salem, small business, their daughter, relationships, rumors and everything else. They always held so much space for others including me. 

The support that they always showed for the creative community has been so important and has made the dreams of so many come true through their work at the print shop and before that with their gallery. These are two humans that actually made the world a better and more beautiful place. 

I always looked forward to visiting both of them and having Rebecca welcome me with that big smile and Josh poking his head out to say hi in between print jobs and their daughter always working on some sort of art or craft project. 

They will both be missed something fierce and my heart goes out to the families and especially to little Oonah. She will need to know how much her parents brought to the world and how kind and caring they really were to so many. 

Gret McGilvray (she/her), Owner of The Witchery (Salem) 

Becky and Josh were my Pickering Wharf buddies. They were the first ones to welcome The Witchery to the area, and the first ones to sell their art at our shop. They lived above our space and often invited me into their home. One time over a glass of wine Becky, having a very intelligent business sense, suggested we incorporate the moon into our live performances. 

She was absolutely right. We performed Moon Witch to sold out audiences. Oonah and I became friends, too. After school she’d come by The Witchery to craft, and we took care of each other’s cats when one of us was away. But don’t tell anybody. You weren’t supposed to have cats on the wharf! They were a strong family. I miss them terribly. 

Guy Miller (he/him), Previous Owner of ReMix Church (Salem)

When we started ReMix back in 2011, obviously, you know, we needed a printer. And so our initial relationship with them was simply business. You know, they did our bulletins and such. But we quickly came to realize these were really fun people. And then we realized that we both lived on Pickering Wharf together. And so we started to have a friendship.

I would go over there to pick up printing projects and stuff and we would chat. Josh was a gamer, I was a gamer. 

I’m a pastor of a Jesus Church, and they weren’t those kinds of people. They had a different spirituality, and sometimes with other personalities a friendship with that sort of thing present could never work. But we just found a way to make it work. We had great discussions on spirituality and no one tried to convert anybody. We just kind of let that be. 

They would produce the annual Edgar Allan Poe reading and the Christmas play every year, but they weren’t happy with the venue. So we offered them use of our location on Church Street, we let them use our facility for free. They did that for three years. 

They had always been supremely generous to us and pricing and everything, and we were generous to them. And that friendship and business partnership just developed. For them, Scarlet Letter wasn’t just a business, they were also just about helping people and I always want to get behind people who are helping people. 

One of my favorite memories of Josh is when he taught me how to play Pokémon Go. We got together with a group of about thirty people and we were fighting these big bosses. I remember being nervous and Josh sort of showed me how to do it and introduced me to a lot of people who played. He was really patient and didn’t make me feel stupid for not knowing what to do. We played together for about a year, even after a lot of people had stopped playing. I’ll never forget that. 

Kylie Sullivan (she/her), President of Salem Main Streets (Salem)

One of the things I’ve been thinking about a lot is not just how much we all relied on them, because I think we all knew that in real time. But what I’m realizing is, I think none of us ever gave them enough credit for how much they acted as a springboard for so many people. There were so many of us that they were supporting, many change makers in the community who didn’t realize that they were people who had been telling us “Hey, have you thought about XYZ? Have you talked to so and so did you know that someone over here is doing this?”

One of the really cool things that I just kind of feel like we keep hearing is how for how many people Josh and Rebecca were the first people who said: You should try this, you’re really good at this. And I that, you know, that I think is a very different loss, because they did it so quietly, and I think that each of us thought we were the only one they did that for. I mean, we knew they were helping everyone and that everyone was relying on them, but I don’t think any of us realized how many of us got the assurance we needed from these people directly. 

And sometimes it was so simple. For me, this year was the 10th anniversary of the Salem Farmers’ Market, and we were trying to do a commemorative poster with all the poster designs on it from the last decade. I gave The Scarlet Letter Press the image and Rebecca said “How about we do it on this really cool craft paper, we could put it on that and then you could really sell this as a collectible.”

There were so many times that I was like Josh and Rebecca must be rolling their eyes every time they get an email from me because the things I’m sending them were such a mess. And I’m realizing that it wasn’t just me. There was a surprising number of people that they were working with who had no idea what they were doing when they first started. 

They both had such great ideas and would offer little tweaks to make what you were doing so much better. And you didn’t know to ask for it. If you had just been placing an order somewhere, you wouldn’t have thought to ask that. There were so many times I wanted to pick up an order and it was really clear that Rebecca had been just holding an impromptu therapy session for someone. They were just so frequently there to listen. I have no concept of how many people they helped that way. 

The first thing everyone said after they heard that Josh and Rebecca had passed was where is Oonah? Because all of us knew if you knew Josh and Rebecca, you knew that Oonah was their everything. And that she was a critical part of their life in a different way than I think many families are. She grew up in that store. Over the last couple years they had changed their store hours to end at three because that’s when Oonah got out of school and they probably had realized they were working a lot and wanted to make space for her. 

They could have totally established their business hours to stay with their customers’ business hours, but she was so important to them. 

Of course personally, but also professionally and creatively this has been a tremendous loss for our community, because there are so many of us who if we had had to place orders for things in a normal setting, none that so many things would never have happened. So many of us would never have done the thing had we not met and interacted with them. 

Nate Bertone (he/him), NYC-based theatrical storyteller, director, designer, playwright, and producer 

I had just returned home to New York when I heard the news. They had just helped me with materials for my grandmother’s funeral. I remember chatting with them, telling them that they were so incredible and gracious and kind people to squeeze in my grandmother’s funeral stuff during a busy holiday season. It was like a day’s notice. And they said just come in and we’ll get it done. It was such a shock. I was just there, giving Rebecca a hug, giving Josh an elbow bump in between his many print jobs, and then they were gone. 

We met several years ago during the run of my show Letters from War at Salem Theatre Company. I had a lot on my plate at the time. My grandfather was dying, he actually passed when we were closing the show. I had just come from London where I was studying. It was all of this like massive everything at once in my world. 

I wanted to produce these programs that were simple but told the story of the show. People I asked pointed me towards Scarlet Letter Press because I needed support from a printing company. My grandfather, in his early life, owned a printing company, it was his pride and joy. 

But my grandfather’s company went under, because he gave everything for free and gave the family discount to everyone. 

So when I met Josh and Becky, they were so gracious and so kind and gave me – this young little artist –  the time of day. They supported me through the process. And ultimately, from that moment, every time I would do something in Salem or in Marblehead for theater or just needed Christmas cards, funeral cards, thank you cards they did all of it. 

Just like my grandfather, they supported the young people, the artists, the friends, the soccer teams that needed help. And they just gave and gave and gave. And I think what that means in a community is that these people are not only the Businesswoman of the Year and a shining beacon and company, but they were people that everyone looked to for a smile and support because they’re so kind. 

I have a memory of Scarlet Letter Press, of Josh and Rebecca, which is my last memory of seeing them the week my Grandmother passed. We were talking about my Grandmother’s death and how I believe that people come back as signs. And they you know, they send their existence and our soul through birds or flowers or something that you will pick up on. And very strangely, we were talking about death. We were talking about all of this Becky told me about a similar experience with my mother. 

She said that before her mother died she asked her “What will you come to visit me as?” and she said daisies. She said that she would show up as daisy. Anyone who’s ever been to Scarlet Letter Press will see behind where Rebecca sat there was a drawing of a daisy on the wall.

She said, “My mother comes to visit as daisies. And when we had our child we were first driving around, and she was able to speak. Their child said, ‘Mom, I miss Daisy. And Becky said, Who’s Daisy? We don’t know any Daisy. And it was random and out of the blue. But at that moment, she knew that her mother was there visiting. 

I never realized that daisies were always all around Rebecca. I really feel that these people will continue to be around us. And for myself, I’m going to have a constant reminder of their beauty whenever I see daisies. 

Claudia Paraschiv (she/her), Owner of Studioful Design (Salem)

I met Rebecca and Josh for the first time when working on some community art projects in the Point neighborhood in Salem in 2013. I was doing a postcard project, and it was at the very beginning of my career as a community artist. The former director of Salem Main Streets told me to go see Rebecca and Josh. I didn’t need an appointment or an introduction, I just walked into their welcoming, creative space, and they were curious about my work. They even printed those first postcards for free. Over and over, I saw the essence of “community” manifested there – it was a joy to see both Rebecca and Josh over the years.

The Scarlet Letter Press was such a comforting and hopeful space, and a truly original space because it wasn’t just one thing. It blurred boundaries between personal life and professional life with their daughter, Oonah, being there, often making art. But then also just the way they welcomed their customers was so special.

It was a third place, somewhere that people could just come in and chat and talk and do their business too. But it was exchanges and connections beyond just the pure economic transaction. And I think that’s why I fell in love with using their services professionally.

They always had so many helpful suggestions. Rebecca would offer: “This is the best thing you could print on,” or “This is the best amount you could get.” Since they knew that a lot of the work I did was community-based, they always wanted to help out. And it wasn’t just me, they were true collaborators and friends to their customers. It was really special to go somewhere where you felt someone was part of your creative team.

Every time I brought them a project, they would genuinely be excited for me. They would want to hear about it and then say: “Let’s use this type of printing, because that will really show it off well.” They were so supportive in that way with genuine enthusiasm for other people’s success. 

Although we didn’t meet up much as friends outside of their business, they were so dear to my heart. I have gone to Scarlet Letter Press without a print job at all – just to talk to Rebecca, especially when things have been hard.  Rebecca and Josh showed us a better form of capitalism, one where you can build your own business, but also build a community, and enjoy going to work because they created a cooperative of all these people you get to interact with. What’s so important to highlight about how special they were to the Salem community is that they led by example: they created community and nurtured their family – especially Oonah – through running a small business.

If you have a story of Rebecca and Josh that you would like to share, please email Joey Phoenix at joeyphoenix@creativecollectivema.com

Creative Collective is a group of economic development strategists, small business supporters, activation specialists, and believers in the importance of the creative workforce. We foster growth, sustainability, and scalability for small businesses, creative thinkers, organizations, entrepreneurs, and innovators.

Learn more and join Creative Collective at www.creativecollectivema.com/join