MERIDEN — Robert Billings took the family to New Jersey on Labor Day weekend in 1969 to buy 12 gymnastics hard grips and four pounds of gymnastic chalk.
Billings was the gymnastics instructor at the Falcon Club, and his Dryden Drive home became Billings Sports. He later branched out to skating, dance equipment and apparel, moving to 711 E. Main St. By 1979, he was outfitting athletes across all sports and had moved to 706 E. Main St., where the business took over both sides of the building and added a second floor.
Billings Sports celebrated its 50th anniversary two weeks ago. As part of the celebration, Billings agreed to reopen its front door to accommodate its custom imprinting operation, Imprintz, minus individual equipment sales.
Billings Sports had become one of the largest suppliers of team uniforms, equipment and shoes in New England. It closed its retail store in 2005 to accommodate its team business. It reopened the Imprintz company and expanded its staff to accommodate printing orders.
Billings Sports imprints custom shirts, jerseys, caps, bags, pop-up canopies and hats for restaurants, bars, non-profit groups, teams and others.
“There’s not much we can’t do,” said Michael Billings, who runs the business with his brother Jeff Billings.
The opening of Imprintz, minus retail sales, is the first time the front door has been unlocked in 16 years, Michael Billings said.
He anticipates needing to hire another salesperson within a year, he said. The store services hundreds of schools and groups statewide, as well as in Massachusetts and Rhode Island, through a traveling sales team that sells team apparel and sports equipment. Billings has 16 employees, including founder Robert Billings and his wife Patricia.
“There’s a lot we can do for any teams or groups, or organizations,” said Anthony Melillo, who runs the sales department.
In 2005, Jeff Billings secured a deal to outfit the University of Connecticut men’s and women’s basketball, football and baseball teams. Diana Taurasi’s jersey from a UConn championship game against Duke still hangs in the store’s reception area.
Color infused or sublimated designs imprinted on white cloth have led to quality improvement in a variety of products, including pop-up tents for event sponsors and vendors.
Billings has expanded its business so people can order printing in the store and online. Sports equipment is primarily ordered through the sales staff.
“The key to our success is hard work and trying to reinvent ourselves to stay relevant,” Michael Billings said.
Billings has provided the Meriden YMCA with gymnastics equipment, apparel, youth sports jerseys and higher-end travel team apparel.
“At the Meriden YMCA we try to use local companies when we can,” said Executive Director John Benigni. “We’ve had a longstanding relationship with Billings that stretches almost 50 years...they are an asset to the city.”