Last April, a small company based in Melrose Park, Ill., announced that it had signed an agreement to supply the People's Republic of China with 6,000 plain-paper copiers at a cost of $5.5 million. In so doing, Otto A. Clark and Clark Copier won out over Xerox and IBM, prompting a spate of David-and-Goliath stories in the national news media.

There's both less and more to the story than meets the eye. Clark, a Czech immigrant who built and sold one successful copier company in Europe before starting Clark Copier in the United States five years ago, candidly admits that his biggest ally in the Chinese sale was that country's distaste for dealing with the Japanese -- and their copiers -- in any context. And since neither Xerox nor IBM has exactly set the world on fire with low-cost plain-paper copiers in recent years, the door was left wide open for Clark and his machines.

More important than the Chinese contract in the long run is the price of Clark's basic machine. The CMC 2000 lists for $1,995, about $1,500 less than any other plain-paper machine with comparable features. "If it proves reliable," says John Derrick, publisher of What to Buy for Business, "it will set a new standard for low-end copiers."

The jury's still out, since only 7,500 CMC 2000's will be distributed across the United States this year. But the company does have a dealer in every major city now, partly as a result of the publicity surrounding the China contract. With 23 employees at the moment (Clark thinks there will be 100 by year-end) and projected 1982 sales of $22 million, the little company isn't making Xerox quake in its boots yet. But Clark seems to have proven, once again, that there's room in even the most crowded and capital-intensive business for an innovator with guts. Of Xerox, says Clark, "once you get big, you get complacent. There's not enough of the creative spirit there."