Letterpress as a Business: Pricing the work, printing the job, feeling the love

[Alyson Kuhn] The Letterpress as a Business panel at the San Francisco Center for the Book on May 27 was superb. It was also positively packed: 50 rapt listeners in folding chairs, a few more in office and workshop chairs, and 25 standees. And you can listen at your leisure to the entire program online! Talk about new technology in the service of the old!

Moderator John Sullivan (above) of Logos Graphics also turned out to be the Master of Maxims. He got the evening’s first laugh when he introduced letterpress printing as “a gateway drug.” There were five printers on the panel (including Sullivan), six more full-time letterpress printers in the audience, plus several enthusiasts who have their own presses and yet another handful who rent press-time at the Center for the Book. I myself have no printer potential, although I did once compose a lovely line of lead type at the Center and print (with kuhnstant supervision) Monarch note sheets that say “L’Aly c’est moi.” But enough about moi.

Susie Gelbron (above) and business partner Julie Walker of Carrot & Stick Press debuted their wholesale line at the National Stationery Show in 2000. On the panel, Gelbron’s opening observation also got a laugh: “This is like group therapy. Why do we keep doing what we do?” She commented that in 2002, buyers at the National Stationery Show were still asking, “What’s letterpress?” In 2003, they were nodding in recognition, “Oh, letterpress.” In 2004 they were saying, “Everybody’s doing letterpress!” (On the podcast, you can hear Gelbron describe acquiring Carrot & Stick’s first press — before realizing it had no motor.)

Joel Benson (above) of Dependable Letterpress was studying Classics at UC Santa Cruz when he stumbled upon a letterpress in the basement of a dining hall. He took a class; the instructor was a book dealer who brought beautiful, inspiring samples to show his students. Joel discovered he liked the books more as objects than for their contents. The press in the photo above is the Nebiolo cylinder that Benson bought from Yolla Bolly Press, where he served an apprenticeship before getting a job with Julie Holcomb Printers in San Francisco. Fellow printer Richard Seibert (who attended the panel) helped Benson find his first Vandercook. I had a chance to chat with Benson after the program, and he commented, “One thing I really enjoy about the letterpress community is that people are so collegial.” The evening was a stellar example of this.

Patrick Reagh (above) is almost as accomplished a raconteur as he is a printer. His opening anecdote started:I got my first press on December 25, 1959, a Christmas present from my father […], a commercial artist. It was a Kelsey 3 x 5 Table Top, all set up to print. I took a piece of paper, and a minute later, in 24-point Cloister Text, I had printed ‘MERRY CHRISTMAS TO PAT.’ It was love at first sight.” One story was more entrancing (and endearing) than the next, from the draft counselor who told Reagh in 1969 that he could get a printing apprenticeship (which he did), to Lillian Marks telephoning him several years later and asking him to run the Plantin Press in Los Angeles (which he did). Word for word, my favorite Reagh-alization of all time is: “A pdf is worth a thousand words.”

Norman Clayton (above) of Classic Letterpress was studying graphic design at Rhode Island School of Design, specializing in photography, when he discovered the type shop. Clayton’s lyrical recounting of what happened next includes the words revelation, exciting, magical, mentor and skeleton of a dinosaur. At the conclusion of the program, Clayton went first in offering a parting recommendation to aspiring printers in the audience. He bordered on beatific as he described finding the thing you love and doing it really well. He obviously loved describing it — and does it really well!

I hope you’ll hear for yourself. The podcast is neatly edited into four sections (a feat made possible thanks to Sullivan’s skill at keeping everyone on topic): Introductions, Job Costs and Pricing, Q&A, Finishing and More Q&A. I found it engaging, inspiring and richly relevant.

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Comments (2)

  1. Posted by Patrick Reagh on 06.7.10 at 2:28 pm

    Dear Ms. Kuhntributor,

    My pale complexion turns vermilion (Pantone 199?) at your flattering words. It was indeed a delightful evening. I was surprised at the turnout and enthusiasm. Much as I would have liked to dissuade the eager audience from pursuing letterpress as a sustainable vocation, it pleases me that some will abandon all reason and find a way to carve out a successful niche in our wonderful world.

    All the best,

    [email protected]

  2. Posted by Trish Kinsella on 06.8.10 at 12:28 pm

    I’ll never forget the day I called [email protected] and asked him to teach me to print on the hulk of Heidelberg I just had delivered. “Do you want me to talk you into this or out of it?” he deadpanned. There are days when I wonder if I answered correctly… Great to see everyone, sorry to have missed a lively evening, and Pat, I miss you every year on the B4th of July – sniff.

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