When I was in high school, my great-grandfather volunteered at the food bank at family’s church. Later, he became even more involved at a larger operation, the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank, but that’s another story for another time. One day in the summer of— I’m guessing it must have been 1990— he asked if I wanted to come along to work at the church food bank on distribution day. I didn’t have anything better to do, so I went along. There were probably 6-10 other volunteers, most of them older or retired— people who, like my great-grandfather were retired or were free in the middle of the day but needed something to keep them busy. At the end of the day, one of the other volunteers, an older man, asked if I’d be interested in a printing press. He apparently hadn’t used it in years, was thinking of getting rid of it, and wanted it to go to a good home. I guess I looked like I’d give it a good home.
Well, it was more than just a printing press— he gave me all his type (11 cases worth), ink, rollers, spacers, paper, catalogs, a full manual, and a cleverly built cabinet which the press was mounted on and which had space for the type cases. My friend Greg and I made all kinds of fun stuff with it while in high school: absurd little tracts, bookmarks that said “this is not a bookmark”, tickets for the theater club’s production of The Importance of Being Earnest (which we were also both in), and little cards that we used to communicate with other people the day we decided to not talk for the entire day (I had cards that said “yes”, “no”, and “ask greg”, and he had cards that said “yes”, “no”, and “ask ezra”).
It definitely got a good deal of use and love in the couple of years that I used it in high school. But setting type is pretty time consuming, so it’s not really something that lends itself to college life. Not to mention the fact that it’s extremely heavy and not portable, so it was never worth lugging to either college or a rental apartment. But now, the time seems right. When I floated the idea of bringing it up to Boston, my parents seemed pretty happy to get it out of their basement (it has been good of them to take care of it for all these years).
Packing it up today, it was definitely quite a trip down memory lane. The Importance of Being Earnest tickets (January, 1992) must have been the last thing I printed on it, because the type was still set in the chase. I’m happy all the major parts fit in the Civic, and that the Civic still moved while it was all in there (have I mentioned how heavy it is? It’s a chunk of iron, with 11 trays of lead. It only has a 5×8″ printing area, but it’s twice as heavy as it looks).
Terri and I are already hatching plans of fun new projects. Digital publishing of various kinds is liberating in a lot of ways, and setting type can be extremely tedious. But there’s nothing quite like the texture and feel of actual letterpress printing on good quality paper.
Oh, and Greg, you’re welcome to come and visit the press any time you like.