My interest in letterpress printing originated in Boliou Hall’s printmaking studio, where I happened upon the process while printing a book of poetry by Debbie Urbanski ’98. What better way to put poetry onto thick printmaking paper than hand-set metal type and a 1,200 pound hand-cranked press? Letterpress continued to lure me during a summer internship at the Minnesota Center for the Book Arts (MCBA), an internship supported by a study grant from Carleton. The final spark, identified as GERM 230 in the course catalog, was “From Gutenberg to Gates: The History and Practice of Printing”; co-taught by a German professor and a Printmaking professor in the Special Collections of Bird Library, it tied together the liberal arts and the practice of printing. Everything clicked.
Two days after President Lewis delivered my diploma, I started punching the time-clock at a Minneapolis bookbindery Campbell Logan. I eventually moved into the hand bindery, where I would slowly sew together letterpress books from some of the nation’s preeminent letterpress printers. Each new book that came through the bindery made me want to print more and more. I moonlighted at MCBA and at Lunalux, a boutique letterpress print shop on Loring Park. When I saw an ad online for a Vandercook letterpress in Milwaukee for $100—scrap metal price—I jumped.
I moved the press into a Southeast Minneapolis studio shared with a music label and a truck driver in the most decrepit building in the city. In the evenings and weekends, amid the boxcars and grain elevators, I printed for music events and for local weddings. I called the operation “Boxcar Press”: nothing to quit my job for, but it kept my hands dirty. During these adventures, I happened upon a better way to mount computer-generated plates into a letterpress press—a way to bridge the gap between graphic design software and antique presses. With assistance from 3M and some Minneapolis machine shops, I took a prototype to a letterpress trade fair and started taking orders.
Around this time Martha Stewart took a liking to letterpress. Everything changed in the letterpress world as a result: brides began rejecting their parents’s engraved invitations and looking for letterpress invitations instead. Letterpress technique, which had seemed dangerously close to extinction when I graduated Carleton, suddenly became fashionable. I started reducing my hours at the bindery and living the horribly impractical life of the Sole Proprietor (emphasis on Sole).
The poet, Debbie Urbanski, whose work I first printed at Carleton? She persuaded me to follow her to Syracuse, New York where she was to study creative writing. I moved Boxcar Press into the basement of our new house. Instead of teaching freshman composition during her graduate work, Debbie opted to join the business as a partner at this point. She had the gall to demand a salary, something that I considered risky beyond belief. It wasn’t much later that, on account of her work, that I began drawing a salary, too. She started our Bella Figura letterpress wedding invitation line, available only online: an odd concept in 2001. That notion has become less odd with each passing year, thankfully.
We hired Syracuse University interns to come work in our basement. Our wedding invitations were taking off, thanks to Google. The foot traffic and truck deliveries to our little house were not ingratiating us to our neighbors (no matter how much help I offered them in Photoshop). Desperate for space, we moved the business into an artist warehouse in downtown Syracuse.
We started with 2,000sf and five years later we now lease 13,000sf and are the building’s anchor tenant. We have over 30 employees supporting our various letterpress businesses, making us one of the largest letterpress shops in the nation. We have dealers worldwide, through our latest brand Smock, which pioneered letterpress paper from bamboo pulp. Despite the recession, we were able to double our printing sales in 2009.
Everything we do is a byproduct of our love for the craft, however. It’s terrific that we’re now all drawing stable incomes, of course, but I’m most proud of the quality of our printing and the support we offer to the letterpress community. Our mission is to ensure letterpress remains relevant for future generations (especially those who might sign up for GERM 230).