When we started The Counter Press and began the never ending quest for letterpress equipment and information, it didn't take long to realise that this old form of printing is much bigger in the States than it is here in the UK. But then, everything is bigger in America. So when we visited The Arion Press in San Fransisco on a recent trip, the size of the printshop and M&H foundry within shouldn’t have come as a great surprise. But it did.
Nestled at the bottom of the Presidio in San Fransisco, in the basement of an old converted hospital, The Arion Press prints and binds ‘worthy literary texts’ to an exceptionally high standard. Their preservation and use of traditional techniques in fine printing, typography and bookmaking is similar to that of the Whittington Press here in Blighty. Although that is where the similarities end.
The eventual size of the place is only hinted at in the gallery space as you enter upstairs, it wasn’t until we were shown downstairs by Brian (one of the small team of printers, binders and type casters) that the vastness of the operation could really be grasped.
The open plan basement is a huge space, and filled with equipment
At the bottom of a narrow staircase, the printshop opens out in to a large open plan space, with a host of platen, proofing and cylinder presses on one side and cabinets and cabinets of type forming the composing room on the other. It’s instantly clear that this is a commercial operation, the likes of which you simply don't see in the UK anymore. Book proofs were scattered around and standing jobs sat on stones, but the overall feel was distinctly orderly and clean. That said, Brian admitted that the focus of the team was currently working in the bindery, leaving the printshop quiet.
A very small selection of the type holdings. It's not just a lot of type, but a wide variety of common and more unusual founts too.
Perhaps naively we imagined that the large composing area had been the entire holding of the press’ type, there were a lot of cabinets after all. How wrong we were. With the M&H Foundry in the same basement, the collection of type was never going to be anything but huge. Leaving main printshop took us into a long corridor, and running in both directions was the most type we have ever laid eyes on. Running the whole length – some 30-odd metres – were cases of type, from the floor to the ceiling, as well as brand new type wrapped up and ready to be shipped. The type foundry, it seems, is as busy an operation as the press.
The M&H Foundry was pretty quiet on our visit, but it was obviously a busy operation normally.
Some of the freshly cast type, getting organised to be shipped around the world.
The impressive, and slightly scary, smelter.
In a back room are just shelves of die cases and matrices. More than we'd ever seen.
Moving on into the foundry itself, it was, again, big – it’s the oldest and largest surviving type foundry in America. Another open plan room, it was lined around the edge with fully operational Monotype Composition Casters, Super Casters, Thompson Casters and an Elrod, with more type cabinets in the centre. Not forgetting the large smelter in the corner to cast new ingots of lead alloy. Further back were rooms with matrices and die cases stacked up, in a semblance of busy order. And strewn on any available surface space was brand new type, ready to be sorted and sent out locally and globally, such is the demand still.
The bindery was a hive of activity, with everyone working together to finish the newest book.
In a cleaner annex of the building was the bindery, which was a hive of activity. This was where the main body of staff were, all working on different stages of binding the newest volume of work. It turns out that the team are trained to work across both the bindery and the printshop, transferring their skills depending on what is being produced at the time. It is only the foundry that uses a dedicated team, although they too work as printers and binders. As expected the press and foundry are overseen by an older, more experienced generation, but interestingly the majority of the workforce is much younger. This new blood, working professionally with these old fashioned crafts, is just another example of the difference between the role of letterpress compared to here.
Rather lovely proofs and prints pinned to the foundry walls.
Visiting The Arion Press was a fantastic, eye-opening experience. The difference between letterpress printing in America and the UK was staggering. Although still a relatively niche printing process – with a rather small, exclusive market – the print shop felt very commercial and strangely modern. The scale gave us some insight into what a printers and foundry would have been like before the introduction of litho and then digital printing came along. But it was the sheer quantity (and quality) of type in cabinets and being cast that was most impressive. It was awe inspiring. And we desperately wanted to poke through it all. No such luck, maybe another time... But should you be passing through San Fransisco, this amazing place is very much worth a visit.