Saving the Soul of the Book Club of California

Peter KochI am writing this letter with the view of fomenting comment, rebellion and even, heaven forbid . . .  a change in policy to try to save the fine printer from extinction and save the soul of the Book Club of California.

I find myself fondly remembering the good old days before the Club was rich and had an endowment to preserve it. Why, back then books, keepsakes and lovely letterpress postcards simply poured out with a heap of real talented printers providing their graceful work: Adrian Wilson, Jack Stauffacher, Arlan Philpot, Wesley Tanner, Linnea Gentry, Pat Reagh, Susan Acker, Lewis & Dorothy Allen, Jim Whelage, Lawton Kennedy, the Grabhorns, the Hoyem enterprises, and Cranium Press, and Five Trees Press among many others.

The irony of this hasn’t escaped me.

I once delighted in receiving (as much as I delighted in designing and printing) fine letterpress announcements for books, exhibitions and lectures, each splendid design a challenge to print and a suitable and exciting piece worthy of keeping. The members back then were keeping albums of their announcements and it all had a different feeling — a feeling of pride and accomplishment.

Today I receive unattractive offset-printed mailings and e-blasts telling me about the Club activities (nary a collector’s letterpress printer-friendly lifesaving postcard) which I, on occasion, must rescue from my Trash file. Is this somehow prophetic? Have we slipped down the slope of some anti-arts-and-crafts ditch to eschew manu-facture for the questionable benefits of robo-facture?

The irony of this hasn’t escaped me.

Now I am told that the Book Club of California’s quarterly newsletter is to be “modernized”, that is, printed offset instead of letterpress. Is this owing to reduced budget (again)?

I know all too well that the quarterly newsletter is (was) the only American letterpress bibliophile newsletter (that is, it was finely printed and finely designed as well). Instead of supporting the extremely fragile and clearly endangered community of letterpress printers — now drastically reduced in numbers, we expand our quarters, add a webmaster and, what next — put in a video theater? All very well in flush times but now at the expense of the heart of the beast. Are we to forget the letterpress-born, typographically-bred, aesthetically educated printer/publishers and craftsmen and women and let the robots do the work?

I wouldn’t mention all this if I felt that the fine arts of typographic design, type-founding, and the great bibliophilic tradition of the letterpress printing of books were not in extreme danger of disappearing altogether.

For instance, the Whittington Press’s Matrix, as far as I know, is now the only surviving journal actually printed from Monotype typesetting in the world, and when John Randle retires there will likely never be another.

However, the awful truth is that we long ago passed beyond the era of fine letterpress printed books. But this does not mean that we should give up expecting to print and publish fine books.

Au contraire. It means that the rarity of the enterprise should be appreciated and amply supported. If we do not cultivate and actively subsidize our remaining few highly trained and commercially viable type-founders and fine press typographer/printers we will lose them altogether — and very, very soon.

How that subsidy should be arranged is the most pressing question that remains once we have accepted that the fine press book does deserve to continue to exert itself and flourish in the pantheon of the arts of man.

I recommend and support the idea that the membership of the BCC look closely at the policies, practices, and fiscal commitments and resources of the publications committee, the Grants committee, and the practices of our office management (where printed matter is commissioned on a repeated and regular basis (including stationery, business cards, announcements, mission statements, and ephemera relating to all the diverse club activities), in order to assess what printed matter could be directed towards nourishing the remaining few printers as well as what grants could be sought and initiated that would in turn directly support the goal of promoting the practices and practitioners of fine press printing.

Instead of complaining about the high cost of letterpress, why not seek funding resources to augment the production of printed matter while continuing to spread the custom out among the surviving printers in as liberal a manner as possible (remembering at every step of the way that cost-cutting and bottom-lining will assuredly kill the fine press printer as soon — or sooner — than any other form of neglect.)

Since it is the already-stated mission of the BCC to support fine printing, why not expend serious energy on the project of dramatically increasing the funding available for printing and publications? Seems absolutely defensible and indeed likely to help direct and focus the club on its mission — and beyond. . . .

— Peter Koch

Note: The Book Club of California’s directors and officers are listed here.

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2 Responses to “Saving the Soul of the Book Club of California”

  1. J.O. Bugental Says:

    Peter’s issues are based on a larger question: If the Book Club of California abandons letterpress, who will continue to use the time-honored craft? If not BCC, then who?

    The club has as one of its stated objectives the protection of the “book arts.” The current politicians and bean counters among the members seem to have forgotten this obligation, which should have a higher priority in the decision-making process.

  2. Michael Seitz Says:

    It is rather odd that a group founded on the craftsmanship of the making of books is willing to leave the time honored process of letterpress for the rapidly disappearing realm of offset-lithography. I would suspect that some designer is wishing and desiring full color images.

    Alas,offset lithography is rapidly being replaced by “Digital” printing, which is little more than a xerographic fantasy. If the publication that represents the pinnacle of the fine book enjoins with a process that anybody can do anywhere online–then all the Book Club of California becomes is a minor school of design or of bindery, and what value or cachet is that? You may as well distribute the newsletter on a Kindle.

    I think there is are a number of individuals with the capability to produce the newsletter and there are probably more interested parties than there were five or ten years ago. Raise the flag and invite them to print your work before abandoning the technology that gave you the reason for being.

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