When Making Books Was As Much Of An Art As Writing Them

Gray Zeitz at his 1915 Chandler & Price printing press.

When was the last time you picked up a book and really looked at how it was made: the typeface, the feel of the paper, the way the words look on the page? Today, when people can read on their phones, some books never even make it to paper.

Once, bookmaking was an art as refined and distinct as the writing it presents. And in some places, like Larkspur Press in Kentucky, it still is.

For more than 40 years Gray Zeitz has been creating books one at a time in his two-story print shop near the town of Monterey. He works with the some of the state’s finest writers, including Wendell Berry and Bobby Ann Mason, and his Larkspur Press turns out just a few editions a year.

“I have had, and still do have, printers that come in that used to work on presses like this and they are just tickled to death,” says Zeitz, 69, showing me his 1915 Chandler & Price printing press. He cuts stacks of paper on another machine that dates from the late 1800s.

Zeitz left the University of Kentucky in the winter of 1974, half a semester away from finishing an English degree. He’d been learning letterpress work – the way individually set type makes an impression on high-quality paper –- and he wanted to make fine books, especially poetry. At that time, the letterpress craft was fading as printers moved to faster offset printing.

But to Zeitz the moment seemed right. He didn’t need electricity at first, or indoor plumbing. He’d grow tobacco to sell and they’d raise calves. Kentucky writers would be featured.

Later, to pay the bills, he added in smaller print jobs. “There was a point when my wife, Jean, came up to me and said, ‘Gray, you’re either going to have to start doing some of these jobs — job printing — or you’re going to have to go out and get a job.”

He began taking orders for things like business cards and wedding announcements. “That became interesting to me as well.”

In those days, Monterey was attracting hippies and musicians and artists and candlemakers. Early on they started a fall festival at Larkspur, and people come from all over the country to see the books Zeitz creates — to touch and feel their hand-sewn bindings and see the perfection Larkspur strives for in the pages.

“This whole concept of texture and lightness, there’s a kind of sensual quality just to the book itself,” says his friend Jack Campbell, who works in industrial design.

Gabrielle Fox is a professional bookbinder who’s done lots of high-end work for Larkspur. Every summer she goes out to Colorado to teach at the American Academy of Bookbinding.

“And the books that they sell to their students to begin learning are Larkspur Press books,” she says. “The students come from all over the world to that school.”

Zeitz has one full-time employee: Leslie Shane. “I have just sewn 20 of this little book of poetry by Erik Reece,” she says. “It’s called Animals at Full Moon. Now I’m just cutting them

Larkspur only brings out about four books a year, and they can be two years behind. If Gray Zeitz knew how to use a computer he could open the Larkspur Press home page and see the covers of 100 books he has on his shelves in inventory.

Some of the prices reach $200 for special editions, but the press is best known for the books they can sell for $20 or $25.

In another part of the shop, Gray Zeitz shows me the lead type, which he sets — each letter and space — by hand. “When the ink’s ready we’ll put this on the press and pull a proof and see what we have.”

At day’s end Zeitz shuts down his shop and walks up the hill to his house, which is a fading purple.

It’s a quiet house; Jean passed away four summers ago. His two dogs come over from playing in the creek.

“Well, I don’t intend to retire,” he says. “If I did retire then I’d just print books, so I might as well stay in business.”

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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

When was the last time you picked up a book and studied how it was made – the typeface, the feel of the paper, the way the words look on the page? These days, as people read on phones and tablets, some books never even make it to paper. There was a time when bookmaking was an art, as refined and distinct as the writing it presents. In a few places like Monterey, Ky., it is still that way. There, NPR’s Noah Adams visited a bookmaker whose limited edition printings are known around the world.

NOAH ADAMS, BYLINE: I went to Kentucky to spend a day at the Larkspur Press. It is a ways out in the country. The printer, Gray Zeitz, lives on a hillside beyond the low bridge that Sawdridge Creek. Gray Zeitz has an aging farmhouse here, his carefully designed two-story print shop. The main press is old black iron. It runs at a stately rhythm. It was made in 1915 by Chandler & Price.

GRAY ZEITZ: I have had, and still do have, printers come in that used to work on presses like this, and they are just tickled to death.

ADAMS: Gray Zietz did go out shopping for new fonts for the press – the metal letters and numbers, punctuations, different styles of typeface – but he insisted on a point size 14. He was only 22 then, but he knew 14 was big enough to be easy to set and that would make sense for an older printer.

ZEITZ: I did that because I intended to do this all my life.

ADAMS: In the winter of 1974, Gray Zeitz left the University of Kentucky. He was only a half-semester away from finishing an English degree, but he’d been learning letterpress work – the way individually set type makes an impression in high-quality paper – and wanted to publish fine books, especially poetry. The moment seemed right; didn’t need electricity at first or indoor plumbing. He’d grow tobacco to sell, they’d raise and sell calves, Kentucky writers would be featured, and they would have special editions that later got pricey, but Larkspur is best known for the books they can sell for $20 or $25.

ZEITZ: There was a point when my wife, Jean, came up to me and said, Gray, you’re either going to have to start doing some of these jobs, job printing, or you’re going to have to go out and get a job. And I thought maybe I’ll do some wedding announcements. And that became interesting to me as well. I didn’t – you know, thank goodness my wife forced me into it (laughter).

ADAMS: And so Larkspur Press became the county print shop – some extra money and it helped Zeitz think about design.

(CROSSTALK)

ADAMS: From the start, the neighbors included musicians, painters, candlemakers. They’d hold a festival at Larkspur. They still do. Lots of longtime fans show up from away, including Jack Campbell, who works in architectural design, but here his attention goes to printing.

JACK CAMPBELL: And this whole concept of texture and lightness, there’s a kind of sensual quality just to the book itself.

ADAMS: And I met Gabrielle Fox who often stops by. She’s a professional bookbinder who’s done lots of high-end work for Larkspur. Every summer, she goes out to Colorado to teach at the American Academy of Bookbinding.

GABRIELLE FOX: And the books that they sell to their students to begin learning are Larkspur Press books. And the students come from all over the world to that school.

LESLIE SHANE: I have just sewn 20 of this little book of poetry by Erik Reece. It’s called “Animals At Full Moon.” And now I’m just cutting them apart.

ADAMS: Leslie Shane, the one full-time employee, shows me some of her work. Larkspur only brings out about four books a year, and they can be two years behind. It continues to be the slowest possible printing.

ZEITZ: What I’m doing now is knocking down the type. When the ink’s ready, we’ll put this on the press and pull a proof and see what we have.

ADAMS: At the end of the day, Gray Zeitz, a letterpress printer for 45 of his 68 years, shuts down his shop, walks at a careful pace up the hill to a house that was long ago painted purple.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOGS BARKING)

ADAMS: His two dogs come over from playing in the creek.

ZEITZ: I don’t intend to retire. If I did retire, then I’d just print books, so I might as well stay in business.

Source:-.wpsu