In a world that has increasingly gone digital, San Francisco’s Arion Press continues the handicraft of book making.
Descend into the lower level of the Arion Press building in the Presidio in San Francisco and you’ll stumble upon a scene from Victorian times. Rows of century-old machines “putt-putt-putt” and “rat-tat-tat-tat” as they form molten lead into type, and two young men in coveralls—who wouldn’t look out of place at Intelligentsia on Abbot Kinney—pore over the temperamental contraptions. It’s a page from a steampunk novel: Victorian aesthetic, historic sounds, the relaxed cool of people obsessed with process, a fresh counterpoint to the tech revolution occurring in this city. “It’s like preserving a piece of history,” says apprentice Chris Godek of the type of work they do, setting type by hand, running archaic monotype casting machines, hand-feeding a 1915 platen press or hand-sewing the bindings.
Fine printers Arion Press occupy a unique perch in the print ecosystem. Within the nonprofit Grabhorn Institute, which is designed to perpetuate historic fine printing and book making, there are two for-profit subdivisions: Mackenzie & Harris Type creates metal type that is sold to other printers, designers and artists, and Arion Press draws together disparate collaborators to create intellectually and artistically exciting limited-edition books.
Under founder and director Andrew Hoyem, Emily Dickinson’s poetry is paired with images by Kiki Smith; pulp icon Jim Thompson’s book South of Heaven is illustrated with 44 drawings by Raymond Pettibon; and The Great Gatsby’s art deco landscaping, buildings and grounds are realized by Princetonian architect Michael Graves. The press does two or three of these books per year, and some of them, such as their New Revised Standard Version Folio Bible or their Cervantes Don Quixote, sell for thousands of dollars. “We like to think [buyers] are getting something that is truly interesting,” says Hoyem, natty in his bow tie and heavy suit.
Fresh off producing a run of the first edition of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, the team of 12 is currently producing a series of poems by Pulitzer Prize winner Jorie Graham with color prints by painter Julian Lethbridge, and 300 copies of the Sicilian classic The Leopard by aristocrat Giuseppe di Lampedusa. Hoyem and his wife, Senior Editor Diana Ketcham, were on vacation in Sicily when they decided to reconnect with old acquaintance and Lampedusa’s literary heir, Gioacchino Lanza Tomasi. Meeting with the patrician Tomasi at his grand home by the sea in Palermo, “we were inspired to publish The Leopard, which we already admired,” says Ketcham. “The powerful landscape of Sicily and the palazzo with Lampedusa’s library and manuscripts… Often it is this rapport with an author or scholar that propels a project forward.” With Tomasi’s blessing, the two worked together to secure images from the 1963 classic film by Luchino Visconti.
No detail is left to chance when making a book: Hoyem maintains a long list of authors, scholars for introductions, and artists for projects. Then the margins, paper type, font size and bindings are all deliberately considered. For The Leopard, Hoyem selected a period type, “more elegant than anything that would have been printed in Sicily [at that time],” he says. It’s important for him to create the right ambience for a novel about Sicily in the 1860s, an approach called allusive typography.
This detail work is where Hoyem’s deep experience resonates. The founder, poet and project architect got into the print world in S.F. by joining a small press in the 1960s, publishing Beat poetry and generally enjoying the lively literary scene. He briefly shared an apartment with Trout Fishing in America author Richard Brautigan and around the same time got involved with the historic Grabhorn Press, later becoming partners with the younger Grabhorn brother and eventually absorbing all their equipment. Arion was launched in 1974. Hoyem took on even more press paraphernalia when he purchased the Mackenzie & Harris type foundry in the ’80s.
When the press lost their lease on Bryant Street in 1999 due to the dot-com real estate boom, they created the nonprofit Grabhorn Institute and were able to get financial help moving their 100 tons of type inventory, various presses and casting machines to a former steam factory in the Presidio. “The thought of all these beautiful machines and typefaces being scrapped and melted down…people thought ‘no, no, no,’” says Hoyem.
The entire staff painted the interior of their new space, which includes a gallery, library and offices on the main level, and the foundry, pressroom and bindery below. Around the same time Hoyem launched a four-year paid apprentice program to continue preserving the craft skills required for a full-functioning letterpress print operation, including a type foundry. Now, the light-filled rooms are packed with young people, earnestly working from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. on the dot.
After 40 years at the helm, Hoyem is looking to pass along the reins: “We need someone with publishing acumen, who appreciates fine books, and it’d be nice to have someone with editorial drive,” he says. Perhaps someone from tech? “They come here all the time from those companies,” Hoyem notes, “like Apple.” And they say, “This is cool. This is real cool.” arionpress.com.
Written and edited by Elizabeth Khuri Chandler.
Photographed by Leslie Williamson.