Print Shop

Seattle, USA
May 23, 2014

I was just dropping by for a cup of tea. I hadn't expected a technical, in-depth conversation that will likely influence the direction of my academic writing over the next year. Had I thought about it beforehand I would have realized how the particular friend I was calling on had a far richer knowledge about my thesis topic than I did, myself.

Maralyn and David
Maralyn and I worked alongside each other during an operation for the U.S. Census Bureau back in 2009. It was easy, temporary work: address canvassing. The recession taking place over that time meant that an interesting assortment of people from all backgrounds were working alongside me. Maralyn was one of few co-workers who I liked, immediately. She was a kindly artist approaching retirement. I recall her having initial reservations about mastering the hand-held computer we were each issued to manage address and location data in early days of the operation--then quickly cottoning on to how the device worked. In early days I had no idea that it would be Maralyn who would wind up the last census taker working alongside me at the end of the project when all of our co-workers had dropped out at one point in time or another.

We often canvassed adjacent census tracts so met on occasion for mid-day dim sum at a restaurant off MLK and Myrtle. We'd gripe about that day's follies of census-taking and contemplate who coule possibly last longer working the operation. Though I've been constantly away from Seattle after that brief time we worked together the two of us retained a casual level contact after the operation completed. I'd call on her and her partner when passing through Seattle. I even managed to attend the opening of an exhibtion displaying a retrospective of her work once while in town.

David in Print Shop
So, a couple weeks ago I figured I'd come calling, again. Maralyn lives just three blocks from Greg's family. I happened to be in the area. There were lots of years and lots of gaps to catch each other up on. When she asked what I was specifically focusing on in my studies I launched into a pat introduction that I attempt each time I try to explain my thesis topic. It's hard to explain without sharing lots of background. That piece of writing will focus on a subject that, to anybody else, would be considered an arcane topic: a particular transition in printing-press technology across the subcontinent in the early 19th century. At one point early on in my explanation I asked what might have been a fair question to anybody else:

"So, do you know the difference between printing presses that use lithography and those that use moveable type?"

I forget which exact words Maralyn chose in responding. They surely wouldn't have been anything so self-assured along the lines of, "Of course I do." However it was she did respond, she quickly brought up the fact that much of her work as an artist has been centered around using an old stone lithographic press. I immediately remembered that on a previous Seattle visit we had once met at an old print shop atop Beacon Hill that still ran letter presses: a place that her friends had established four decades prior. She clearly had far more experience than I did with the topic.

Arabic Typesetting
I had understood the process of stone lithography only vaguely from secondary sources. At her apartment, Maralyn showed me the actual objects used in such print-making and explained how they functioned. There was a block of limestone quarried in Germany. A jar of something called "Carborundrum" that treated the stone to make the inverse of a sketch etched upon its surface ink-repellent. Maralyn mentioned with a whinge of regret that it had been only two years prior that she finally sold off her beloved limestone press to some hotshot professor at the School for Performing Arts in New York. She sealed my initial hands-on education to stone lithography by giving me a signed and numbered print of a piece she had created decades prior.

I've gotten together with Maralyn twice again (yet far) since that time dropping in for tea. Both of the more recent times we've met have been up at Day Moon Press, her friends' labor of love up on Beacon Hill. When I first came by the print shop last week I was introduced to her friends Jules and Maura--both of whom had been running moveable type presses in that shop for forty years. I gave them a quick summary of my thesis topic then left them to do the rest of the talking, correcting my terminology and showing me examples of what I was supposed to become authority on. An extremely rare double-volume displaying examples of type-setting in the 19th century, including some from my very topic--text in the Arabic script--was retrieved from some special keeping place in the living quarters above the print shop. I couldn't believe what good luck I'd fallen into through a chance re-connection with an old friend.

Galleys Slotted
Beneath Stone
Everybody in the print shop agreed that The Tamarind Book of Lithography Art & Techniques would be the next book for me to consult for grasping the overall printing process. When my hosts occasionally spoke of a dreaded upcoming move of presses and printing galleys--a major endeavor scheduled to take place in a couple weeks--I offered to help lend some muscle. That would be the least I could do to repay these kind, traditional printers for sharing the story of their trade with me--and would allow me another opportunity inside the print shop.

This morning, I made good on my offer and came by to help. The object at-hand was moving galleys of fonts out from slots beneath a central stone for temporary storage while the shop was being re-arranged. I learnt that sets of solid-lead blocks of individual letters, numbers, and punctuation marks weigh a hell of a lot: I very nearly dropped the tray bearing the first galley out onto the floor as I pulled it out of the slats beneath the stone to port over to where Maura was temporarily stacking them. Sweat as I did, what a great time I had with such good people! Next week, a forklift will come in to do the real moving, transporting old printing presses to the back of the shop and loading one onto a truck to transport to a new venture by a former apprentice.

Maura Stacks Font Galleys
Taken From Central Stone
At one point I casually mentioned that I had run offset lithography presses back in high school--a wholly different process from the more traditional printing they do at Day Moon. It turned out that Maura had first gotten into printing through the very same instructor. We both attended the same high school though our tenure was on far opposite ends of sequential decades. I can't think of anything else I could have done while here or back in Montreal that would have been more germane to my thesis research.

I promised Maralyn that I'll stop back in for another cup of tea while I'm stay at Greg's family's home at the end of my Seattle visit later this month. Thank you, dear friend from days of the Census! You've done both me and my upcoming research the most amazing favor just by being you...