At present (late March 2019) the Davidson College Letterpress Lab has been in active use for about seven months. This has involved entire classes, and smaller volunteer or extra-credit groups, members of the Fall ’18 Theatre production, staff from Special Collections, and the Humes Core. I may be forgetting some at the moment, but I’m already looking ahead to late spring collaborations with the Van Every/Smith Galleries and follow-up group projects with classes that will return to the lab. And then there are the summer commissions (three forthcoming projects, including book-projects with two poets whose work I love and am eager to treat, and an international collaboration put on by the Centre for the Study of the Book, University of Oxford). Oh, and there will be a July Experience course in the lab, too (students born with both feet firmly in the 21st century will take over the lab and spend some time in the 16th!).
We’ve been busy! Before the entire campus community turns the corner into the last sprint to the finish here in the spring semester, I wanted to take a moment and put together some images and notes about the development of the lab over the course of the past eight or nine months. This will be a longer post, and I hope it will both serve as a record of this development as well as (perhaps) helpful guidelines for colleagues at other institutions who may be planning or developing similar initiatives on their campuses. I’ve done this twice now, so someone reading between the lines might read a few “do’s and don’t’s” in this post (or, perhaps some “don’t’s and don’t’s,” as the case may be…).
What I’ve built at Davidson began with packing up part of my prior lab in central New York, and I unloaded what I think may have been the last large truckload about two weeks ago (in mid-March, over the college spring break). Anyone who has moved from one apartment to another knows a move is disruptive, but this has been an ongoing slow-burn–or better yet, a glacial drift, since by my count I’ve located, packed, moved, and installed about 21,000 lbs of type and equipment in the past 8 months. In addition to the heavy lifting, this has involved transporting my own equipment, coordinating space considerations at my new destination, locating (and retrieving) new equipment, and planning, building, and stocking the space I have. I don’t have pictures of every moment, but I’ll try to illustrate the major steps (and narrate when I don’t have images).
My former lab was in a basement. In many ways, it was a great space–a concrete floor and open floor-plan, high ceilings, lots of wall-space, and off the beaten track. The down-side: few windows, hard for students and faculty to find, and it was in the basement of a dorm, which raised issues of access as well as additional environmental concerns. When it came time to move the portion of the lab that was coming with me to North Carolina, it was a matter of rigging out the press, and manually removing the modular items (hand-tools, leading and furniture, and other sundries). Forty-five cases of type and two type cabinets also came with me (also removed by hand). In the images below, these items are prepped for removal–up a flight of stairs, and with not one but two sharp right angles on the way out.
In another post, I’ve written about how the afternoon before this rigging was happening, I was at another location retrieving additional type and tools. My goal was to arrive at Davidson College with a “demonstration-ready” lab: a small variety of type and a functional press. I was also retrieving what’s affectionately known as “a project press” for restoration, with the eventual goal of a multi-press lab where various projects could run concurrently, and full classes could be accommodated. In conversation with some absolutely incredible administrators and facilities and maintenance folk at Davidson, I’d already described from afar the type of space I’d need: ground-floor with street access (no more basements, please!), access to water and electricity, ventilation, access control. One day, while all these moving parts were in motion, I received a lovely cell-phone video of a space, approached from the street. To put it bluntly, it was perfect. I coordinated my own box truck arrival with my rigger and some personnel from the college, and we arrived on a rainy summer day to unload.
After the heaviest items were unloaded and inside the space, it was my job to unpack, organize, and arrange. Unbelievably, this lovely location had been used to store tables and chairs until I’d put in a request for space. Initially, the small parcel I’d brought with me seemed to swim a bit in the space, and I knew I wanted to build a little more. I unpacked what I’d brought, but with an eye toward what I hoped to add.
PLANNING AND NEW ACQUISITIONS
In central New York, I’d had great access to some truly remarkable press-resources, including the typefoundry of Mike and Winnie Bixler, Wells College, and Boxcar Press. Students loved visiting these, and I was interested in finding destinations here in North Carolina where I could develop similar experiential learning trips. Years ago, I’d learned about Crayton-Heritage, a local printing house in the South End of Charlotte. In relation to my research on the remarkable Jargon Society Press, I’d contacted the current owner: a “Heritage Press,” in Charlotte, was mentioned in the back matter of various Jargon publications, and might Crayton-Heritage be related?
As it turns out, Heritage had been purchased and consolidated with another printing house in the early aughts; the former owner had in fact worked with Jargon, but that was a long time ago, and nothing research-worthy came of that contact. When I contacted Crayton-Heritage again, and asked about a preliminary visit to tour and set up future class visits, however, something wonderful happened. The short version is, due to the remarkable timing of my arrival to North Carolina and an impending relocation for Crayton-Heritage, we were able to negotiate the transfer of a vast amount of type and equipment from Crayton-Heritage to Davidson College. A remarkable, happy coincidence. The material we planned to transfer was in fact the foundry type that had formerly been owned by Heritage Press. We did a quick survey of that material, and counted about a dozen cabinets.
By various estimates, a California case full of type is anywhere between twenty and eighty pounds; a case full of big type, or excessively full of a smaller size can be over one-hundred pounds. A not-at-all-scientific average might be about forty pounds per case. A cabinet has twenty-four cases. A sixteen-foot box truck is rated at approximately 3,500 pounds. This was the math in my head, over and over, for the past six months. I made four retrieval trips, breaking the type collection into four four-cabinet groups, and moving these groups into their new location during extended semester breaks: Fall Break, Winter Break, Spring Break (twice in one week). Each load was, by my estimate, right around the load-limit of the truck. (Each load was also loaded and unloaded entirely by hand.)
Over the course of the Fall Semester, Winter Break, and Spring Semester, I retrieved a truly unique selection of materials. For tax purposes, we had the entire allotment appraised by an outside party; an expert in commercial letterpress. Out of deference to both the college and Crayton-Heritage, I’ll keep those details private, but I will share that box-truck rental for about ten days (a few two-day rentals and a few three-day rentals) would be equivalent to the price of a few fonts of type on eBay or elsewhere; for the same price, and a little sweat equity, we acquired a type library several hundred times that value and size.
Some of it is dirty; some of it is damaged; some of it is incomplete; but the vast majority of what we did acquire is useful, in good condition, and is unique to our region and to the literary history I research. Now that it’s all here (I think…!), I look forward to working through the acquisition: cleaning what needs to be cleaned, organizing and cataloging what we have, and introducing students and the campus community to this work and this history.
While Heritage did the majority of its book-work by Linotype, there’s no small sentimentality–even awe, on my part–as I handle type that was used by compositors to set some of the books that shaped experimental American verse in the 1950s and 1960s. Jonathan Williams, proprietor of Jargon, produced his books at commercial shops; not all of them went through Heritage. At some point, I’d like to compile a review of the Jargon catalog, and identify those that were produced at Heritage, and see how our type library lines up with what was produced. Until that time, I’m grateful to have been able to build up the lab so quickly (this was a 4-year project in my former lab–accomplished here in about 6 months).