This is the second in a series describing my Publishing Timeline; the events, experiences and occupations that have somehow shaped my business life up until today.
Where I eventually washed up was near the beach in Pacific Grove, California, a sleepy town wedged between tony Carmel to the south and old Monterey to the north. I found a job at Creative Repro in Monterey, a shop run by an expat Cockney litho artist named Colin Relph. I now entered the world of photo lithography, the process of making the demanding and highly accurate film layouts that are used for offset platemaking.
The center of the shop was dominated by an offset camera. The back of the camera was set into a wall of a darkroom, and the rest of the camera consisted of the copy holder—a large glass-covered swiveling pressure frame— and a set of rails that ran about twenty feet to the wall of the building. Cranking the copy holder forward or back, and adjusting the back of the camera, allowed you to make enlargements and reductions.
Although it sounds positively medieval now, this technology was pretty state-of-the art at the time.
The Life of a Film Stripper
A lot of the work was accomplished sitting at light tables, hunched over stripping flats, rubylith screens and film negatives. Colin was a patient teacher and after a year I was a pretty competant offset camera man and film stripper. On slow days Colin would take a Cessna out of the Monterey airport and we’d fly up to Vacaville and have lunch at the Nut Tree restaurant, one of the few with its own airport.
The work could be demanding. Negatives had to be cut and spliced, flats had to be punched on a special precision hole punch and everything had to line up to within one-thousandth of an inch. Colin had practices we had to follow to ensure that not job ever left the shop with an error.
Because he was a small supplier to much larger businesses, like the local branch of McGraw Hill that developed textbooks and scannable exams, he had to make sure to not jeapordize his relationships. I learned to be precise, to be demanding when it came to satisfying our clients, and I started to understand the challenges of being in business.
It was while I was working at Creative Repro I met a group that would change my life. My interest in the practice of spirituality drew me into the group, and I spent the next twenty years affiliated with a Gurdjieff-oriented group of spiritual seekers. But even in the group I continued to be drawn to printing, publishing, graphic arts and the world of books.
Into the Monastic Life
Almost immediately, people learned about my background in graphic arts and literature, since I’d been a literature major at University, and I quickly got recruited to work on publications for the group. With the experience I brought to the group, we had soon embarked on more ambitious publications. To produce these books and booklets, we purchased an IBM Selectric Composer.
This was the first desktop typesetting machine, and it worked completely mechanically. You would type each line, then record a color/number code. When you retyped the line, you would plug this code into a special dial and the Composer would insert the right amount of space between each word to justify your copy. There was no correction.
Because the publications I was now working on were somewhat devotional, budgets did not have the constraints they might ordinarily have in business life. One year we designed and produced a perfect-bound book with poetry and color illustrations. It was printed on a fine watercolor paper, with the color illustrations tipped in by hand, and each covered by a sheet of tissue.
To frame these images I took a very valuable antique porcelain plate to a printer in San Francisco and helped photograph the plate to capture the very ornate, hand-painted gold border. This border was then made into a stamping die and used to stamp 22 karat gold foil onto the pages as a frame for the art reproductions. This production was so well done, and so over the top, that it won the gold medal that year from the Printing Institutes of America.
Into the Heart of Fine Printing
Although there were many printing, design and production challenges over the years, the next leap I took in the field came as a result of my interest in fine books, which inspired me to research the history of printing and to begin a plan to set up a high-end hand printing operation.
I studied the books of the early printers like Aldus Manutius and Nicholas Jenson, and became familiar with the long history of type forms and the people who had helped develop the art along the way. I began to visit the rare book rooms at the Huntington Library in Pasadena, and the Morgan Library when on visits to New York.
The story of how I ended up in England, in a windswept village at the edge of Cornwall, will have to wait for the next installment of the Publishing Timeline.