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.
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.
ADAMS: Noah Adams, NPR News.
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