Somewhere between Salt Lake City and Albuquerque, Michael D’Alessandro rumbles a U-Haul truck through National Park-laden landscapes on his way to Dallas, TX, where a Chandler and Price 8×12 Old Style Job Press awaits him. It’s 2009, and the acquisition of the press marks a new phase in the life of Bedouin Books—a micro-publishing endeavor Michael founded in San Francisco to give promising contemporary writers their first publishing credit, a springboard for further publication. Michael will bring this Job Press back to Portland and print covers for Bedouin’s books, no longer needing to borrow presses from friends. When Michael arrives in Dallas at the garage of a printer’s son, he finds the 1500 lb machine in perfect condition and loads it into his truck.
Today, the press sits in a building near Water Avenue on the SE waterfront, a neighborhood I’ve come to know as a place of nondescript creativity, where rent seems resistant to gentrification—because of hourly passing trains, or zoning—but the buildings are brick and big-wooden-beamed and have all the appeal of industrial, and big vacuous buildings are being rented by crafters, and by rock bands for rehearsal space. And, I’ll say again, the rent is cheap. I swerve under bridges and over bumpy train tracks and at one point I am caught in a maze of construction cones, but when I arrive I find a high concentration of printing presses (not the most quantity in Portland, but certainly the most variety): a Vandercook Universal III, Chandler & Price platen presses, a Curtis & Mitchell tabletop press, and the list goes on. Each machine is owned by a member of this printer’s co-op, called Em-Space, and each is serviced, maintained, and available for use by the other members. These are machines from the past and, despite the dominance of today’s digital printing methods, they remain efficient producers of beautiful print. The way we print and consume books has changed, but these machines remain the same, kept and shared at meccas like Em-Space.
Michael, who is forty-two, speaks in measured, deliberate sentences and looks with pensive eyes over his book design laying on the table. He wasn’t always a printer: he was an architect first, undertaking the design and implementation of commercial buildings. “But I got to the point in the profession where design was only 10% or less of the work,” he says, “and where long projects only allowed a month or two for design, I knew I had to do something else, so writing became my creative outlet.” And while seeking out publishers for his first book, Michael printed and bound a mock book that was as good as a final product, and the idea to be his own publisher was planted. “I fell in love with the process of printing, and I began building these books and finding other authors whose work I could print.”
On this day he’s contemplating a trivial detail: the little icon for the back cover of Lost River Fugue, a book by poet Nick Bozanic. Michael combs through wooden drawers of metal type, holding to the light several options like a fleur-de-lis (too haughty?), a blue jay (too surface), but finally picks out a scrubbing brush crossed out with two intersecting lines as if to say “do not clean.” The icon’s conspicuous placement on the back cover suggests great significance. But the brush is aloof and ambiguous in meaning, and so it’s an ironic fascination and Michael tightens his palm around it. His Chandler and Price press is awaiting repairs, so he heads to a Vandercook Union 3 in the corner of the room.
Michael packs the furniture—the printer’s term for the wooden blocks that surround a set of lettering to lock them in tight—around the no-scrubbing-brush icon, fitting it in with other elements: the title, the author’s name, and the ISBN. Set in 30 pt Caslon Bold Condensed, the title is inked in gold and a terminal blue river cuts diagonally across the cover. “The first print run will be 250 copies,” says Michael, “and those are hand bound in bunches of 40, and those bunches delivered to about 6 bookstores on the west coast.” The micro print run creates an exciting rarity, as only a philistine could deny the appeal of owning a book no one else has read.
Then he mixes the gold ink for the lettering, pushing the gelatinous puddle around a glass plate searching for the right tint. The Vandercook’s rollers begin spinning and he drips on the ink. The first test print results in light lettering, and a few letters don’t even show up, so he returns to the drawers to find replacement letters and he pads the roller to create a stronger impression. But then things are dialed in (enough saturation, not too much bite), and he’s lost in a sort of dance—the shifting of feet, lever pulling, and collating of papers—and he drops into a groove and spends 7 hours printing 250 covers.
Michael’s love for building things exudes itself when he’s binding the books, giving the cover shape by running a bone folder where the paper should crease, creating the form of a booklet into which the pages can be glued. We’re in a one-story home in the Foster-Powell neighborhood, where his binding table flanks a floor-to-ceiling bookshelf filled with Jack Kerouac, Woody Allen’s Side Effects, the 9/11 Report, Karl Marx’s Capital, the Qur’an, James Joyce, and on and on. At the table, Michael slips thread through three tiny holes along the book’s spine and ties a knot, loosely binding the pages together, which are later glued into the cover. Including printing and binding, Michael spends an average of 1 hour per book, a publishing process that is substantially longer than anything else I’ve seen. But he has integrated the attention of a craftsman into large-scale printing, an attention I see when he holds in his hand each book upon completion, feels the weight of it, flips through the pages, and checks the spine for binding strength. It’s a publishing process that mirrors the quality of writing held inside, ensuring that well written words are well delivered. And with so few publishers printing young writers who have the potential to be tomorrow’s best sellers, it’s a process to which Bedouin Books is committed to, and one that sets its apart.
Bedouin Books currently sells over 15 books online. See the collection here
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