by Wendy Plump // Photography by Andrew Wilkinson
David Sellers pulls open a narrow wooden drawer that makes a delicious clattering noise as it slides forward, as of many tiny, jumbled items clicking around inside. And there are many tiny, jumbled items – thin, matchstick-sized pieces of lead with raised figures on the ends. They are letters and numerals, commas and hyphens, lower-case and upper-case fonts ready to be assembled into a block of type, hand-rolled with ink and pressed onto a dampened piece of paper.
This humble drawer is where the whole process of making a book by hand gets down to the fundamentals.
There are not many people who do this kind of work commercially anymore, making a book by hand using lead type and antique presses that have all but vanished from the publishing world. But through his Hopewell-based workshop, Pied Oxen Printers, Sellers has been producing limited editions of contemporary poetry for the past few years. He designs, prints and binds books of such exquisite craftsmanship that you can only wonder why every book isn’t still made this way.
Take, for example, Sellers’s most recent title, Letters Censored, which is actually just one poem taken out of poet Adrienne Rich’s oeuvre. It is a case study in the art of devotion.
The cover of the book is bound with Belgian linen. A hand-sewn colored headband goes through the top and bottom of the book’s signature folds.
The poem is printed in black ink using Garamond type on textured Somerset Bookwove paper, which was made at St. Cuthbert’s Mill in England.
The two intaglio prints enclosing the text of the poem were drawn by New York artist Nancy Grossman on copper plates, and then etched, steel-faced and printed into the book. A glassine cover separates the prints from the text.
And it’s large. At 13×17 inches, Letters Censored takes up most of a tabletop. It makes you get up out of a chair to open it and peer down at its stanzas. It is a posture perfectly suited to the occasion of reading a serious poem – and of reading it from a seriously crafted book. One hundred editions of Letters Censored were produced. It is the most expensive book in Sellers’ list of publications. It costs $3,500.
“The books are very much about detailed design,” says Sellers, who is 60. “I like detailed work. Why go to the trouble if you’re not going to make it well or create a design that is going to please you?” This commitment to detail runs through every undertaking. The letterpress studio, for instance, took seven years for Sellers and his three sons to finish building, and he’d been planning it for decades.
“I make the book that I want to make, but I’m making it in collaboration with the poet and the artist,” he explains. “There needs to be harmony among the printing, artwork and book’s design and structure, and what the poet and the artist commissioned to do the art are trying to say. In the end it’s the book that I want to make, but it has to have that harmony. What I tried to do with this one poem is like taking a painting and mounting it and framing it in a way that really allows the viewer to see it in the best possible light. The typography and the overall design serve the purpose of presenting the poetry in conjunction with the artwork in the most respectful way.”
AN ARTISAN’S STUDIO
Sellers’s studio is meticulously, even artfully, arranged. A couple of stone Buddhas in various postures of repose are displayed on a wooden shelf that runs across the top of the room – “my spiritual advisors,” says Sellers. The type is assembled in cabinets at one corner of the room, including the fonts that are gathered and organized into what is known as a California Job cabinet. Five hundred years of printing has gone into the cabinet’s setup, such that the layout and trays of fonts would be recognizable to a book printer from another century.
Six different presses are snugged into the small space. A book lover would swoon at the sight of them with their fulcrums and foot treadles and cast-iron features. But the utilitarian beauty is apparent to anyone, book lover or not. The two most prominent presses look like something straight out of Charles Dickens’s London.
The largest is a hand press made by Hopkinson & Cope in Finsbury, London. Sellers points out varied pieces that were cast and forged and welded together to make it, all of which he had to take apart and then reassemble to get the press into his second-floor studio. He is especially proud of its manufacturing date, gleaming in gold numerals across the front—1848.
“There was a lot going on that year,” Sellers deadpans. “The French Revolution of 1848, for instance. I like that, because the printing press had a significant political impact on what was happening.”
Various tools line the walls of Sellers’s studio—power saws to cut lead, mitres to execute borders, mortisers, hand rollers to apply the ink. All the equipment needed to enable Sellers to execute the very design that he sees fit for a particular project.
Some of these instruments are quite rare, found only in museums or through online antiquing sites. “I had to be pretty tenacious in collecting the pieces of the puzzle,” Sellers explains. Still, he is clear that his goal with Pied Oxen Printers is to produce contemporary poetry books using only the most contemporary typography and book design elements.
The fonts he chooses, for example, are either modern designs such as Palatino or Optimal or classic typefaces like Caslon and Garamond re-figured for the 20th century. Sellers chooses them with infinite care when he is working on a book.
“With Adrienne, for example, she said her poem is really at the intersection of politics and intimacy. When she said that, something just clicked. I had to really think about that, about how the poem would sit on the page to represent that. It’s hard to know what it means in the abstract, but what it means here is whether I had to go to a larger typeface. If it was too large it would run the risk of shouting the poem at you and losing the intimacy.
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