Book Design, Demon Deacons, and Marty McFly

maybe we should have lain in the
poppies before attempting layouts

Last week, I celebrated the Great Thaw with a post-Spring Break visit to Wake Forest University. I was meeting with a group of creative writing students who wanted to make chapbooks of their semester’s writings. Book Arts seemed to be a bit of a mystery to them, but we tried to complete a crash course in two and a half hours.

Some things we learned:

1. Layouts are tricky (I have no doubt they would use more colorful adjectives here) when working in MS Word.

2. While the digital age has made some of this easier, there is no substitution for the physical mock-up.

3. Seriously. Make a mock-up. Avoid tears.

4. When working on layouts, and working with finicky printers, allow yourself plenty of time for trial and error, and failure. Ample time. This is something not to be avoided–it will help your understanding to make mistakes, and then see why they are mistakes.

5. There’s a lot more to books than most people think.

The students were real troopers. When they started to get a little bleary-eyed, I had to remind them that they were doing in 2 hours what most people would do in days, if not weeks. They felt a little better after that, and then mastered the sewing of single pamphlets. “I have a new appreciation for my books,” one of them said. “I had no idea all of this went into books.”

Ha! I thought. Tip of the iceberg. But she was hooked on book-making. I could tell by the way she slid her fingers along the pages of handmade paper.

letterpress

When not guiding students through the gauntlet that is Layout, I was touring a secret part of the library where there is a sweet little print shop taking shape. Craig Fansler has procured a sweet little C&P that came with matching guillotine and type cases. He’s just getting started, printing occasional broadsides for visiting poets (including Poet Laureate Joseph Bathanti), covers for student chapbooks, and other university projects. He uses the shop with his library science students, but has plans to expand into the broader spectrum of book arts. It’s pretty exciting to see a budding program. And it all started with his simply question on BriarPress, that went something like, “Hey, does anyone out there have a press they’d like to donate to a university?” A man less than five miles away emailed him and said he was cleaning house after decades of job printing–his children didn’t want these beauties. (I know, right? I’ll give you a moment to recover from that.)

Look at the adorable counter on this press. Who could turn this away?

 
Another noteworthy gadget he’d unearthed? This little plate gauge:
 
gage-it
 
I am going on a search for one of these immediately. Added bonus: the spaces along the top help to measure the point size of type–and all of that rogue spacing material that accumulates in the studio faster than dust bunnies. Genius. Where can I find these Blatchford folks, and why have I not heard of them until now?
 
Bonus round: The delightful Amy Catanzano arranged some lovely accommodations for me. This is the Graylyn Estate and Conference Center, former home of Bowman Gray (founder of Wachovia and former RJ Reynolds salesman). You can read more about Graylyn’s history here, but suffice it to say I felt like if I wandered through those halls late enough at night, I might still hear the ghosts of flappers giggling and sloshing sidecars. 
 
graylyn estate
 

The house held some amazing little oddities, like an altar shaped like a carousel horse and walls that had been recovered from a Turkish mosque that was being torn down. The fitness room featured tiles painted with camels and pyramids (this of course made more sense when an employee reminded me that Gray was a maker of Camel cigarettes, which of course was a Turkish blend).

One of the best surprises was this room, which once upon a time was the indoor pool. Now it’s a dining room, but when I walked in, all I could picture was Marty McFly tearing up that little red guitar with some Chuck Berry at the “Enchantment Under the Sea” dance. I sort of expected him to skitter out at any moment.



All in all, it was a nice way to usher in spring. I’m sure Amy’s students were wishing they had a dance to go to after that power session of book design, but here’s a footnote: after class, they went home, played around with their mock-ups, and figured out how to print the designs they wanted. She forwarded their emails to me as proof that they forged ahead and finished what we started. I’ll settle for that kind of enchantment, and look forward to seeing more book arts action with the Demon Deacons and their little green machines.