Letterpress List No. 31: Ink-Stained

“Quality Is Not an Option.”

This was the slogan, in large plastic letters, for a crummy little service station that Mary and Shop Boy often passed on the way to the printshop in Baltimore. Each time, we’d giggle. The station’s gone now — not a real big surprise there. But we still chortle over a statement that must have seemed so right at the time, but was so, so wrong. We’re word people by trade and love to have a laugh at the expense of others’ bloopers.

Helps draw attention away from our own mistakes, you know?

See, we met at a newspaper, where a grammatical goof like that would inspire a raft of good-natured — and not-so-good-natured — ribbing. The pace was pretty frenetic, and it happened. When Bob Rogers, our copy desk chief at the time, would spot an inadvertently tortured turn of phrase in our work, he’d guffaw, then bellow out: “St. Angelo! Let me explain something about the English language that you apparently missed.” Then Shop Boy-to-be would have to get up and glumly pass all of my snickering deskmates on the way to Bob’s desk, where he’d fill me in. I’d return the favor when it was their turn to walk the walk.

You learned to read and write carefully as a means of self-preservation.

But sometimes weird things got past even Bob, and that’s where the newspaper’s old printers — who were now simply cut-and-paste crews — chimed in. Ooh. You want to catch an earful? Want your cheeks to flush with embarrassment? Let your mistake be loudly caught by one of these guys. But they were sharp, it helped the newspaper and we understood that some of the testiness arose from their fall as tradesmen.

See, in the old days, printers were respected — and well-compensated — craftsmen who’d spent years honing their skills, for whom fixing a typo wasn’t a one-keystroke affair but a work of art. Now the rug had been pulled out from under them by these kids and their computers. They were on their way out the door, and they were determined not to go quietly but by proudly defending their craft — and punctuation, by god — until the end.

Now, Shop Boy’s no doubt made a few gaffes in this space that would make a gas station attendant blow soda out of his nose. But we won’t dwell on that.

We’re here to remember a group of guys — mostly — who invented and helped implement much of what is modern letterpress printing. Leading on a computer program? Once made of lead. Kerning? It sometimes involved reshaping lead letters by hand to make spacing between them more uniform. Shop Boy could feel that craftsmanship even in a Virginia printshop overrun by rodents and turned into a jumble by the passing years. But it was more than that.

These guys were, in a way, the keepers of the English language. In the end, that was all that many of them were allowed to offer. Lord knows, some of us kids needed the help.

Oh, some of them are still out there somewhere, printing away, which is why Shop Boy cringes whenever Mary tells people about my great skill at setting lead type. You know, pulling the old lead letters from the job case, arranging them with the proper spacing, etc., then tying off the form with string so that it can be carried around without spilling — or pie-ing.

Can I do it? Sure. But for Shop Boy, it’s still a tentative proposition. So I avoid using it for important jobs. This weekend, for instance, Mary had a brainstorm about how to use old, lead monogram initials for part of a design on a close friend’s personal notecard. I came up with 1,000 reasons why we shouldn’t do it the old way.

“Oh, come on, Shop Boy,” Mary insisted. “Do it.”

And 30 minutes after my whining subsided, the hand-set monogram was locked firmly into the chase and on the press. Now, believe me, Shop Boy’s efforts were nothing to write home about (real printers are scoffing at the notion that setting a simple monogram took a half-hour, and I got the initials reversed a few times). But, OK, it was a fun little reminder of why the old way was once so greatly valued.

The cards were beautiful, the cotton paper bearing witness to Mary’s wise choice in buying the old monogram set. The letters are in great shape.

She patted Shop Boy on the head, then immediately one-upped me by adding a couple of options — line rules to really make the card look finished. Took her three minutes. Quality stuff.


Letterpress List No. 31

How about an hour of music to diagram sentences or set type by? Most of these tunes should be available in the usual places. Great and goofy video links are to YouTube.

Portrait (He Knew)Kansas (“More than me or you” … you or I?)
A Gallon of Gas the Kinks (Can’t be purchased anywhere for any amount of cash.)
American IdiotGreen Day (Quality either.)
Skills to Pay the Bills Beastie Boys (Money-making.)
Melt With You Modern English (Before fully digital newspapering.)
Sunday Papers Joe Jackson (Printers good; editors bad.)
Quality Control Jurassic 5 (Good job.)
The JokerSteve Miller Band (Ha-ha-ha.)
DumbNirvana (In the end, yes.)
SignsFive Man Electrical Band (Imagine that … me working for you.)
TributeTenacious D (They pied the type and lost the prize.)
RingoLorne Greene (“Under his heart was an ounce of lead.” Been there. Shop Boy remembers hearing this first on an old transistor radio and thinking … cool.)
Wrong WaySublime (Very wrong. But it feels right somehow.)
Tentative System of a Down (Channeling Shop Boy’s inner fears.)
Sink or Swimthe Waifs (Dive right in.)
Say What You Say
Eminem (A little trip down Memory Lane with Dr. Dre.)
ThinkAretha Franklin (And respect those who came before.)
Back in the DayBlues Traveler (There was a time …)

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