Making a Long Story Long

Let Shop Boy tell you a story.

Actually, let me tell you two stories. Nah, nah … three.

The first is a tale of deadlines, of an amazingly beautiful idea that was late to the party and thus watched as the glass slipper was placed on its ugly stepsister’s foot. Sent back home to sweep up the ashes of what might have been.

What, you don’t like hyperbole? Next blog over, please.

Besides, it’s the 100th anniversary of the Vandercook printing press this year. It calls for over-the-top celebrations. Like the idea of soliciting 100 printers worldwide to create 100 posters to mark the occasion. Mary was proud to be part of the exercise. Shop Boy was geeked for her. And over the fact that, if you sent in 100 of your posters, you’d get one each of the other 99!

At least until he heard the deadline.

But Mary already had a perfect poster in hand, an off-the-hook cover she had done for her Maryland Institute College of Art class project on the same theme: “Love Letters to a Vandercook.”

Mary’s concept — with her students’ input — was a type drawer filled not with lead characters but with chocolates. The goodies  were stamped with X’s and O’s, as if letterpressed. Sweet! Shop Boy just loved every single spot of ink on that baby. We’d just have to reprint it.

Then Mary checked the website for the project, and saw that another Baltimore entry had a disappointingly similar motif. Oh, the images were worlds apart — but the words weren’t. And since about the worst thing in the world is to be a knock-off, Shop Boy petted Mary’s masterpiece one last time and we began to brainstorm.

“I know, you’ll write me a bedtime story,” Mary said.

“But …,” Shop Boy stuttered.

“Yeah, you’ll come up with a story, and we’ll design it around Andy Snair’s illustration of our press.”

“But …”

“Oh, come on, Shop Boy. You like writing stories. What, my thing isn’t important enough? I bet if it was for your blog, you’d do it.”

Ooh. Did she just go there? So typical: Hero to zero in, like, 30 seconds.

But you put a red cape in front of a bull … and bull happens. Mary couldn’t have been prepared for the load of words I threw at her before sundown. You want a  bedtime story? Here’s your bedtime story:


“Vandercook: A Bedtime Story”

Then, there was a monster.

More misunderstood behemoth than evil beast, truly.

Once beloved, it had helped tell the world of the good and the bad, the amazing and the sad. It could paint a pretty picture, or present the stark truth in black and white.

And the world listened, amazed. For a time.

Until a newer, sleeker messenger called out. “Don’t listen to the old-timer. Too set in its ways. Look, can it do this?” Whereupon the newfangled offset press begin spinning and whirring, dazzling onlookers with a mad, saturated, dizzying kaleidoscope of color.

Well, it didn’t take long. Soon movers arrived, and the old Vandercook No. 3 could hear their excited chatter amid the grunts as they shoved it into a dark corner. “What do we need with this old thing? That one’s newer, it’s cheaper, it’s faster!”

The No. 3 sighed to itself. “But is it better?”

Soon, no one at all was there to listen. The No. 3 still had much to say, but its pearls of wisdom were like a whistle that only a dog can hear.

Then, late one night, from far, far away, two tumbling puppies did hear, having had a bit too much liquid from the bowl (if you know what I’m saying). “It’s perfect!” cried one. “But it’s huge!” yapped the next.

And soon it was theirs, the e-Bay gods smiling upon them.

And the moving men returned.

“What do they want with this old thing? There’s newer, there’s cheaper, there’s faster!”

All the way from Philly to Baltimore, strapped in the back of a truck, the No. 3 wondered: “Do they truly hear me? Will they listen for a while, then turn their backs?”

Its fears eased, just a little bit, but then only a little bit, amid the squeals of joy as the puppies tumbled over and around it.

Finally, it whispered, “What do you want with me? My kind … we’re … 100 years old.”

“Yes,” said one puppy. “And you will outlive us all.”

“You’ll see 200, easy,” yapped the other puppy.

And then they all went happily to work.


“Well, uh, that’s OK,” Mary said. “But the audience for these posters is going to be a bit more adult.”

Harrumph. So she wants more bull, does she?

And it struck me.

Vandercook. You roll the carriage. Rolled. The press had fallen on hard times. Booze. A redemption thanks to letterpress crazies. It was the story of Typecast Press and how we got started.

Turn me loose!


“Lockup: One Vandercook’s Road to Redemption”

When it came to in the back of a closed truck, far from home, the Vandercook No. 3 figured it had been rolled. Wasn’t the first time, wouldn’t be the last. Now here, shackled six ways to Sunday, it could only guess where it was headed. See, the No. 3 knew a thing or two about lockup. Hard work and hard time have run in the family for 100 years now. This was just more proof.

Granddad, the old Rocker, built to last. Revolutionary for his time. Time passes. No. 1 Pop? Greatest thing since sliced bread. For a while. The No. 3 was the great gray hope. Knew how to make a big impression. And could it ever kiss. Smooth. Like the best scotch. The No. 3 drank oil, mostly. Sometimes a bit too much, to be honest. OK, it had a problem. So the intervention should have come as little surprise.

One morning, the No. 3 found itself surrounded by those it considered its friends. They strapped it down and forced it into the program: eBay, it was called. They said it was a second chance. Maybe his last.

Still, the No. 3 couldn’t watch as the bidding increased for the opportunity to provide its rehab. Finally, from Baltimore’s Gin Belt, of all places, came the boozy bid that sealed its fate — from Typecast Press or something — and everything went black. And so here it was in the truck.

Hey, wait! This wasn’t a bad thing. This was it! The second chance! The press was so excited it nearly inked itself. (Then it remembered that it had no self-inking function.)

Mary and Shop Boy waited at the door. He seemed like a klutz. She was a bit intense. But in an instant, their excitement combined with the Vandercook’s, and 100 years of history came welling to the surface. This was the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

All right, it was the beginning of a fairly clueless attempt at starting a letterpress shop.

But that was something. And at least the place was heated. The No. 3 surveyed its surroundings, feeling more alive than it had in 40 years.

“Happy birthday to me!”


“See? That wasn’t so hard,” Mary said, laughing at enough of the right moments that I decided to let her tone slide. Besides, zero to hero again was fine by Shop Boy.

Now, about that deadline …

We made the plates, mixed the ink, and Shop Boy started cranking. A few hundred rolls of the No. 3 later, its story was on paper. We dashed to Fed Ex. Whew. Mission accomplished.


If you go to the site, you’ll notice the end box with where to look for Shop Boy’s sequels, the stories of our other Vandercooks.

“You can just whip them up, too,” Mary chirped.

Is it just me, or does she not fully appreciate how much work it takes to be a genius?

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