Meet the press

At The Black Rock Press, volunteers and students print mass media the old-school way

UNR librarian Bob Blesse, left, and Tom Krakowiak, a longtime volunteer at The Black Rock Press, show off the 1837 Columbian printing press, which was shipped to the university from England in the 1960s.

UNR librarian Bob Blesse, left, and Tom Krakowiak, a longtime volunteer at The Black Rock Press, show off the 1837 Columbian printing press, which was shipped to the university from England in the 1960s.

Photo By David Robert

Arrange tiny pieces of lead type—one for every letter, every comma, every space—on a composing stick.

Spell with care.

Place the type on the press. Add ink. Paper. Pull the handle of the 1837 Columbian hand press, a lovely hulk of iron adorned with gold-painted carvings, including an eagle perched atop.

As the press comes down, smoothly joining paper and inked type, the eagle’s head rises.

Open the press. Inhale the scent of your freshly printed page.

You’ve created media the way mass communicators did for hundreds of years.

Welcome to the Black Rock Press at the University of Nevada, Reno.

To get here, you walk through Getchell Library, past clusters of networked PCs and microfiche readers. Weave among tables where students surf the Internet on wireless laptops, climb a few stairs, take a short walk down the hall and enter a print shop with mechanical hand presses the likes of which you’ve see in museums.

At the Black Rock Press, these antiques are in continual use—by students taking UNR librarian Bob Blesse’s class in book arts and by the amiable Blesse who, along with interns and volunteers, makes award-winning, limited-edition books in this 800-square-foot room.

Black Rock Press began when the UNR Library’s late associate director, Ken Carpenter, purchased the Columbian press in 1965 and had it shipped from Nottingham, England.

“People walk by, look in the window and say, ‘Holy smoke, what is that?'” Blesse says. “If we’re here, we invite them in and show them around.”

Black Rock Press owns several full families of typeface. But, Blesse says, the tiny lead pieces are getting harder to replace.

Photo By David Robert

A short tour of the jam-packed room also includes a look at a 19th-century Washington press, a fully restored Chandler & Price jobbing press and a half-dozen other presses. Stationed along the perimeter are cabinets with thin drawers, each containing one size of metal type. The Black Rock Press owns full families of several typefaces, including Centaur and Baskerville.

A large cart is parked in front of the cabinet that contains the Garamond family.

“That’s hands-off to students,” Blesse says.

Over the years, the donated type has gotten worn or nicked.

“It’s not only expensive,” Blesse says, “it’s getting impossible to replace.”

In an era given over to silicon microchippery, UNR is one of only about 10 schools in the nation that teach letter-press printing the way it was done by Ben Franklin in colonial America or by the Territorial Enterprise in Virginia City during the days Mark Twain worked at that newspaper.

Some people don’t get the fascination, says volunteer Tom Krakowiak, who spends four days a week at the press. An out-of-state friend recently asked Krakowiak what he’s been working on in Nevada. When Krakowiak told him about printing “the old Gutenberg style, letter by letter,” his friend was dismissive.

“He said, ‘Why do you do that when it’s so much easier on the computer?'” Krakowiak says. “I thought, ‘I’m not going to get to first base with this guy. It’s going be hard to convince him that what I’m doing is worthwhile.'”

Indeed, why spend tedious hours creating a document that could be hammered out in seconds on a PC?

Besides the historic value of keeping the printing craft alive and passing it along to new generations, Krakowiak, a 79-year-old retired dentist and a World War II combat veteran, revels in the aesthetic of letter-press printing. He’s taken Blesse’s course several times. Now he helps teach it.

“You have all these variations of typeface, and you line them up one by one, like little soldiers,” Krakowiak says. And unlike a slick magazine page with ink spewed atop a page, letter-press printing involves a penetrating relationship between ink and paper.

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“You can see the print becoming part of the paper,” Krakowiak says. “It presses into it, not just on top of it. That makes it not only look different but feel different.

“It’s tactile. It’s beautiful.”

Black Rock Press founder Carpenter came to UNR from the University of California, Berkeley, where he’d worked on hand printing presses in the 1960s. As an associate library director at UNR, he heard of the Columbian hand press for sale in England. Carpenter took out a personal loan to buy the press and have it shipped.

After Carpenter’s death in 1999, Blesse found a receipt for the purchase and shipping—$560.

The press arrived in pieces. As the story goes, Carpenter and his cronies—Nevada writers Robert Gorrell and Walter Van Tilburg Clark—met one night and put it together, aided by Jack Daniels.

The press, one of only a few hundred left in the world, attracted the attention of the Smithsonian Institution, and experts came out for a look. Carpenter won acclaim for The Black Rock Press’ first book, Springing from the Blade, by poet William Everson.

Since its arrival on the second floor of Getchell, the press has never been moved. But that’ll change when the library moves to its new digs, the Knowledge Center—a building being designed to “encompass all facets of the digital age in a single, synergistic complex.”

In the building’s early design, the Black Rock Press was featured prominently at the building’s fore. More recent plans don’t include space for the press. As of last week, university officials hadn’t finalized details of the press’s relocation.

More space for the Black Rock Press would be ideal, the soft-spoken, bald and often bearded Blesse says, as he weaves his way to the back of the room. Here, he shows off a few recent, limited-edition books that have won accolades.

The Black Rock Press’ collection of Linda Hussa poems, Blood Sister, I Am to These Fields, won three national awards in 2002, including the Western Heritage Wrangler Award. A book of Great Basin-themed sonnets by Stephen Nightingale, Cartwheels, was selected as part of the 2004 Western Book Exhibit. The same organization deemed a book illustrated by Reno artist Zoltan Janvary one of the best book productions in the Western United States.

Since the self-supporting press has no paid staffers and receives no money from the university, students and volunteers spent a year designing, printing, hand-stitching pages and binding 100 copies of the book. The book, printed in the Rialto typeface on acid-free Nidiggen paper and priced at $100, was ready on deadline for Reno’s Artown festival in 2003. A few copies are still available.

Letter-press printing gives students a deep sense of accomplishment, Blesse says. “The students who take our classes think it’s all pretty cool.” Often, students of art, history, graphic design and journalism refer to book arts as one of the best classes at UNR.

“It takes them into a world they’ve never been in before—and never will be again."