The Palace Print Shop and Bindery

Situated in rooms adjoining the nearly 400-year-old courtyard of the Palace of the Governors is the Print Shop and Bindery, known as the Palace Print Shop, or, more formally, as the Press of the Palace of the Governors. A living Museum of New Mexico exhibit dedicated to the history of the state's printing traditions, the Print Shop offers some 70,000 yearly visitors an opportunity to relive the lively environment of 19th century publishing.

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A monthly column that has absolutely nothing to do with the business of publishing, and everything to do with why we're involved in it. Part One: Palace Print Shop Preserves Printing's Past. Pam Smith shares her story of restoring and running the Palace P
Inside the Press of the Palace of Governors. This popular working history exhibit was established at the Museum of New Mexico in 1972. In addition to conducting lecture/demonstrations for museum visitors, curators here produce award-winning limited edition books on 19th century presses.

I didn't expect to stay. That was almost 28 years ago when I first set foot in the Palace Print Shop. But that's the way it is with letterpress printing. It fixes itself in your soul, seeps into the blood stream, and finds a direct path from the head to the heart to the hands--that place where work becomes a passion. And you are hooked.

In 1972 the Palace Print Shop was an idea waiting to happen. It was a collection of presses brought from an Eastern New Mexico weekly newspaper and job shop that had closed around the time of World War II. The Museum of New Mexico acquired the entire letterpress plant hoping to one day create a working historic exhibit. When I first saw the shop it was nothing more than a jumble of wood and metal equipment hardly contained by a small room off the centuries-old courtyard of the Palace of Governors, the state history museum in Santa Fe.

My job was to right it all. Had I been older, more experienced perhaps, I might have had second thoughts about the task before me. But I was in my 20's, energetic, ambitious, and a recent refugee of the world of offset printing. In journalism school I had gotten a taste of letterpress, developed an early appreciation for movable metal letters and presses that groaned up to speed as I pumped a treadle, turned a crank or pulled a lever. This was the kind of hands-on experience I had been missing. I wanted to play a direct role in the end product. I wanted to shape it with my hands.

Indian vendors on the portal of The Palace of Governors Museum where the Palace Print Shop has made its home for 28 years. The building is thought to be the oldest continually used public building in the United States. It was begun when Santa Fe was under Spanish rule, in 1610.

At work on a two-year pochoir project. Pam Smith, Palace Press proprietress, hand colors images for a portfolio of New World Saints, published at the museum in 1995.

My offset work had centered around layout and design for a Christian-loving Santa Fe shopper where I found myself slicing out 10 point "hallelujahs" and Bible parables to use as filler. The one-dimensionality of it failed to excite me. I was forever looking for minuscule strips of paper bearing the words "the" or "and," strips I cut out to paste down but which magically jumped off my table into the cuff of my pants or stuck to the undersleeves of my sweater. This was not the kind of work I had in mind.

I knew what it was like to build words with raised metal letters, letters whose unique shapes I could trace with my fingers, individual pieces I could endlessly adjust. It was this tactile experience, the work of a sculptor, really, that captured my creative interests so long ago.

After several years of repairing and setting up presses, cleaning and casing type, and doing job work for the museum, I went on to the more challenging task of publishing limited edition books on Southwest literary history. These are books I myself design and print, previously on platen presses and now on a Vandercook press. It is this activity that taught me the real meaning of the word "fuss." God is in the detail, some would say. If there is any truth to this, letterpress is among the most godly of tasks, for it offers a lifetime of adjustment possibilities.

There is no fussing without seeing, of course, and the art of seeing underlies every successful letterpress venture. It develops slowly with time and experience and is refined in the looking, looking, and more looking, until your eyes refuse to focus. With a heightened sense of sight come the burden of responsibility to act-I am all locked up and ready to start a press run but I can see that a line needs to be raised one point, is off center, or the type is off its feet. There is a hairline scratch on a lower case "l", or the rollers are leaving an ink slur off the final line of a form. Do I take note of these maladies and say to myself, "No one else will notice this," or "I have already spent two hours tweaking this page and can't possibly do more," or "Maybe the flaw will clear up in the run?" Or do I summons yet a little more patience, resolve the problem, satisfy my awareness and produce a finer piece?

I have spent hours letter-spacing words, inserting brass and copper thins, removing them, looking at the word upside down, returning the next day to look at the spaced word afresh. I have seen grown fine printers on the verge of tears because a period had been mistakenly run upside down and appeared to be floating at the end of a sentence. I, myself, have repeated an entire run for the sake of a period that rebelliously abandoned the page.

There is no mystery that separates good letterpress printing from bad. The difference lies in how much the printer is capable of seeing and what he or she is willing and able to do about it.

Next month: There are, however, long hours at the press when the printing gods have smiled upon you and everything goes along swimmingly. Now what do you do? These days are never to be confidently anticipated or taken for granted. For as soon as that thought sneaks into a printer's mind something will surely go amiss.