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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For the Love of Books: Book Arts, Design & Craftsmanship

Part Two of "Palace Print Shop Preserves Printing's Past." Guest columnist Pam Smith shares her story of restoring and running the Palace Print Shop for 28 years.
Woodcut frontispiece from a Press of the Palace classic titled My New Mexico Literary Friends. The book, written by Lawrence Clark Powell, focuses on his personal acquaintance with Southwest writers and poets.

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. 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. Best to settle back, keep a watchful eye and let your mind wander.

Are you comfortable standing before the press? Is there a mat under your feet and is it well positioned? Do you have a view? Where does it take you? You might even stray as far as mentally creating tomorrow's grocery list or outlining an article to be written or preparing your plea for a salary raise. I remember a particular book in which a photographic page featured a writer and his wife who had died quite suddenly. Along with my assistant, I fantasized intrigue throughout the entire run of captions. Had he murdered her? Was it in the library with a candlestick?

Although you might indulge your mind with such flights of fancy during press runs, your physical presence enjoys no such freedom. Once a job is launched the printer is committed to being at the press until the last impression is pulled. This might mean hours during which a rhythm takes over blending the operator's movements with that of the press. Editioning is highly benefited by this harmony of motion. For continuity's sake, for the possibility of anything going amiss, there is no wandering off in the middle of a run. So relax and enjoy it, just you, the machine, and the task before you.

I once knew a highly competent fine printer who gave it all up because she felt herself a prisoner of the work. She was tired, she declared, of being left behind at the press while her friends cheerfully went off to another gala event.

For some, including myself, the long plodding weeks of production are the reward, the fruition of months, sometimes years, of project percolation. There is the planning, the research, the work of bringing each text element together in typographic harmony, the enhancing of the text. There are colors to choose, illustration styles to weigh, type faces to consider and formats to create, along with papers, book clothes and binding structures to select. And then there is production, where ideas become reality and all falls into place. I have always equated the making of books with the building of a house. The required expertise, the amount of time invested, and number of design decisions to be made are much the same.

For others who prefer the tense edge of creation, production may represent tedium, a process best left to others or to be leapfrogged over in order to get on to the next idea. Indeed, the lengthy process of a letterpress project, both design and printing, offers a task to satisfy an entire gamut of human moods-hand setting type for the days when the slow methodical plucking of characters from a California Job Case soothes a tired mind, designing a page when the creative energies agitate for expression, or rolling up your sleeves and digging into a press run when good, hard manual labor is all that will do. New World Saints, a portfolio of triptychs which serve as shrines for saints whose popularity grew in the Americas. Five years in the making, this Press of the Palace edition reflects the long-standing artistry of the Southewest.

There are endless opportunities to satisfy a sense of order--thousands of metal type and spacing pieces to be returned to their very own compartments in the case, leads and slugs to sort, forms to tear down, blocks to file away, and paper scraps to organize. When tidying is a top priority there is always a press or type to clean or an ink spatula to scrape free of residue.

Perhaps it is this great variety of work that so captivates the fine press printer, keeps boredom at bay, and a fresh challenge always within the palm of one's hands. For letterpress work is very much about the hands, from the hand setting of type to the hand operation of presses to the tactile impression of raised metal letters into the soft fibers of hand made paper. It is a love affair with the alphabet, an ability to see and appreciate the soft sensual curves of a Baskerville ampersand or the stately quality of Weiss Titling or the humor in Goudy Oldstyle. It is loving the purity of a beautifully designed letter printed in black on a handsome white paper.

When attempting to describe what it is that we as book artists do, a bookbinder friend of mine once said, "You might call our work a celebration of the book." Letterpress is like that. It is a time-honored art of printing in which the quality of the impression alone brings praise to a piece.

As with any printing process, letterpress is about multiples. You have to love seeing the piles grow, impression after impression. You have to find the perfection that comes from repetition and the learning experience in doing a task again and again and again. Unlike a painter, the fine printer is charged not only with creating a masterpiece, but in duplicating the effort.

Now, as I approach the end of a 28-year career at the Museum of New Mexico's Press of the Palace of the Governors, I can easily forget all the days when serifs broke in the middle of a run, or the registration of a two color piece never held true, or a typo slipped by unnoticed--and reflect on how fortunate I have been to inhabit the world of fine press printing. I have had the rare opportunity to see projects through from the germination of an idea to the development of an aesthetically satisfying end product. I found a direct way to mold and shape the words that so intrigued me.

In considering the future I can see only books and fine printing. For letterpress took hold of me way back then and just won't let go.