Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Stop the presses!: Meet Joel Benson of Dependable Letterpress

Joel Benson of Dependable Letterpress with his Heidelberg Press at his San Francisco location in the Dogpatch Neighborhood.
As an avid fan of old movies, when we set the day to check out the Dependable Letterpress shop I had visions of a cluttered, dim and dingy room full of noisy, whirling printing presses as men with cigars clenched between their teeth and with ink under their finger nails, quickly and expertly moved around a printing press room setting type and cursing as they banged on the presses.

We didn't exactly find that the day we met with Joel Benson, owner of Dependable Letterpress located on Illinois Street.  The light filled and tidy room was fairly quiet with only one press in use by the young staff.

The printing press room and those who operate them may look different but the presses and the process of Letterpress hasn't changed much.  Letterpress printing is a centuries old process and was the first widely-used and reliable method of printing. This type of printing involves manually arranging type and designs and pressing them onto high quality paper or other materials.   The hands-on human component gives this type of printing an artisan image in comparison to mass produced digital printing.

And it turns out that Benson was a reluctant craftsman but in the end, the pull and the process and maybe even the magic of letterpress won him over.

Why do you do what you do?

It suits my personality. It is physical labor but it also requires attention to detail and a love of process. I enjoy working within those limitations.  It might be my most and maybe my only marketable skill!

It is very satisfying and takes skill and a bit of mindfulness.  Letterpress is very exacting -- it teaches you to get better and better -- if you make a mistake you start over.

Although I was born in Puerto Rico, I grew up in the Bay Area.  We left Puerto Rico so my dad could go to grad school.  He taught wood working and furniture design in public high schools as well as at the California College of the Arts. My mom was a textile artist and did weaving and costume making as well.  She also taught in public schools. I have one younger brother who lives in New York and works in the computer industry.

I swore I would never be a craftsman like them.  I saw the constant struggle they went through to get people to appreciate what they did and then also a struggle to get customers to pay you for the work -- to know the value. They both tease me now that I'm a craftsman!

In high school I thought I would pursue an academic career so at UC Santa Cruz I studied philosophy and ancient Greek -- the classics.  But I decided I didn't like it.  It was all "in the head" all the time -- no actual doing was involved.

I had to take an elective so I took a class in book arts taught by a rare book dealer.  He brought in samples of amazing books to show the class.  I was really intrigued by the books more as beautiful objects than in the contents of the books themselves.  Here was important text in a beautiful vessel. The books had become treasures.
A close-up of the Dials on a Heidelberg Press at Dependable Letterpress in Dogpatch, San Francisco, CA

I changed my major and took more print classes -- fonts, type, lithography -- and fell in love with the making of books.  But of course I still had to graduate on time!  UC Santa Cruz had a make your own major program so they were flexible.  I designed a major that was an art degree with an emphasis on book arts.

A pivotal event for me was when I took a semester to work at Yolla Bolly Press in Mendocino County. James and Carolyn Robertson were graphic designers who worked in Los Angeles but decided to go back to the land and moved to rural Northern California -- but instead of farming they made books.  Even their newsletter was called Bookfarm! They had a beautiful print shop in a barn and they lived in a house across from it.  It was beautiful and idyllic.

I had grown up with the trial and tribulation and the lack of appreciate for the life of a craftsman but I saw that they had figured it out and were living so well and had such joy in their work.  They showed me that you could be a craftsman and get all of that out of your life and work after all.  And perhaps my parents did as well but as a kid I didn't see that part.  My time with them changed my life.

When I graduated though I went to work as a gallery assistant for a year in New York while I figured out what do to with my life.

I came back to San Francisco in 1990 and worked for a printer in SF -- Julie Holcomb. I was there about six years.  She decided to specialize in wedding invitations so I moved on -- I didn't want to only do one type of printing plus I was ready to do something different.
Type at Dependable Letterpress in Dogpatch, San Francisco, CA.

I took a break from the printing world and worked several different jobs including one as a database analyst.  Very different but the job still involved problem solving and collaboration.

My daughter was born and I decided I needed to get focused about what I was going to do with my career. I knew I didn't want a corporate job -- the one I had was a soul killer.  Printing was really all I knew so I interviewed for printing jobs but I was thought of as too arty given my letterpress background even though I knew with training I could do any type of printing job.

Finally I reached out to friends in the printing business and they pointed me to someone who had a small press that they wanted to give away to the right person which turned out to be me.  And I still have it!

I put the press in my basement and started to take on jobs. This was in 2002. I primarily worked with designers to print their own designs. I put all the money I made back into the business so that I could purchase more presses.  My first purchase was a Heidelberg Windmill press -- you can only do one color per press so the more presses you have the more colors you can print.

In 2003 I moved out of my basement to a location in South San Francisco for about a year before we made the move to Dogpatch in 2004.  I now have five presses and a staff of six.

I enjoy collaborating with customers on a design and then see it to completion.  Often customers will come in with a slim idea of what they want and we help them flesh it out.  Or they come in with an idea but don't realize how expensive it would be to print.  We work with them to help make it happen and get them close to their vision without breaking their budget. That is the fun part -- planning the project as well as actually producing the product.

In 2015 I hired a graphic designer, Nicole Baker, so now we can produce our own designs as well as have an expert onsite to help customers with their ideas.

Digital printing in contrast to letterpress is limited.  We can print on thick paper, soft paper, wood and many other materials that digital printing can't handle.  For example, one of my favorite clients is the Musee Mecanique in San Francisco -- the largest collection of coin operated mechanical penny arcade machines from the 20h Century.  We print the fortunes for their fortune teller machine.  The paper must be just the right thickness to print on those old machines.

Why Dogpatch?

I moved the business from my home in 2003 to a location in South San Francisco.  The space didn't have the professional image I wanted so we started looking around for another space.  Even though I leave nearby in the Mission I didn't know much about the Dogpatch neighborhood when we started looking for a new space.

I heard about available space in the American Industrial Center (AIC).  When I took a look I knew it would be the perfect space for this business.  This location is my third within the AIC complex.  We started in a small space then shortly after moved to a bigger space. We were on a higher floor and when this ground floor space became available we jumped on it. One of the conditions that our landlord had for us moving to the ground floor was that we needed to have a retail component to accommodate walk in traffic.
Negative Space Gallery at Dependable Letterpress in Dogpatch.

Right now our retail space is a gallery called Negative Space Gallery where we hope to feature a variety of artists. We also hold events there.  Eventually we will have cards and notepads and other paper products printed right here that will be available for purchase.

We feel like we are part of a like-minded community of businesses that are locally owned and operated -- we are all in the same boat.

What would you be doing if you weren't doing this?

I have this fantasy of operating one of those giant construction cranes. I would do one thing at a time all day long -- pick up something, put it down and repeat. My business can be hectic so at times that seems like a very appealing business!