Once upon a time you could only have a sweater if someone knitted it for you. Then machines replaced hand-knitting, and everyone could have sweaters. For a while, handmade sweaters were scorned because they weren’t made by those amazing new-fangled machines. But the wheel turns, and soon enough hand-knit sweaters regained value because they were made by hand.
By the same token, the more technologically sophisticated our machinemade or digitized books become, the more cachet and artistic value attaches to handset type and handmade books. The output of small letterpress print shops can have delicious appeal—in the use of beautiful old wood and metal typefaces, gorgeous papers, real ink, and unique design. The work can be rich in personality, a revelation of artistic vision as compelling as any painting or sculpture. Letterpress printing has traveled a twisty road: once commonplace, then ignored, and now exceptional.
Two (historically) old friends of mine are purveyors of the exceptional in letterpress printing: Esther K. Smith and Dikko Faust, owners of the Purgatory Pie Press in New York City. Dikko is the typographer and inky-fingered printer; Esther is the designer, and also the author of How to Make Books, Magic Books & Paper Toys, and a significant contributor to The Little Book of Bookmaking. In a long collaboration—married!—they’ve made everything from wedding invitations to accordion-fold books, postcards, toys, and all sorts of magical printed pieces both two- and three-dimensional.
Purgatory Pie Press is so versatile that it would be easy to write about (and show) a dozen kinds of PPP work and still have dozens more to go. Instead, Esther suggested a focus on the datebooks that she and Dikko have been creating since 1980 (for the year 1981). “Keeping a datebook becomes an autobiography,” Esther points out, which has to sound completely right to writers.
I still own the PPP datebook I bought for the year 1983, shown at right: I used it as a studio notebook, keeping track of the paintings, prints, and artist’s books I was making back then when I was still a visual artist and not yet a writer. It’s pocket-sized, so I always had it with me when I went to my studio, and I mixed the informational with the personal.
Here’s a typical entry, for June 4, 1983: Arrived with pigeon shit in my hair. Thanks, NY. Bumped into Ann [Banks] and Peter [Petre] in the market. They came up for a few minutes. Then I puttered, thinking about the next collage I’ll make.
The gallery of photos below shows a sampling of the datebooks Esther and Dikko have made over the years. Below the gallery are links to their website and to other articles about PPP.
special thanks to Marna Chester for letting me use her photo (above) of the actual purgatory pie press.
FYI / Independent Bookstores from Coast to Coast
Odyssey Bookshop, South Hadley, MA
City Lights Booksellers, San Francisco, CA
Joseph-Beth Booksellers, Lexington, KY