Stern and his co-publisher, Jules Faye, run Stern & Faye, Publishers from their barn in Sedro Woolley. From outside the building is modest; from inside, it is suddenly vast, overfilled with infinite tools of the printers' trade. Painstakingly organized, hand-tooled wooden shelves and drawers are stuffed with millions of letters carved out of wood blocks or pressed into metal slivers. These tiny little alphabets, one letter to each sliver, have to be arranged into words by exacting hands or tweezers, and placed into the press. There is more wood and metal in this shop than the contemporary eye can handle. I search for some hint of plastic. There is a plastic bucket, but it is overwhelmed with metal type.
To borrow from Jules' own poetry, from a book she created (wrote, carved, printed, bound) called The Mechanical Dreamer, the barn clearly has "metaphysical dimensions." It ought to: Back in the day--for centuries--letterpress printing was known as The Black Arts; "black" referring to the ink used in printing, as well as the rigor and mystique of the printers' discipline. Guilds and printing houses were referred to as "printing chapels," and it was common practice for a father to sell his son into a seven-year apprenticeship, where eventually, after years of just sweeping floors, cleaning machines, and sorting type, he would learn the intricacies of the trade.
Today, most printing processes have nothing to do with that old discipline. No wood or metal type touched the paper you're holding, for instance; The Stranger, like all newspapers today, is printed on house-sized offset press machines, utilizing a process which takes a photograph of the final composition, and the photograph is what transfers ink onto the page. Though the text is the same, the look and feel, the history of creating the finished product you read, is subtly and crucially different. To some, like Jules and Chris, it is a fundamental difference, and they have dedicated their lives as printers to the tactile pleasures of ink pressed into paper. Read in the light of a window, the letters cast shadows: The words receive light and create halos.
The printing barn houses two presses: Grey Spider Press (the literary press) and Street of Crocodiles (Jules' experimental press). When Chris and Jules are hired to do a book it is printed by Stern & Faye, Printers. Grey Spider Press has printed chapbooks and special edition books (usually hardbound and fancy) for Melinda Mueller (Pushcart Prize winner), Jody Aliesan, and David Lee. The press is focused on Northwest writers, but not exclusively so. Currently, Grey Spider Press is working on a special edition memorial book on the work of Denise Levertov, which will contain the last 13 poems she wrote, and memorial writings by other authors. Jules has solicited works from Barry Lopez, Tobias Wolff, and Rebecca Brown. Brown's project is about to begin.
Hanging on clothespins from a string are pages from the book Jules has been working on for three years. For her book Fallen Angels, she asked several artists to contribute woodcuts and writings on the darker side of life. The book is close to being finished, but she is skittish about estimating when, since everything has gone wrong on this book so far. With the exigency inherent in letterpress, one must be ready for everything to go wrong: Every book is like a wedding or a marriage or a pregnancy.
Monk saunters in. His is an appropriate name for these cloistered printers. "It requires faith," Jules says of the laborious and often tedious discipline. "If I ever understood what faith was, it's by making books. I was raised atheist and I never understood that concept--faith--and I've never appreciated it. And now I'm beginning to learn it. I have to have faith that this work will have some effect. It will have to be an effect that will never be known to me. I'm never going to be famous; I'm never going to make big money at this. There is never going to be that social system that tells me I've succeeded. It's always going to be something ephemeral or abstract."
We move to the back room, the workroom, the machine shop. There are four monotype machines in a row, rescued from marauding junkmen who scrap the century-old machines for their dumb metal. Each machine has a personality: There is one that works constantly, as though toward a reward. Another takes a while to warm up in the morning. One is old and belligerent, and dangerous. With these machines, Stern & Faye is the only shop in the Northwest that can make its own type. Chris feeds soft metal into a monotype machine, and in an hour and a half it has begun pumping out the tiny letters he will have to sort and shelve as he prepares to compose a page. A single book, say 50 pages, he explains, will take more than a month to create. Each letter on each page has been separately placed and composed on a printers' bed by Chris, before he even begins printing onto paper, by hand.
I stroke the wheel of their Gordon Platen Press. Jules asks me, "Isn't it sexy?" And it is. They invite me to play with it. I build a rhythm with the foot pedal and pretend to feed the machine paper. The movement is as sexual as dancing or playing an instrument. Monk barks at my pumping leg. The machines are unmistakably alive.
Scotty the machinist walks in. He is as old as some of these machines (though not many); he was around to see the Denny Regrade go down. Every printer in the Northwest who has a problem with a press comes to Scotty. When Chris and Jules decided to move out to Sedro-Woolley from Seattle five years ago, they asked Scotty to come with them as their adopted grandfather. Now he has breakfast with the Mayor of Hamilton every morning, and fixes tractor gearboxes during the day, while he continues to oversee the mechanical integrity of Stern & Faye's presses. "Everyone needs a master machinist," Chris says as he watches Scotty head back out.
We walk upstairs to the loft and follow the path a book takes. Here the books are bound and finished, after being designed, composed, and printed. Chris and Jules scatter books across the table. Most are hardbound, in widely ranging materials, bindings, dimensions. They are stunningly beautiful. I pick up a large book covered in green Japanese Hikari Nashiji cloth, inset with three copper discs. The first page is a deeply red ink square, centered. The pages that follow are embossed; the text is a dense but graceful sans-serif. Other books are built to unfold like accordions, or stand upright as an altar; one book is huge, covered in wax and paint, a book full of powerful, secret art.
I pick up The Mechanical Dreamer, a hardbound blue book. The book is made up of a paragraph of text, and then a full pictorial narrative. The story is brilliant and weird and comical. The mechanical protagonist looks a little like the Tin Man, and he is obsessed with examining his dreams. In one picture he takes off the top of his head, and the reader peeks inside to see honeycomb and bees. How much beauty and how much work is expressed on each page overwhelms me. Each book is like that. I find phrases in the text to describe all of Chris and Jules' books: "enkindled brilliance" and "ecstatic lunacy." Chris and Jules have to work as though they have inherited the boulder of Sisyphus. But for Stern & Faye, Printers, labor refines beauty.
On leaving, the printers escort me out to the front of the barn. It's cooler outside; all those letters and words create heat. Chris and Jules wish me luck in the city they've deserted. We have a small conversation with the cat and dog. The printers smile, wave, and turn back to the alphabet.