Eviction stalks letterpress printers creating new Bible
Thursday, October 21, 1999
In the beginning was the Word. In the end was the lease termination notice.
And while the end is not quite yet, the folks at Arion Press, one of the finest printing houses in the nation, know well that their days upon Earth may be a shadow.
Such biblical quotations are fitting in this case because Andrew Hoyem, the publisher of Arion books, is in the process of creating one of the world's greatest Bibles.
But just as the book is taking shape, so is a familiar San Francisco controversy: Hoyem and his specialized team of letterpress printers are being evicted from their longtime home on Bryant Street in the South of Market area, a place where meticulous book designers have been painting words for nearly a century.
Long before rising land prices, astronomical rents and multimedia, there was an art form called fine printing that found a home in San Francisco. The city became a showplace for some of the great American bookmakers of the modern age. People like John Henry Nash, Lawton Kennedy, and Edward and Robert Grabhorn all gravitated to the cultured city by the bay. Hoyem, who was Robert Grabhorn's last partner before his death, is their direct descendant.
The pages of the city's past are zipping by with such speed these days that it is hard to remember that beautiful books are still in demand, even if they are not available at a click from a discount merchant somewhere in the ether of the Internet. And only in development- crazed San Francisco, it seems, could the future of the Good Book end up being in such a bad place.
"It's a terrible situation for us," Hoyem told me the other day. "There is a serious question about whether we can continue to function at all. And here we are in the midst of printing our biggest project ever."
That would be the new Bible, the greatest single challenge in bookmaking. Hoyem, whose publishing house is renowned as a spawning ground for beautiful, handcrafted books, started the project more than a year ago. The Bible, all 400 copies, is being printed and bound mostly by hand. A work of printing art, and carrying a art-heavy price tag: $7,250 for an unbound edition, $8,500 for a leather-bound edition. That's without the hand-illuminated letters, which would raise the price another $2,500.
But that printing run has been disrupted by news of "progress." The owners of the brick building at 460 Bryant St., the real estate arm of Fisher Friedman Associates, an architectural firm, are evicting all the tenants, ostensibly to do seismic upgrades.
Hoyem believes that the engineering work could take place with his printing presses in place, but the landlord has so far refused to extend the lease. And Hoyem says he has been told that the architects want to develop the building to its "full economic capacity."
All the tenants, including some sewing firms and a few other small businesses, have been told to be out by June 30, 2000. Nothing in the Bible about that, although you might find it on a fiscal year calendar.
In Arion's case, however, moving is about as easy as printing "War and Peace" one letter at a time. Within his shop sit priceless presses, rare casting machines, keyboards and other equipment. His firm now owns the famed type foundry of Mackenzie & Harris, which began using its hot metal magic on equipment purchased for the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition. In 1925, Mackenzie & Harris moved to a new building on Folsom Street and Hawthorne Lane, where their typography machines churned until they were relocated to the Bryant Street building in 1974.
So finding a new home for Arion involves moving more than 30 tons of cast-iron inventory and carefully reinstalling a complex configuration of gas lines, electrical lines and compressed air machines. Hoyem said the minimum estimate of any move so far has been $400,000 -- money, he says, that he does not have. At the very least, he believes, he would have to close the type foundry if he's forced to move. And the result of that would be even more costly.
"We simply could not make the kinds of books we make today," he says. "It's very painful to contemplate."
And even more so, if, like Hoyem, one bleeds ink.
Hoyem, by way of the Midwest and the Navy, started out at a small press shop in San Francisco in 1961, printing books no one else would publish, including some of the "Beats," Philip Whalen and William Burroughs. Money was harder to come by than market share. He printed everything -- birth announcements, wedding announcements, even, desperate thing, office stationery.
He ended up meeting the brothers Grabhorn, legends in their field, who responded to his request for printing assistance as if he were being shepherded into a secret society. By 1966, Hoyem and Robert Grabhorn formed a partnership, which lasted until 1973 when Hoyem went on his own.
He formed Arion Press, after the Greek poet who was saved from drowning by a dolphin. And then Arion built its own mythical status in the fine art book field, starting with an edition of "Moby Dick" that included wood engravings of Herman Melville, whaling tools and even sea creatures. It was a tome that collectors ranked as one of the two or three greatest American fine press books. Ever.
That was many years and printings ago. Hoyem decided that his great project would be a classic rendition of the Bible, an undertaking that he said would probably be the last folio Bible printed from hot metal type, a book to rank up there with Johannes Gutenberg's 1455 landmark version.
A timeless treasure, now running short on time.
Hoyem says Arion has just completed printing the book of Isaiah, almost exactly halfway through the 1,350-page Bible. Since the landlord so far has declined to grant a lease extension, Hoyem says he'll be lucky to finish the printing by June, and almost certainly will not be able to complete the binding.
Profit driven by development was not a key topic for the prophets, either in the end or the beginning. Hoyem is just trying to find a way to survive. That's not an easy thing for a practitioner of a lost art in a rapidly changing city.
"That which now is in the days to come shall all be forgotten," the Bible says. Words to live by, which is probably why they wrote them down.
You can reach Ken Garcia at (415) 777-7152, fax him at (415) 896-1107, or send him an e-mail note at
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