July 24, 2009
Adventures in Letterpress: My Pilgrimage to N.A. Graphics
Pt. 1 The Road To Silverton
I live in a mountain town, and have even once have coasted off the edge of an icy road to near death off a steep drop into a tree filled oblivion (really, I did). But as I approached Silverton, Colorado in my rented vehicle, I soon realized that Highway 550 was deadlier than any mountain road I had known before.
I pulled over on the shoulder to document how fucked up Highway 550 truly was. Imagine my surprise when I was able to capture this poor tourist meet his end. It wasn't the only car I saw plummeting thousands of feet to its destruction that week, but the only one I nabbed on film.
As I neared the town of Silverton, the skies parted and revealed unto me the mythical NA Graphics. I drooled. But my journey was far from over. My hands were ripped and bloodied from the jagged rocks as I climbed, and crows black as death cawed and pecked at my wounds. I was dizzy from starvation, and as I approached the summit, I slipped and fell several stories. I came to, broken and bleeding on the concrete floor of NA Graphics, surrounded by the onsite EMTs. Fritz Klinke stood towering above me. "Get your ass off the floor. Dinner is in ten minutes."
Pt 2. The BBH/Fritz Connection
When you walk into NA Graphics, the most famous Elrod will either come up to greet you or leap on to your face and tear it to shreds. I must have smelled of letterpress.
The first time I talked to Fritz on the phone was five years ago, when Blue Barnhouse was in the basement of my home. He talked me through tweaking my Universal I, which I had received in near perfect working condition, but had a few quirks that needed working out.
After having spent some time at NA Graphics this month, I realized that I had been one of dozens of daily phone calls made by young printers with no clue, asking for Fritz by name, with the hopes that they have found the dude with all the answers. Fritz fields these sorts of calls all day, and if he has the answer, he will take the time to give it to you.
In those five years I have called on Fritz on occasion seeking answers, and most of the time he could name the problem's solution by my verbal description. Fritz is one of the more frequent (and more trusted) contributors to the letpress listserv, and I get the impression that one of my more randy contributions to the listserv raised his eyebrows high enough to check out BBH's line of greeting cards and soon thereafter this blog. This wasn't too long ago, but the foulmouthed/over-the-top aspect of BBH has been a frequent subject of our phone conversations, at Fritz's direction, and I guess I'm honored that one of the venerated figures of letterpress has a sick sense of humor.
Worst case scenario: Brandon burns NA Graphics to the ground.
Fritz admitted to me that having read the blog and such, he didn't know what to expect from my visit, and there was worry whether I would raise an unholy ruckus in Silverton. He specifically referred to my rants about my twin brother, who's wicked exploits have been documented in a very small portion on this blog. (Fritz also expressed concern about my brother reading these blogs, but 1) Tony already knows what we think of him, and 2) there's no internet in the village of Ispaya, Bolivia, only collect calls.)
Personally, I thought I knew what to expect when I got to Silverton, but infact got handed something a different than what I'd constructed in my mind.
Pt 3. Fritz Klinke, Man of Action
F is for Fritz, Finger, and other things that start with F.
Fritz curses like a sailor, and will drop many an F bomb as the day runs its course, which did and did not surprise me. As he wrestled with a difficult padlock on the door of one of most current restoration projects, he grumbled aloud, "this is when I would use one of my more choice words, like 'cocksucker!'" I hadn't heard a senior citizen use a word of that caliber since days of old, when my grandmother was behind the wheel of her Chevy Nova.
What truly did surprise me was what a small part NA Graphics is in terms of the Fritz package. More accurately, Fritz Klinke is Silverton, Colorado, with a healthy passion for letterpress. Builder, restaurant owner, council member of Silverton, you name it, if its in Silverton, he's got his hands in it, and in a town with a mere population of 450 people, Fritz easily stands out as an integral and long standing member of the Silverton community. I think this concept of the many faces of Fritz Klinke is best expressed through song, which I can't do here, so photographs will have to suffice for now.
I would say Fritz's primary reason for moving to Silverton more than 30 years ago was his love for the steam engine train. The line from Silverton to Durango has been in operation since its inception in 1881.
This is Fritz's business partner of 30+ years, Lorne Lew. I asked him to take off his sunglasses, but forgot to tell him to open his eyes. Fritz reported that Lorne is 50% partner in NA Graphics, "though he'll never admit it." Lorne has done some of the most beautiful and intricate wood work I've seen, and wears almost as many hats as Fritz does, including being an actor, a welder, and a musician.
Lorne's house, built by Fritz and Lorne behind Fritz's Home.
The Silverton Courthouse. Fritz and Lorne performed a historical restoration to this building inside and out, the most notable feature of this restoration is the clock tower. A more intense restoration by Fritz and Lorne was performed on Silverton's city hall, which had mostly burned down to the ground and had to be restored using historic photographs.
Hinge of a door on Silverton's ice cream parlor. Fritz restored this building, and was meticulous with the restoration right down to the hardware. Fritz talked about how his restoration business did not make as much money as commercial builders, because he cares about the craftsmanship of his work and will spend the extra time required to achieve perfection. Sounds like another medium we're all pretty familiar with.
These file drawers contain the blue prints for every Vandercook part ever made.
Blueprint for a lockup bar.
Master blue prints for a myriad of Vandercook presses.
One of my favorite file drawers that Fritz had shown me was a collection of more than a hundred historical photographs from the era when Vandercook was a viable press manufacturer. This photo is of the Vandercook Mobile Technical Center in front of Vandercook headquarters. Rather than photograph the pictures I saw, I used ones scanned by (and courtesy of) Paul Moxon, who had come to Silverton a couple of times before my arrival, to document historical Vandercook information in Fritz's possesion. The photographs are in a number of locations on Moxon's very thorough website dedicated to the Vandercook press.
Inside of the Vandercook Mobile Technical Center, a mobile sales/demonstration vehicle, and a dream vehicle for a traveling Vandercook enthusiast such as myself.
Vandercook showroom floor.
It's been a while since I've left Colorado, but I'm pretty sure we are looking at what's left of the ATF type that Fritz cleaned out from an auction. More of the same the other side of these shelves, of course. Thirteen years ago, Fritz was just a letterpress enthusiast who dabbled in restoration work, the restaraunt business, and real estate. Not long after having purchasing more than $6000 worth of type from NA for his personal collection, Fritz was offered the entirety of the business for purchase. NA is was what is left of a few defunct letterpress companies including Vandercook. Fritz loved letterpress, and purchased the business to further diversify his Silverton empire.
Fritz not only restored and owned these two buildings, he also ran the Pickle Barrel restaurant for more than thirty years. He sold it not too long ago. He mentioned how he was called up from NA Graphics on a regular occasion to wash dishes, and spoke many times of how many meals per day he had cooked for locals and tourists. NA Graphics was originally located behind these buildings.
The Pickle Barrel menu was letterpressed. An expensive way to get your menus, that is unless you are the Godfather of letterpress.
This is an outdoor cooler located behind the Pickle Barrel. Fritz told me a story about how he had found Elrod beneath this cooler during the winter five years ago. Elrod was nearing starvation and Fritz fed him for several days until Elrod ventured into NA Graphics and became the shop cat.
Fritz looks upon the previous location of NA Graphics. He relocated it to a more forboding and mythic location last year.
#1 reason to go back to Silverton, to see Fritz's letterpress shop in completion. Currently all his presses and related equipment are bagged while he finishes building his dream studio, which is an addition to his home. Some presses include a Meihle Vertical, a Heidelberg Windmill, and his first C&P, acquired in his early teens. (This is hundreds of years ago, people.) Fritz got his first press when he was 12 years old. He lived on an Army base at the time and sold subscriptions to a weekly newspaper he printed up.
A record book of Vandercook sales: Page one, in which the first Vandercook is sold almost 100 years ago on Sep 30, 1909.
I used photoshop to highlight the index cards of every SP15 sold by Vandercook.
Before I left, Fritz took me for a romp at the local brothel. He recalled fondly the days when it was only "25 cents a lay."
Elrod was a whore for some lovin. I definitely reeked o' letterpress.
Fritz's SP15. A certificate about to be awarded to an outstanding citizen of Silverton is locked into the press. Anyone notice what's wrong with this picture and is likely to get a lecture from Fritz Klinke? And can anyone tell me how many days the ink has been sitting on this press? I guess its awesome when you can make your own rollers.
The view from Fritz's office window.
Fritz saved scads of original drawings of various ATF fonts from dumpster heaven. This one here is a font called Adlib, which he had recently seen used as a typeface for the Silverton 4th of July festivities brochure.
Fritz has an amazing collection of type, and we spent a good amount of time rifling through his collection. Here we see a 120 pt Dutch initial. It's enough to make a photopolymer junkie think twice about the value of type.
After a short tour, I was given free reign to snoop through every nook and cranny NA Graphics. I opened drawer after drawer stuffed with press parts and supplies, many of which looked foreign to me. I opened shelving cabinets, leafed through file drawers, stepped around this pile and that pile of metal, paper, or boxes of either or both. Fritz's phone rang regularly, and after he'd hang up he'd report to me who it was and what they needed, a story about that person if he had one. Besides Fritz's own personal collection of presses at his home, there really was not the armada of Vandercook presses I suspected would be there, I think maybe three, one of which he was considering putting up for sale. Just hoards of parts, some that may never get asked for, drawers and drawers of information and documents preserved from the Vandercook era. It was endless, daunting really, there was no real way of seeing it all. We spoke of the woes of owning a business, and it was both unnerving and relieving to learn that some of the problems I have been struggling with are problems Fritz still struggles with today--I think the most terrifying having all these things you set out to achieve, and how freaking long it takes to get there. Fritz has set a lot high goals for himself, he has the ambition to do it, but has a long way to go before he'll see their completion. I thought that for myself this sort of madness would end at some point, but now I see it can become a way of life. Fritz seemed to take it all in stride and not let himself get wrapped up in it. He has alot of lessons to offer, lots of knowledge to share, a willingness and a dedication to keep letterpress alive, by schooling all of us young pups who think they've got it all figured out. Dude is my hero.