By Nina Silberstein
The art of printing books by letterpress (a type of relief printing that makes copies by impressing an inked, raised surface onto paper) and then binding them by hand has mostly disappeared. The reason isn’t necessarily due to a complex process though.
Rather, it’s the skill involved. When machines made bookmaking easier, the skills necessary to make books by hand were lost, so when you buy a book today, it was most likely bound by complex machinery that cost the manufacturer millions of dollars to acquire.
No Reply Press, located in Ladd’s Addition, is a fine press publisher of letterpress and handbound limited editions founded in 2019. Their books are bound using only a few hand tools that can be purchased for about $50. Their bookmaking process is much simpler than that of a standard trade publisher.
While in college, Griffin Gonzales, who manages book editions for the company, became interested in fine bookmaking after meeting the owner of Thornwillow Press, which Gonzales says is “one of the two or three most prolific, fine presses in the world.”
The two became fast friends and Gonzales joined on as managing editor of Thornwillow in New York. He learned a lot during that time and met a variety of people in literature and the arts, but had a never-ending workload.
After three years, he left to travel and eventually returned to his hometown of Portland. He hadn’t planned to start his own fine press, but after meeting craftspeople and artists interested in this sort of work who lacked experience on the business side of things, he decided to set up No Reply.
“I didn’t expect [it] to become a full-time operation, but in the past year and a half we’ve found a lot of success and it’s grown to the point where it’s my primary job,” Gonzales said.
Along with managing the editions from start to finish, he steps in to fill any gaps, whether it’s taking and editing photos for the next edition’s announcement or sewing book signatures.
The materials used at No Reply Press are of the highest quality and usually selected for substantive and artistic reasons.
For example, for their edition of Leo Tolstoy’s, The Great Man, they commissioned an artist in Russia to create marbled papers designed after those in Tolstoy’s own library.
“None of the materials we use are mass-produced,” Gonzales said, “and only a few are made by machines like the boards in our covers.”
Because of their materials, their books are archival, meaning they’ll basically last forever. “This is part of the reason that museums collect fine press books,” he adds. “Aside from being works of art, they’re much less costly to preserve.”
The Press finds their materials from sources around the world, but tries to get as much as possible within Oregon.
“Oftentimes the materials we use are unique. All of our cover papers, for example, are commissioned specifically for the edition,” said Gonzales. “I have a roll of marbled paper that was made in the 1800s and given to me by the owner of Legatoria Piazessi – the oldest paper store in Italy.”
Design is equally important and they take a lot of pride in the look of their books.
“As the skills behind handmade books have been lost, so has the aesthetic sense behind typography and design,” Gonzales said. “Today, trade publishers just drop text into a template and click ‘print.’ Very little care goes into typography or even cover design.”
He estimates about 95 percent of current book covers use stock photography or graphics, rather than unique artwork, and are designed before the designers even have the text.
The bookmaking process at No Reply Press went something like this in 2020: Two people worked full time (50-ish hours per week), and another three worked part time (10-ish hours per week) to produce 700 books. That’s about nine hours per book, taking everything into account like design work, shipping, collector outreach, etc.
In general, Gonzales likes to balance No Reply Press’s publishing agenda between emerging and established artists, and first editions and reprints. The cost of their books ranges from $35 to $3,000. Gonzales says he tries to keep their books comparatively affordable so more people can see what handmade books are like.
In 2021 they plan on rolling out an “across-the-board, no-questions-asked” 50 percent discount on all of their books for teachers and enrolled students. They’re also considering extending this to active-duty service members, public libraries and museums.
All orders are done online and there isn’t a storefront where the public can come in and see books. The best way to contact No Reply Press is through their website.
No Reply Press