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Making books with the obsessed

Wednesday, Aug 29 2001
Most people simply read books, but I like to smell them. New books are the best: Slightly sweet and enticingly chemical, they reek of glue and ink and other mysterious binding fluids. The stink of old books is musty and organic, like a garden going to seed, but a new book smells like hope. At the San Francisco Center for the Book, a nonprofit gallery/schoolhouse/studio in Potrero Hill, that new-book smell is everywhere.

Kathleen Burch extends her hand for a shake, and it is sticky with rubber-based printer's ink in various shades of red. Burch, who co-founded the center five years ago, is printing an invitation to its current show, a collection of playing cards that includes her own work. The center supports the book arts -- that is, letterpress printing, typography, bookbinding, and the like -- and though cards might sound far from most people's idea of a book, Burch has carried that idea even further. For a 1997 exhibition titled "You Call That a Book?" she embedded a text about spontaneous human combustion within a sparking tesla coil, a wire-and-metal contraption that generates energy. But visitors could only read the text if they were willing to lean into an electrical arc of 350,000 volts.

If Marcel Duchamp could call a urinal art with his 1917 Fountain, it seems to me that Burch can call a tesla coil a book, but critics still grumble now and then about such broad definitions. "They should call them booklike objects or sculptures," insists Asa Peavy, also a participant in the '97 show and now program manager of Book Arts & Special Collections at the San Francisco Public Library, "but they're not books." Most people who take classes at the center don't care: They just want to create things.

The physical act of making a book seems anachronistic in this high-tech mecca, but about half the students at the center spend their workdays staring at a computer screen. The meditative process of hand-constructing a book -- on display every day at the center -- is an antidote to the virtual world. Students in aprons swab the rollers on the waist-high, 5-foot-long printing press with ink, place a piece of thick paper under a clip, and turn a huge crank to roll the page against the inked image; they then let the pages dry and bind them. It's an oddly satisfying process. Despite the heft of the press, the crank isn't difficult to turn, and when the printed page pops out at the top of a large roller, looking crisp and perfect, it's hard not to feel proud.

Michelle Geiger, who started as an intern and now coordinates the center's internship program (among other duties), makes books that look fragile but stand up to handling. Geiger collects things that she hopes to make into books, and the center's second classroom, a few doors down in the same building, is like a peek into her dream world. Drawers and boxes spill over with raw materials and scraps of paper, leather, and metal; the tools to pull them together -- presses, nippers, foil stampers -- line the walls. The machines look ancient and vaguely dangerous, and the room smells of Elmer's glue and ink. Geiger removes a series of exquisite objects, which she calls her "starfish books," from her box of art. They're made in the shape of the sea creature, with pages that radiate from the center and dip almost to a point at the outer edges. "You can't look at them without touching them," she says softly. "I like that."

Back in the gallery space, the remains of a recent letterpress-intensive class rest on a table -- small chapbooks of poetry, pages laid out in series, trays of lead type waiting to be returned to labeled drawers. Geiger calls the class a "drinking from the fire hose" experience: By the end of the all-day course students are bleary-eyed but addicted to letterpress. Only six people at a time can take the class, and it's always full.

Indeed, the Bay Area is filled with people who are passionate about the book arts. When the center opened in July 1996, it had a mailing list of about 700 people; today the active list is over 8,000 names long. The center's first schedule included about a dozen classes; the fall 2001 schedule highlights more than 80. Illustrator Ward Schumaker took his artist wife on a date to a pastepaper course. "I realized I could take her out to this class for about the same price as going to a restaurant. We had more fun than we've ever had at a restaurant," he says. "We were laughing so hard, it was like we'd just met." Another student, Cathy Miranker, became so taken with the center that she quit her job as a journalist and marketing writer to focus on the book arts. It was a "eureka moment," she says. "Things do happen as a result of their classes."

In March, teams from the Pacific Center for the Book Arts and the Hand BookBinders of California (both member groups at the center) faced off in a contest, informally titled the "Bind-Off," to make a book of random materials in 15 minutes. Despite minimal planning and little promotion, more than 80 people crammed into a small space at the San Francisco Public Library to cheer the teams and choose winners. As Kate Godfrey, the Pacific Center board member who planned the event, explains, "You can't spread the love of a craft by making it elitist."

Mary Austin, who co-founded the center, may be more passionate about book arts than anyone. She makes the printer's classic claim -- "I have ink in my veins" -- but her actions back up what might otherwise be a cliché. When her son Caslon was born (he's named after the 18th-century typeface favored by Benjamin Franklin), she printed "afterbirth announcements" by pressing her placenta -- which she'd brought home from the hospital in a red "biohazardous waste" bag and kept in the fridge for a week -- onto paper. I've been afraid to ask whether such a thing is legal to send through the mail.

Now Austin's brainchild (the center, not the announcement) is in transition. The lease on its current location, a 2000-square-foot building on De Haro, expires next February, and the group is negotiating with the landlord to see if it can stay there -- even, perhaps, to expand within the building. At the same time, the center is part of the Pier 70 Arts Consortium, a group of nonprofit groups working to build a complex at the corner of 22nd and Illinois streets in which each of these arts groups would own its space.

Regardless of where it ends up, the San Francisco Center for the Book needs more room. "I feel we have more growing to do before we top out," Austin explains. There's demand for a library, another classroom, and maybe even a gift shop -- a headquarters, Austin jokes, for "world domination through books." It's hard to know whether the group's domination of Bay Area book arts in the last few years has been a benefit of the economy, the whim of the moment, or a genuine, lasting interest. "Ham radios were a big fad at one point," Kathleen Burch points out. "I don't think we're a fad -- we're a trend -- but it's difficult to tell. Five years from now we'll have a better idea."

About The Author

Karen Silver


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