The Forgotten Art Of Bookmaking


Ever since people have started reading e-books on Kindle and downloading apps like Goodreads, publishing of books on paper has been in decline. Now that people can easily read books on their phones and tablets there are some books that never get published on paper.  

That means, the market today pays heavy attention to the quality of books that do get published. This gives them the best chance for that second glance on the shop floor. Bookmakers and printers set the words and typefaces to such accuracy with modern technology that the process is automated, demonstrating significant evolution from the traditional methods which would normally take weeks – not hours.

But there are still those who cling to the old ways. That believe a book made by hand acts as evidence of the process, not merely a document of information – and for one, we applaud them. 

The Larkspur Press

There was once a time when bookmaking was considered an art almost as important, distinct, and refined as writing a book. Luckily, there are some places that still consider it so, for example, Larkspur Press in Kentucky. This press is owned by Gray Zeitz who has been creating books for more than forty years. 

This two-story writing press is near the small town of Monterey where Zeitz prints one book at a time printing just a few editions each year. He has associated with some of the best writers in the state such as Bobby Ann Mason and Wendell Berry. Zeitz is 69 years old and uses a Chandler & Price printing press from 1915 to print books. He cuts the stacks of paper on a different machine that is from the late 1800s.  

History of Larkspur Press

Gray Zeitz was a student at the University of Kentucky in 1974, but he left the university when he was just half a semester away from getting his English degree. He had been learning about letterpress work and how each individual set type makes a different impression on good quality paper. 

He wanted to make good quality and fine books, especially about poetry. At that time more and more printers were shifting to faster offset printing, and the craft of letterpress was slowly fading. But Zeitz felt that the time was right to start a letterpress. 

At first, he didn’t have indoor plumbing or electricity, but he did not let such things hinder his dream. He wanted his press to feature Kentucky writers, and for that, he was prepared to grow tobacco and raise calves to pay the bills. Later on, he started doing smaller print jobs like wedding announcements and business cards to augment his income.     

At that time Monterey was becoming a hub for musicians, candle makers, hippies, and artists. At Larkspur they started a fall festival which attracted people from all over the country who came to see the books that Zeitz created. They touched their hand-sewn bindings and marvelled at the perfection produced at Larkspur. According to his friend Jack Campbell, who is in industrial design, the whole concept of lightness and texture gives the book a sensual quality.   

Gabrielle Fox, a professional bookbinder, has done a lot of work for Larkspur. She teaches at the American Academy of Bookbinding in Colorado every summer. The students there come from all over the world and they use books made at Larkspur Press as textbooks.

Leslie Shane is the only full-time employee of Gray Zeitz. She hand sews the books at Larkspur press and then cuts them. There are a limited number of books pertaining to each title, for example, the poetry book Animals at Full Moon by Erik Reece has only twenty copies which have been hand-sewn by her. 

Larkspur press prints only four books per year and sometimes they are two years behind schedule. Gray Zeitz does not know how to operate the computer, but if he could, he would be able to go to the Larkspur website and browse through the covers of all the hundred books that are on the shelves in his inventory. 

Some special editions of such books cost $200, but the Larkspur press is best known for books that they can sell for just $20 or $25. Gary Zeitz sets each space and letter of lead type by hand. When the ink is ready, he puts this on the press and then pulls a proof to see how it looks.  

Gary Zeitz lives in a fading purple colour house on top of the hill near his press with his two dogs. He does not plan on retiring because he says that if he ever retires, he will print books so he might as well continue working.