SE Portland bookmaker revives old fashioned publishing techniques
A small publishing company in Inner Southeast Portland is reviving publishing techniques that date back hundreds of years. "No Reply Press" creates collectible books, printed via letterpress, and assembled by hand.
"Our books are little works of art," explained the company's editor, Griffin Gonzales. "You know that real people made it, and put their heart and soul into it."
No Reply Press printed its first book in 2019. The collective includes six Portlanders with unique artistic and technical skills, ranging from a letterpress printing expert to professional bookbinders. All are under the age of 30! The collaborators have released ten titles so far, and have four more planned – all with a literary bent, but ranging from famous authors to emerging writers.
Almost all the work they do takes place in a small studio at the edge of Ladd's Addition, just north of the Brooklyn neighborhood. The exception is their printer, Jenn Lawrence, who works out of her Letterpress PDX business in North Portland.
Gonzales is a Southeast Portland local, and a graduate of Cleveland High School. He became fascinated with historical bookmaking practices while studying religion in college. "There's basically nothing different between what our press does and what Gutenberg did in 1453. It's the exact same process," Gonzales explained, referring to the first Bible that was mass-produced using a printing press.
That production process is quite complex. To start, the typesetter plucks tiny metal letters from a large wooden case. She lays out each word upside down and backward, in perfect alignment, then inks and presses each page onto fine handmade paper. Another artisan folds and cuts these pages with a bone tool, sews the left edges together with needle and thread, and glues all of that into a cover made of hand-inked paper and sometimes leather. Authors and creators then sign and number each copy, using a fountain pen and ink.
Science comes into play, too, since the paper grain needs to align, and the acidity of glues and inks must work well together. Otherwise covers warp, pages yellow, and print fades. "Bookmaking is chemistry and engineering," Gonzales told THE BEE.
These painstaking steps are repeated hundreds of times for each book. In all, each copy requires at least ten hours of manual work. To keep that manageable, No Reply Press limits its texts to 100 pages or less. Literary styles include poetry, essays, short fiction, and excerpts from famous novels. Writers published include T. S. Eliot, Emily Dickinson, Leo Tolstoy, and Markus Zusak. A popular speech by Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is currently in production.
A series of unusual events hit the young company in 2020, which itself has been a very unusual year for us all. January brought the long-planned release of Edgar Allan Poe's "Masque of the Red Death", a story about a brutal pandemic. That was just before COVID-19 exploded into public awareness. "Unexpectedly, to us, sales just went through the roof!" Gonzales remembers. "The timing was very ironic."
Then, in September, burglars broke into the studio and stole all the computers and electronics they could find. Sadly, the thieves used boxes containing custom-ordered paper and rare bookmaking supplies to carry their loot out of the building. Gonzales said that was the more disheartening loss, and it slowed down production for several months.
No Reply Press has since been regaining its stride, continuing to sell books mostly via word of mouth. Price points have ranged from $35 up to $1000. Gonzales said that's deliberate, to keep the books affordable. This appeals to hundreds of rare book collectors, libraries, and literary fans around the world. The median age of customers is 31 years old, which Gonzales found unexpected. "It's people of every gender, every part of the country. It's a really mixed bunch, and surprisingly so, because I really would have thought it would have been people who are older."
He observes that handmade books make a good investment, because they almost always grow in value over time. But that's not necessarily why people buy from No Reply Press.
"You're not just buying the words on the page. You're also buying the artifact," he said. "Holding one of our books, you really do feel the time that went into it, and you feel the expertise. It feels like it has a soul."
He relates the story of a grandmother buying a 19th birthday gift for her granddaughter – a book written by the young woman's favorite author. "She got copy number 19, so that meant a great deal," Gonzales recalled. "It was wonderful to hear that our books are part of a special occasion, and a bond between people. This person will keep this book, and always remember her grandmother."
So how did this group of bookmakers come up with a company name like No Reply Press? Gonzales said he and another collaborator were brainstorming and emailed a poet friend for suggestions. However, they typed his email address incorrectly, and a message bounced back with "No Reply" in the subject line. It seemed like a sign.
Despite the name, all book buyers receive a personal thank you note, composed on a vintage Corona typewriter. That machine sits next to the company's ledger book, where buyers' names and locations are recorded – by hand.
"No Reply Press" can be found on Instagram, and reached through their website, www.noreplypress.com
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