Spending time at a rare book fair that is kinder on the pocket.

Every year in April, the Manhattan Vintage Book & Ephemera Fair takes place alongside the New York Antiquarian Book Fair. Nicknamed the ‘Shadow Show’, it’s also known as the hipper of the two rare book fairs that unfold during ‘Rare Book Week’ in New York City. I’ve come to enjoy it as much as the rare book fair at the Armory, dividing my time equally between the two fairs. But one new aspect to the Shadow Show this year — the inclusion of a Fine Press Book Fair — tempted me sufficiently away from the headlining fair into spending more time at this sister rare book fair that is also, not just incidentally, kinder on the pocket.

What a great idea. Made me wonder all at once why every antiquarian and rare book fair shouldn’t include fine press exhibiters at each show. As the Manhattan Fine Press Book Fair made its debut, one had a fantastic chance to look at the new work of several favourite contemporary fine presses. On the list of exhibitors were many whose work I had some familiarity with: the Whittington Press, the Incline Press, Midnight Paper Sales, the Center for Book Arts, Press on Scroll Road, Deep Woods Press, Indulgence Press, Tideline Press, and the Lone Oak Press to mention only a few.

My first introduction to fine printing came quite by chance when, a few years ago, I came upon a little keepsake from the Stanbrook Abbey Press in a book sale bargain bin. Speedwell: Six Poems by the Benedictines of Stanbrook was printed on paper handmade from one of the oldest paper mills in England: Barcham Green. The type was Jan Van Krimpen’s Romanee; handset by the nuns in 500 copies. The presswork was immaculate. I had no idea at that time that I had just come across a coveted little item from one of the world’s most admired and respected fine presses.

The Stanbrook Abbey Press had been a fine press entirely run by the nuns of Stanbrook Abbey, a Benedictine community in England who saw fine presswork as doing God’s work. When I began collecting press books, I knew right off that I wouldn’t be able to afford things from the famous fine presses — Kelmscott, Doves, Ashendene (though I now possess one leaf from each of these bespoke presses, but that’s another story) — so I began looking for books from modern and contemporary presses and discovered that, if you look carefully and widely enough and aren’t too picky about condition, you can afford a few choice items from even these iconic presses and printers.

I don’t know whether I will ever be able to follow in the path of ‘a collector’s progress’: that is, in time ‘trading up’ these copies in so-so condition to better, brighter copies. But I have found that, as many collectors with poor pockets eventually do, there are some things coming from these presses that you can afford: prints, broadsides, prospectuses, posters and keepsakes. Almost the only books that interest me now as a collector are finely-printed books and ephemera from private presses.

The work of the artist-printers at the Manhattan Fine Press Fair puts you in mind of all the memorable things said about letterpress printing, the words of so many fine printers on fine printing — William Morris, Cobden Sanderson, Bruce Rogers, Leonard Bahr, Will Reuter and John Randle — speak for the books here. Explaining his aims in founding the Aliquando Press, Reuter said, “The pleasures of the private press are many: the preservation of the ‘art and mystery’ of printing; the discovery and development of a personal ideal and a sense of self-realisation through craftsmanship and the use of materials; the choice and visual interpretation of a text which otherwise might not be printed; the exploration and maintenance of a distinct typographic individuality; the chance to experiment with letterform and ornament.”

Bibliophile-friends sometimes ask me how I feel about digital books and readers (knowing how deeply the book as a physical object interests me) and are a little puzzled when I don’t sound dismayed, in the least. On the other hand, I tell them it’s probably the best thing that’s happened to the physical book; digital books have freed the traditional book from being just functional, and from being objects carrying information and text. Now, the book can go back to being what it was in its infancy: finely printed, finely made objects. It can now focus on its form: the paper, the binding, design, illustration, typography. In other words, it is like what Cobden-Sanderson, once said in describing this kind of presswork: ‘order touched with delight.’