Purposeful Q+A: Tom Parson + Letterpress Depot

Tom Parson

Tom Parson didn’t get into letterpress because he loved the look or feel of an imprinted page. He started out as a poet who wanted to share the written word on paper. Though the practicality of the craft drew him in, Tom has since developed a deep enthusiasm for letterpress that’s led him to collect thousands of typefaces, a library’s worth of books, and many printing presses. Now, to share his passion with the community, he’s restoring an old train depot in Englewood, Colorado, which will be home to a museum, library, and teaching space all about letterpress. The Letterpress Depot is in the midst of an IndieGogo campaign, raising funds to support the restoration, and they just hit the $20,000 mark. But more is needed to get all the work done, so before or after you read this Q+A, please visit and donate!

Tom walked me through his home and workroom filled with letterpress supplies waiting for their new home at the Depot. He has a loving reverence for it all, which comes from what he calls the “mysterious” details of this classic craft. He says, “Every job becomes a different puzzle. Every time I touch this stuff, it's like new all over again.”

TOM:

When I first started, I took a workshop, and the teacher said, "Pick a poem to print, pick a typeface you like, and print a broadside with it." I sat there for about three days looking at the types and saying, "I don't know what I'm looking at. I don't know what this is. What's the difference? What am I seeing?" The subtlety of typefaces and type design is such that we don't have much language to describe it.

Somebody comes in and wants a wedding invitation. They say, "Well, I want something nice looking. I want something really pretty. That's too frilly... No, I don't like that. That's too bold." Bold? Frilly? What does that mean? Yet, when you see something in type, you know you like it, or you know you don't like it right away. It's a visual, emotional response, a gut reaction to it.

We have so many typefaces. I probably have 2,500 different fonts of metal type here, and 3,400 types of wood type. Every one is different, and you almost can't describe them to people….

To me, it’s a philosophical puzzle, that we have a need for hundreds of thousands of typefaces…. But we still don’t have language to talk about it.

It still makes an enormous difference when you look at it to feel it. You look at it and go, "That doesn't feel right." Then I'll adjust the spacing over by a quarter point or a half a point between the letters or between the lines, and then you’ll look at it and think, "That's perfect." But I say, "No, that's not perfect. That's where it is." This is one of the philosophical things I've come up with. You print at the press at four in the morning, and the time doesn't exist. You're all by yourself. This is one of the thoughts I've come up with: people say, “This is perfect,” but actually what it is, is it's good enough.

You work on something. You can adjust almost an infinite number of factors – almost infinitely. You can change the thickness of the ink film, the thickness of the spacing between the letters, between the words, or between the lines. You can change the typeface entirely. You can change the color of ink. You can change the size of the type. You can change the roller pressure so that it hits the type a little harder or a little less hard, the packing so it drives into the paper differently. You can spend a whole day adjusting it back and forth. It's all a continuum. Where's perfect in that?

If you have an infinite number of choices, at some point you say, "That's good enough." Then, you say, "Well, good enough for what? For whom? What's this going to be used for?" It takes you back to the question of what are you doing this for? Who cares? What difference does it make? The function of it and the use of it become important in the judgment of how it's appreciated.

KRISTINA:

I want to ask you about the Depot. Why is it so important to you to share this with the community?

TOM:

There are several answers to that. One is that when I'm done with [my letterpress collection], what's going to happen to it? I've acquired things by getting to know printers and seeing things on sale. Somebody gets older and has a stroke or dies (and they all do that). If you look at printing history, all the accounts go, "He started. He printed 400 books. He died." It's an ephemeral thing… and yet somehow it gets passed on. Does it get passed on through an auction or a sale or a scrap dealer? Or is there a way to pass this stuff on so that people go on knowing what it is and knowing how to use it?

If I want to save this stuff, I've got to build a community that knows what it is, and actually owns it.

When people come to the Letterpress Depot, if they feel like it's theirs, then they will take care of it. But if they feel like that's just a place to go see the way things used to be done – it’s in the past, it's safe in a case – it’ll be lost.

What it needs is the community of people that own it and feel like they’re part of that community, that are inventing a new way to use it so that it has a life of its own in the community.

It's also possible with a historic building to reinvent how it's used and what it's used for. In this case, it's a train depot that's never going to be a train depot. The train lines are all changed, and there aren't passenger waiting rooms anymore. It's no longer on the tracks. [The building has] been moved a mile from where it was. Something of that building wants to be – needs to be – preserved.

KRISTINA:

Did you always envision doing this in a historic building?

TOM:

It does add to it. It's so parallel to trying to save old printing techniques and technology that's obsolete, or not being used anymore, and teaching people and getting people excited about it…. As soon as I thought of it, it seemed right to me.... I'm not sure everybody understands how appropriate it is.

KRISTINA:

It's meaningful to you.

TOM:

It is to me. I don't know. I think, probably, if I'd walked into a warehouse building anywhere, I would've said, "That's good enough. I'll just do it. It's functional." Some of it is that phrase, “good enough,” again.

I think the best advice on printing I ever got from another printer was, “Whatever works.”

If it works, go with it. Go with it and see where it leads you. Finding this building – and finding a historic building – I've had to learn a lot about trains. I've had to learn a lot about buildings and construction and architecture and landscaping. I've had to learn things that I would've maybe just dodged if could've, but that's all for the good, I think. It's going to pay off. It's going to be a neat place.

Thanks for reading another Q+A, and hey -- before you go, why not check out that IndieGogo campaign?

Q+A's like the one you just read are near-exact transcriptions of live conversations, so please excuse any fragments, run on sentences, or other completely natural phrasing that often takes place in a conversation. 

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