Bowne & Co.
Almost every Sunday for the past few months I've been at Bowne & Co, Stationers. My friend Doug and I have eagerly spent an absurd amount of time planning, designing, printing, second-guessing, amending, scoring and folding a series of letterpress notecards loosely based on 19th century type specimens and ornament. We still have wrapping and packaging (and selling!) to go. More on the cards next time.
I've come upon Bowne unexpectedly, through Doug, who started volunteering there. On stepping into the shop the first time I was almost giddy. Cluttered, dim, with wooden displays and shelves lining the walls, the place appeared reasonably authentic on first view, but I knew, in New York, that was impossible. I was only slightly deflated to confirm it was a recreation. Bowne & Co. was founded in 1775; this store is a 1975-vintage evocation of a printing "job shop," c. 1875. (Bowne, the company, still exists, as a global financial printer.) The shop has an amazing collection of type both metal and wood, an assortment of curious machines of obscure purpose, many wooden cabinets and drawers, mostly askew, and fantastical piles of oddments.
Most of the oddments belong to Robert Warner the "master printer", curator, and character of the shop (that's him printing, above, on the shop's 1901 Golding press). Almost Seussian (or is it more Felix with his bag of tricks?) he is focussed, jovial, fond of puns, and has an air of the surreal about him. Robert is a fascinating collage- and correspondence artist and describes himself as a 'gatherer.' He scours eBay for odd lots of antique wallpaper, ancient ledgers, disbound books, 1930s catalogs, cabinet cards and other paper ephemera and he most certainly has an exuberant way with the detritus of bygone eras. I'm jealous of his inventory. He also appears to acquire people, like a set of identical twin sisters from somewhere mid-country with whom he corresponds. The twins definitely veer more toward the Tim Burtonesque: identical clothing and hair style, theatrically prim, and obsessively creative. I've not actually seen these girls in person, but they do make a very intriguing cameo in this engagingly quirky film about Robert's art.
The store is a working printing office. It is also under the auspices of the South Street Seaport Museum and as such it has the mission to 'demonstrate' the arcane processes and 'educate' the unwary public that wanders in, however few they might be. Thankfully Bowne doesn't wholly ascribe to the Colonial Williamsburg school of 'living history' and there is no "authentic" printer outfit to wear, save for a very real printer's apron. Though one person did tell Robert, who is partial to overalls and caps, she liked his "costume." I think he enjoyed that. And so, by default, for these past many Sundays, I've been part of the show.
top photo from the South Street Seaport Museum, the rest by me!