Printer reopens, unafraid of the digital age

Master printer Robert Warner demonstrates one of the hand-operated presses at the newly reopened Bowne & Co., Stationers at the Seaport. Downtown Express photo by Aline Reynolds

BY ALINE REYNOLDS  |  Fresh ink spilled onto paper posters and stationary cards last Friday, Oct. 14 at Bowne & Co., Stationers, the Seaport Museum’s cherished print shop that is now back in business.

Master Printer Robert Warner eagerly welcomed in more than 100 visitors, who watched as he cranked out posters decorated with horses and lined with the slogan, “Bowne & Co., Stationers Back in Motion!”

Warner is honored to continue the longstanding tradition of hand-operated printmaking, a form that is now going the way of the dinosaur in the face of digital technology.

“It’s the way printing would have been done in the last 300 years, and it’s an important tradition to continue,” said Warner, as he attended to patron Andrea Chin, a longtime neighborhood resident who was purchasing a piece of stationary.

“To see him working here is a wonderful experience. It’s nice to see handcrafted things done the old fashioned way,” said Chin. “You can see the printing quality and the designs are one-of-a-kind.”

Printing at Bowne & Co. is indeed unique, according to Warner. “There are companies that’ll continue letter press,” he said, “but to have a printer in the back of a shop while the printer is talking to you is the rarest of occasions.”

Last Friday Warner demonstrated to his customers how he produces the seasonal stationery on display using an Albion cast-iron press, which was introduced around 1820, and is operated by a hand lever.

“My intention is to print things fresh for the shop on a daily basis,” said Warner, as he carefully rolled black ink onto a marble slab ­— a technique to keep the ink moist.

“The idea was to print from the museum’s collection of plates and types,” explained Warner, who printed 300 greeting cards in anticipation of the store’s grand re-opening.

The entire process, including pre-printing preparations, typically takes one-to-two hours. Preparing the print material alone takes time, since there are several hundred combinations of fonts and plates to choose from. Warner purchases the paper from different paper mills around the world.

“I thought to do a bit of time travel with all the things I’m printing today,” he said, having selected a wood engraving from the early 19th century, a wood type from the mid 19th century and a metal type from the early 20th century.

Warner also uses treadle-operating presses, a more efficient printing method dating back to the mid-19th century that is powered by a foot pedal and was used by small printing shops for the better part of the 20th century.

In a given work day, Warner produces up to 500 cards. At top speed, Warner said, the machines can churn out four prints per minute.

“That was the rate of speed in the 1840s, when one person was feeding the printer, and the other one, inking,” said Warner.

Falling victim to the museum’s financial difficulties, Bowne & Co. was forced to close in mid-February. The Seaport Museum’s gallery spaces, at 12 Fulton St., are set to open later this year or early next year.

Warner, however, never fretted over the shop’s permanent closure.

“I always had confidence it was an important collection that wouldn’t be parceled or sold off,” said Warner.

Bowne & Co. was the Staples of its time when it opened back in 1775 on what is now known as Pearl Street, selling quills and pens, string, wire buttons, powder and other dry goods. Starting in the early 19th century, the business, which moved to 111 Water St., began selling items such as seaman’s journals, letter paper with gilded edges and straw paper. Soon thereafter, Bowne & Co. became an internationally renowned financial printer whose clients included former investment firm Lehman Brothers.

The business’s current space at 211 Water St. previously housed a cast iron stove assembly site and was renovated in 1975 to simulate the 19th century atmosphere of commerce and letterpress printing, in celebration of Bowne & Co.’s 200th birthday.

Warner, who was appointed as the business’s master printer in 2005, now runs a one-man shop, producing seasonal cards that are relatively easy to make and that have proven popular over the years.

While he was previously printing Emily Dickinson poems and other keepsake pieces of literature, Warner’s sole focus now is on growing the retail component of the business and gearing up for the card-centric holiday season.

“We will continue to do custom work, but not in the immediate future,” said Warner. “We’ll grow logically and sensibly once the funds are available. Eventually, we’ll hire [another] printer who will maintain the back of the shop.”

Warner does not see other large card making companies as competitors to his distinctive craft. He is confident that the antiquated industry will continue to survive in the digital age.

“What I do is beautiful and custom-made. What they do is mass-produced,” said Warner. “There’s Christian Dior, then there’s Target. There’s Calvin Klein, then there’s K-Mart.”

After all, Warner said, there will always be a demand for “beautiful things.”

“You can go to the Duane Reade across the street, or you could choose a card from a shop to support a cultural institution,” said Warner. “No matter how much technology progresses and how many iPads they make there will always be someone who wants a handwritten note.”