Lead type and ink caused me no harm, except for imprinting my soul with a love of letters

I grew up in a print shop. In the seventies my father acquired a Gestetner 480 to print church bulletins. As other printers modernized my father picked up their old presses for a song. He had to tear open a wall to bring in an elephantine poster press. That one never saw a job and it was carved up and sold for scrap metal. 

In exchange for work, my father bought me an old but solid Underwood typewriter with a three-foot carriage, designed for typing sideways on legal and other over-sized paper. I started a neighbourhood newspaper, selling ads for a dime, printing on a ditto machine.

My favourite machine was a tabletop letterpress used for printing wedding invitations. I made words with my hands, assembling lead type into a metal form, packed into place with spacers and wooden blocks and wedged tight. The form was clamped onto the upper jaw of the press. Wedding stock was placed on the lower jaw and secured by guide pins. The press was hand cranked. In one deft motion, rollers would get pulled over the ink plate and type, closing the jaws so the inked type pressed upon the paper. You did not want to pull too hard for fear of smudging the ink or wrecking the type.

The printing industry was challenged by the digital revolution of the eighties. My brother developed the shop into a full-time competitive operation, upgrading to a desk-sized “Comp 1” typesetter and a Multilith 1250 press. Family and friends worked late hours, printing, collating, cutting and binding. For a time we kept up but a complete and expensive digital overhaul was required. The shop closed.

I grew up in the print shop, literally. While it lived, it operated out of our family home, next to my basement bedroom. At night it was my my job to clean the darkroom and presses. I could never wash the ink completely from hands and nails. Lead type and ink caused me no harm, except for imprinting my soul with a love of letters. I delivered newspapers. I became an avid reader. I imagined a career as a journalist or author. Instead I underwent a digital overhaul myself, making a living in the computer industry. Code is made of text; I suppose I am still a maker of words.