Josna Rege

326. Whetstone Press

In 1980s, blogs and blogging, Books, Stories, Words & phrases, Work on April 28, 2015 at 8:29 pm

atoz [2015] - BANNER - 910

images-1

the-pine-street-inn-towerWhen I was first considering A Printer’s Alphabet as the theme for this year’s A-to-Z Challenge and brainstorming possible entries for each letter, I knew at once what ‘W’ would be (while I’ve still got nothing for ‘Y’—yikes!). In the summer of 1979 Andrew and I drove back from New Mexico in our old International Harvester milk truck, with the goal of starting a letterpress printing business with his sister Eve; and that is exactly what we did. In the New Year we moved into an old industrial building in Boston’s as-yet-ungentrified South End, right across the street from the famous Pine Street Inn for homeless men, and started doing business as Whetstone Press.

IMG_1164

wedding invitation

wedding invitation

How did we come up with the name? Here I am trying to answer that question, asked of us back in the early 1980s by Andrew’s Grandma Olga. It was understandably a bit of a puzzle to the grandparents’ generation, why these well-educated young folks would be starting a letterpress print shop just as everybody else was jettisoning their hot type as fast as they possibly could. And the name: why Whetstone? Surely we weren’t a knife-sharpening business? Grandma Olga had a rational mind, and she asked us for an explanation more than once. We promised to send it to her in a letter, but we delayed, as young folks will, and she died before we got around to it.

We knew we wanted a name that would speak of the pride we took in our trade, an old and essential one, involving physical work by skilled hands. I remember Watershed Press being a strong contender, but somehow not sounding quite right. There was nature, there was flow, there was the suggestion of a water wheel, but perhaps in the end it had one too many syllables in it. How we got from watershed to whetstone I don’t quite remember. Since they are both in the W’s, toward the end of the alphabet, I suspect that we had exhausted all the candidates that had come before. What I do remember was the clincher, in the Oxford English Dictionary:

Diligence is to the Understanding as the Whetstone is to the Razor.

Somehow that said it all. The way to understanding is not through some mystical inspiration wafting in on the breeze, but through painstaking and persistent effort. It sharpens the mind (as the whetstone sharpens the razor), thence deepening the understanding. To us, the old-time skilled, labor-intensive trades like letterpress printing lent themselves to the deep concentration required for understanding.

illustration by Eve Melnechuk

illustration by Eve Melnechuk

letterpress on felt

letterpress on felt

Did we attain Understanding, sharpened by dint of our diligence? I can’t say. I do know that we worked very hard and had a lot of fun, For the first four years Andrew, Eve, and I— Printer, Designer, and Jack-of-all-Trades, respectively— running the business as a partnership. During that time we made two moves: from Bristol Street round the corner to Harrison Avenue, also in the South End, and then to Green Street in Jamaica Plain, each time with Red Sun Press, our larger offset printing counterpart (which is still in business at the same address)

IMG_1148Then, in the fourth year, Andrew and I moved to the farm in Winchendon and, a year after that, had a baby. Eve decided that she needed a steadier paycheck if she was to be able to support herself and after my maternity leave, followed by a very part-time work schedule, I decided to base myself in Winchendon with the baby and cut back to doing some of the estimating, the billing, and the taxes. Until we moved yet again, even further west, seven years later, Andrew continued to commute back and forth to Jamaica Plain while setting up a second shop in a rebuilt chicken coop on the farm. Now, more than 30 years later, most of the equipment stands idle in our basement, waiting for new energy to give it yet another lease on life, perhaps in the Museum of Printing in North Andover, or else a last ride, to the scrap metal dealer.

© Whetstone Press (artwork by Eve Melnechuk)

© Whetstone Press (artwork by Eve Melnechuk)

illustration by Eve Melnechuk

illustration by Eve Melnechuk

But what a run we had! I have described our bread-and-butter work in TMA 313, Job Printers. Aside from the job work we didn’t have the time or the capital to fulfill our publishing aspirations, except for the one book of poetry and small items such as cards, pads, and bookplates. Our families finally came around from their initial bewilderment at our decidedly unprofitable business enterprise, and threw their full moral support behind us. It was only after we closed our doors that letterpress printing underwent a new revival, with little shops springing up everywhere.

IMG_1149

We’re done, I think: the lead type, the solvents, the sheer weight of all that equipment. But this was not meant to be an elegy, despite its coming at the tail-end of the alphabet. Whetstone Press did fine, high-quality work, and for good causes to boot, work that distributed itself out into the world and didn’t just sit on a shelf looking beautiful (although there’s a place for that as well).

Dear Grandma Olga, I’m sorry that this explanation comes 33 years late.

Diligence is to the Understanding as the Whetstone is to the Razor.

The Understanding is still a work in progress.

© Whetstone Press

© Whetstone Press

Tell Me Another (Contents to Date)

Chronological Table of Contents

atoz [2015] - BANNER - 910

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  1. Excellent motto to live by as well as print by! You must have done reasonably well to continue for so long, but it sounds like the pleasure of doing a good job well is a big part of your satisfaction. 🙂

    • Yes it was, Linda. We didn’t really earn a living wage, so ultimately it wasn’t sustainable, but, yes, it was rewarding, always interesting.

  2. So glad to see so many of these images I remember with such fondness. What amazed me in your piece was that Whetstone Press only existed for 4 years in Boston. What a pivotal time in our lives that was! Do you still have any of the photos from my student photo essay on Whetstone Press? I’m sure I could find some for you if not.

    • Linda, I don’t think we do. I’d love to see that again–I had completely forgotten that you had done one. Yes, those were packed and formative years. And four years then was a long time. Miss you. . .

  3. I like that saying, I like it. Surely not the scrap metal pile! There must be a printmakers workshop around there and some printermakers who would like to add your equipment to their shop? For the art end of it, classes and that.

  4. One more day! hanks for hanging in there for this entire month!

    Stephen Tremp
    A to Z Co-host
    Z is for Zombie
    http://www.stephentremp.com

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