by Judith Kahn
Located inside San Francisco’s historic Presidio is Arion Press, one of the nation’s leading publishers of fine press books. Arion Press titles are some of the most beautiful limited edition hand-printed books in the world. To date, it has published over 100 limited edition books, mostly printed by letterpress and many with notable artists’ prints.
Andrew Hoyem founded Arion press in 1974, continuing the tradition of Edwin and Robert Grabhorn of the Grabhorn Press which closed in 1965. For over 40 years it was one of the most distinguished presses in California.
Hoyem had worked with the Grabhorn Press during 1964 and, in 1966, Hoyem went into partnership with the legendary San Francisco printer Robert Grabhorn. It was under the tutelage of Grabhorn that Hoyem began to acquire his knowledge of printing history.
Grabhorn-Hoyem specialized in typograhical design, fine printing and the publication of limited edition books. Among the works was the celebrated edition of Allen Ginsburg’s Howl, published in 1971. Hoyem believes that a book’s style can enhance substance and that riveting tales and profound truths benefit from refined presentations. He employs an old letterpress method of printing because it imparts a three-dimensional quality to the ink. Cotton paper can feel more like a shirt than the product of wood pulp.
The Arion Press is small, employing about 12 people as printers, bookbinders, editors and other publishing roles. In 1989, Hoyem purchased Mackenzie & Harris (M&H), the oldest and largest surviving hot metal typefoundry in America and a self-sustaining business that includes publishing, typography, printing and custom design services. Arion Press now shares a space with M&H Type and houses 3,888 typecases.
The Arion Press is the last of its breed. It only publishes about three books a year, and only up to 400 copies of each edition. The selected literary texts are then matched with renowned contemporary artists who illustrate each work.
M&H Type composes and casts the type from molten lead blocks, which are then handset and hand printed on 100-year-old letterpress machines. The printed pages are proofread aloud and once everything is perfect, the pages are meticulously hand bound. They are then sewn, gilded and pressed together.
In 2000, The Grabhorn Institute, its non-profit adjunct, was started to preserve the printing and bookmaking facilities of Arion Press and M&H Type. In that same year, Grabhorn was designated by The National Trust For Historic Preservation as part of “the nation’s irreplaceable historical and cultural legacy” under its Save America’s Treasures program.
Arion Press’s editions of such classics as Moby Dick, Ulysses and contemporary works that pair poets and artists, are noted to be among the most exquisitely printed books in the world. Arion Press has an edition of the Holy Bible using traditional letterpress methods and is regarded as one of bookmaking’s finest examples. Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman is considered the Grabhorns’ masterpiece.
The free gallery to view the handed-printed books is open from Monday through Friday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
The hour and half tour of the press and gallery is $10 and takes place on Thursdays at 3:30 p.m. Reservations are required.