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Minds of the Press, Vol. 16

Griffin Gonzales of No Reply Press


Running a fine press in his hometown of Portland, Griffin Gonzales is a press owner with immense passion and personality. He is full of boundless creativity and energy, clearly having a deep love for the craft and his community. His works are as eclectic as the town he is based in and this tendency to pivot into new areas makes his work all the more exciting and fresh. This has been an interview I have been looking forward to for a long time and know from our conversations about bookmaking and art that he has a lot more to say than can be fit into a single interview. We hope you enjoy the conversation and it piques your interest in No Reply Press and their contribution to the fine press world!


Q: You were raised and currently reside in Portland, Oregon, a town known for eclectic artists and as a place where someone can pursue their specific craft. From our previous conversations, you seem to be passionate about it as a city and very proud of where you are from. Why do you think Portland has evolved this way and how did that influence your decision to enter into the fine press craft?

 

I love Portland.  I could go on and on about it, but I’ll spare your readers.  Well, maybe just one tidbit!  This week I had four local newspapers dropped off on my porch – the Brooklyn News (covering my tiny neighborhood), the Sellwood Bee (covering a couple of neighborhoods, including mine), the Southeast Examiner (covering a quarter of the city), and the Portland Tribune (which had an article about my dad in it).  Say what you will about Portland, but we’ve got no lack of local news.  At dinner parties, I hear way more talk about Mike Schmidt and J.V.P. and Rene Gonzalez (the controversial district attorney, county chair, and city commissioner) than I do about faraway Federal politicians.  Portland is a city that feels like a town pretending to be a city.


The Death of Ivan Ilyich - Numbered Edition

Craft.  There are tons of craft here.  And despite the “Portlandia” nonsense, it really isn’t just braindead hipsterism.  Portlanders vote with their wallet, which makes small business and craft viable.  When I was growing up in Portland in the 90s, my small neighborhood had two Starbucks locations.  Both closed and have been replaced by not one, not two, not three, but four independent coffee shops – two of which roast their own coffee on site.  And guess what, they’re cheaper than Starbucks!  National chains are few and far between here; they just can’t compete. 

 

I think most craftspeople come to their trade by happenstance.  Many learn it from their parents, for example.  In my case, I happen to have grown up blocks from Portland’s Independent Publishers Resource Center, where everything from letterpress to lithography to screenprinting to a giant Xerox machine was available for public use.  Working at the IPRC was great.  To your left, you’d have a chief radiologist printing her Christmas cards.  On your right, you’d have black-clad pin-covered Leninist-Moaist-Marxist stapling their zines.  Neat place.  The founder, Chloe Eudaly, became a city commissioner too, defeating the previous guy, Steve Novick, who I look forward to voting for in the upcoming city council elections (and who nearly became the first U.S. senator with a hook for a hand).  By the time I graduated high school I had spent a hundred hours making rudimentary books by hand.

 

So, that’s Portland.  To paraphrase Tom McCall (our great environmentalist Republican governor who made the entire Oregon coastline public land and who introduced the nation’s first bottle deposit bill): “Come visit us.  This is a state of excitement.  But for heaven’s sake, don’t move here.”

 

Q: When did the concept of No Reply Press first enter your mind and what were some of the pivotal moments that made you realize this could be your full-time occupation? Who were some of the personal and professional relationships that inspired you?


Enūma Eliš - Vellum Edition

No Reply came about by total accident.  A guy, a scholar of Mahayana Buddhism, gave me a book which led me to meet another guy.  That other guy was Luke Pontifell of Thornwillow Press.  I started working with Luke as an editorial and crowdfunding consultant and got to know the world of letterpress and hand-bound books.  A decade later, here I am with my own private press.

 

When I’m at home, I work like eighty-hour weeks on No Reply, but I don’t consider it my full-time occupation.  The threads of my work and life are woven so finely together that I don’t really consider it a job.  I’m thrilled (of course!) that the profits from my private presswork pays the bills and then some, but I don’t think I’d do anything differently otherwise. 


If No Reply made twice as much money, my life would be no different.  If No Reply made half as much money, my life would be no different.  If No Reply made no money, my life wouldn’t be that different – I’d pick up shifts as a bartender or something to pay my bills.

 

Q: Tell us a little bit about your background in the arts and as a craftsman. To what degree do you see your role at No Reply as an artist expressing yourself and curating a body of work through your projects and to what extent do you see it as the role of a craftsman, considering the often-repetitive nature of a letterpress printer and hand edition binder? Do you see any distinction?

 

The Elsteds of Barbarian Press have written, “Private press printing is a craft, not an art.  The design and making of beautiful books is only secondarily a matter of self-expression; its first excellence is to serve the author and reader.”  I don’t know whether they meant this as a normative statement or as a description of their own approach.  Either way, it is not my approach.


I am primarily inspired by the Art Nouveau, Jugenstile, and – to a lesser extent – Arts and Crafts movements (their philosophies, not necessarily their aesthetics).  These movements blurred the distinction between the “high arts” and the “low arts” (the crafts).  Klimt worked with gold leaf, Horta designed chairs as well as façades, Morris crafted poetry and wallpaper.  Furthermore, they pursued an approach of “Gesamtkunstwerk” or “total art” in which many various arts and crafts are brought together in a single grand effort. 


A Scandal in Bohemia - Interior

Why approach things this way?  I like what the great sgraffito artist Paul Couchie emblazoned on the front of his house: “Par Nous Pour Nous” – by us, for us.


This is basically my approach.  I see little importance in the distinction between art and craft, and I strive for a “total art” in which many arts/crafts come together.  I think something special, something spiritual, something alchemical happens when the mind which conceives a book also moves the hands which make it.  The greater the collaboration between mind and hands, the greater that je ne sais quoi which interests me.  My own book collection contains very few editions which were not physically made by their publisher.  I am open to and interested in aesthetic and literary differences of taste. I don’t need to “like the look” of a book.  I don’t need to enjoy reading the text it contains.  What will always interest me, however, is the fact of a book having been made by its publisher and published by its maker.

 

No Reply is often referred to as a “fine press” but, ironically, whether or not others would deem my books as “fine” does not really interest me.  I don’t primarily think of them that way.

 

Q: You mentioned the designation of "fine press" and how No Reply is often put in this camp, but it is unclear what pushes a press over into this territory. Some would consider this line to be letterpress printing or hand binding, while others have a more nebulous understanding of this distinction. Where do you stand and do you think it matters?

 

I think the term “fine press” is about as useful as the term “athlete”. Sure, Thornwillow and Golden Cockerel and Tallone and Greenboathouse and the Allens are all “fine press”.  Sure, Michael Jordan and Babe Ruth and Mohammad Ali and Lionel Messi and Wayne Gretzky are all “athletes.”  Sure.


Does it matter?  Yes.  Insofar as the distinction between an “athlete” and a couch potato like me matters.  But does it tell you much?  It gestures in a general direction, but is pretty milquetoast in its descriptive powers.  There is exceedingly little in common in how, say, Thornwillow and Greenboathouse make books.  Yet both are certainly “fine press”.


The Tell-Tale Heart - Standard Edition

 As for what defines “fine press,” I think it’s fairly obvious.  The fine press movement pursued a careful approach to bookmaking which was no longer commercially necessary.  Anything that continues to do that is “fine press.”  After all, much (if not most?) fine presswork today simply uses the commercial technologies which were cutting-edge a hundred years ago.  It’s the care that matters, the intention.  (Imagine the world two hundred years from now.  Print is dead.  Then imagine that some artisan dusts off an old inkjet HP printer, and finds in some attic an antique ream of Amazon Essentials brand copy paper, and fires up the old MacBook Pro with its laughably slow and unintelligent Adobe InDesign.  They design their book and print it out.  They fold the papers in half – by hand, if you can believe it – and for the final touch, they bind it with antique staples.  They are, of course, practicing fine presswork.)

 

Q: And what about the term “private press,” which you use to describe your own work?

 

This is the term I care more about – private presswork.  I get the sense that the online community of book collectors is less familiar with this term than the term “fine press.”  But I think it’s actually quite a bit more important, because it is about the essential nature of publishing and bookmaking.

 

A private press is one in which the publisher (responsible for a book’s content) and the bookmaker (responsible for a book’s manufacture) are one in the same person or people.  In short, the mind that conceives of a book resides with the hands that make it.  (Some have put forward other definitions of the term, but I think this is the most reasonable and common and, as with everything, it admits degrees.)

 

It’s a fascinating economic dynamic, too.  Own the means of production.  The factors of production are capital, labor, land, and entrepreneurship.  In my private press, all four reside with me.  How cool! 

 

Q: In the past, you have printed a lot of your own editions, but have also sporadically used different printers like Phil Abel on your projects. What are the primary factors that cause you to do everything in house or outsource a portion of the production? You also handle a very large percentage of your productions internally. I would assume this level of intentionality and control is not an accident or simply practical. Can you talk about what pushed you to take on so much of the individual productions personally?


Above All Else Do Not Lie - Interior

This is an easy question to answer!  I’ve only worked with other craftspeople in the past where my own capacities or skills have been lacking.  Three years ago, I wanted to pursue a few editions well beyond the capabilities of my little tabletop press, so I collaborated with Phil.  It is a wonderful experience working with others but, ultimately, my perpetual goal is not to collaborate but to learn.  The more I can do myself, the more joy I derive from the work.  And, I imagine, a craftsman like Phil probably took much greater joy out of printing, say, A Far Away Country, than he did printing my editions, however worthy they were of his talents.

 

The terms “in house” versus “outsource” make the matter sound like a commercial decision, when it’s really a matter of the soul of the books we make.  There is not a single aspect of bookmaking which I would not rather do “in house,” even if it made no financial sense at all to do (and often it doesn’t).  This year I am learning hand-papermaking and have constructed my own mould and deckle, paper press, drying boxes, etc.  Any business consultant would scream bloody murder.  If my business had investors, they’d sack me.  Making paper by hand myself is wildly inefficient.  It would be much smarter, financially, to simply commission papers from the marvelous craftspeople at the Paper Foundation or Velke Losiny or the like.  But I don’t want to commission papers, I want to make the damn things myself.

 

Q: Well, I can’t wait to see the first project that you bind, print, and make the paper for, I’m sure it will be even more rewarding than works of the past. At this point, you have a large number of projects under your belt. There is so much of what you produced that I am sure you are proud of, but were there any projects that you would point to as being representative of your best project? If someone was being introduced to No Reply Press, where would you recommend they start with your body of published work?


Conundrums

I think I’m fairly clear-eyed about the qualities of each of my editions.  Some are quite good.  Some are middling.  A few are terrible.  They are certainly getting better.

 

Of the books that are finished, my own personal ranking goes: 1. The Death of Ivan Ilyich 2. Preludes (2nd Edition) 3. Enūma Eliš 4. Conundrums 5. Passages or The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas

 

Though, ultimately, the answer to the question of, “What is your best edition?” must always be, “The next one!”  Or the one after that.  I am honestly so excited about the editions I have in the works.  I wake up at 6am every morning without an alarm and jump out of bed to get to my workshop.  I think a few of my friends suspect that I’m a cocaine addict.  Joke’s on them, I just have a good job.

 

Q: Haha, I can totally resonate with that! The level of intentionality, commitment to quality, and interesting title selection are consistent across your entire line of projects, but the type of work you select seems to vary quite significantly through genres and time periods. You’ve said that No Reply Press “has been described variously as eccentric, canonical, conservative, and populist,” which is appropriately broad. Is there any rhyme or reason for what you select other than personal interest?

 

No.  The only through-line is that each edition personally interests me.  But different projects interest me in different ways.  Most often it’s about the people as much as the literature.

 

Q: Do you find yourself contemplating the content of the work or a more broad aesthetic vision as a guiding principle when considering the overall design and layout of a new project?

 

I don’t have any broad aesthetic vision.  Pushing an aesthetic vision is certainly interesting, however, and I admire the commitment of those who do.  Take my neighbor André Chaves.  His Clinker Press is a contemporary temple of the Arts and Crafts aesthetic. 

 

Personally, I approach each literature and art on their own terms, each material likewise.  I do my best to bring things together in a way that feels right to me, but I only have my own gut to go by.  Artists inevitably say barmy things which make you roll your eyes like, “This poem feels flowy – and broad – and watery – and bluish – but sharp – and demure – so I made a book that was flowy and broad and watery and bluish and sharp and demure,” but that pretty much sums it up.

 

The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas - Hardbound Edition

Q: Can you talk a little bit about your setup (Vandercook Proof Press, etc.)?

 

Sure!  The “rolling heart” of No Reply is a Vandercook Universal I.  This press is a “proofing press,” meaning that it was not actually made for the use to which I am putting it.  It was meant to proof galleys (e.g. check for typos) before they were set into commercial letterpress machinery for printing.  My press’ first home was actually the Los Angeles Times; so its first job was to proof the galleys of the next day’s newspaper.  When letterpress technology was supplanted, all of the wonderful letterpress machinery quickly became obsolete.  Most of the commercial-scale machinery was scrapped decades ago.  These “proofing presses” were often saved, however, because artists found that they were relatively straightforward to use and, importantly, did not take up much space.  The Vandercooks would have laughed at the idea of using one of their proofing presses to print a whole book; they might have said, “Why don’t you use a real printing press and save yourself loads of time?”

 

The Vandercook basically does two things: apply ink to raised surfaces and subsequently press paper onto the same surfaces.  Over and over.  I must “crank” every impression by hand, taking three steps down the press and three steps back up as I do so.  Unlike bigger letterpress machinery – the most common probably being the Heidelberg Cylinder Press, which churns out large 8-up sheets at a rate of one every few seconds – my Vandercook is a manual process.  It is not as laborious as a “hand press,” say, which only a handful of private presses today successfully use, but with my proofing press each sheet must be handled manually, one at a time.  I’ll never be able to get away with any crimes, because my fingerprints and DNA are almost certainly on literally every page of every No Reply book that I’ve printed.

 

The Death of Ivan Ilyich - Interior Title Page

Aside from the Vandercook, I have a small workshop filled with very simple bindery equipment.  A board sheer, a stack cutter, an oak standing press.  Lots of flat files and shelving for papers and books in progress.  But collectors who visit are often surprised at how little machinery I have.  Nothing in the workshop plugs into a wall, really, except lightbulbs.

 

I do everything myself now, and the few things I cannot yet do – handmade paper, for example – I’m working toward.  The (short) history of my Press is the history of the accumulation of skills and the attending tools.  The honing of these skills is a slow but steady joy.  In some areas I am fairly good by now, in others I am basically a committed amateur. 

 

Q: From our conversations about binding materials, I know that you have fairly strong feelings about this area. The majority of your books are sewn with relatively minimalist designs, focusing on unique paper that is sometimes hand-painted by you. What is your opinion on the best materials for longevity and quality of fine press books and how much of your stance comes out of necessity versus philosophy?

 

I approach materials on their own terms.  I don’t believe in any “hierarchy of material fineness.”  The idea that leather is somehow finer than cloth, say, is silly.  It’s marketing.  I don’t think leather is a particularly interesting material at all, and don’t enjoy working with it, so mostly I don’t.  (Though some binders achieve spectacular things with leather, hats off!)  I find it unpleasant to handle and somewhat macabre.  It’s perfect for some editions, but not many.  I think the standard use of leather on literature of every sort is a bit of a head-scratcher.  Horror literature: Drape it in the skin of a dead goat!!  Science fiction literature: Drape it in the skin of a dead goat??  Children’s literature: Drape it in the skin of a dead goat?!


So, I don’t much like leather.  But that’s just a personal opinion and not a normative judgment.  I also hate purple lettuce for no reason.

 

I am much more interested in paper and all of the interesting things that can be done with it.  We are so accustomed to paper that we take it for granted.  Paper is an invention, after all, and there are countless ways to reinvent it depending on your approach.  It holds incredible versatility.  It can hold any color, any tactility, most any organic or synthetic material.  What other materials do, paper can do.  It is democratic – anybody can make paper.  Paper is the material we use in Kindergarten in our very first experiences with arts and crafts.  Paper can be anything.  I have an edition which I made years ago and consider a failure.  I want a redo.  So, I’m considering shredding and blending this failed edition, then using the pulp to make cover papers for my second attempt.  Wicked, no?


 

I have increasingly experimented with paper in my workshop.  I’ve made paste papers, marbled papers, monoprinted papers, watercolored papers, and – as I mentioned – am developing my own pulp hand-papermaking process.  Paper rocks.

 

As far as durability goes, handling is probably more important than the materials themselves.  Leather is notoriously poor for durability and longevity.  Find me a two-hundred-year-old leatherbound book in pristine condition.  I think cloth and well-made papers tend to be more durable if handled well.  Ultimately, though, the sun will collapse so nothing is really that durable. Dust to dust, amigo.

 

What I do believe in is the use of non-machinable materials.  Hand-bookmaking allows for the use of certain materials which machine-bookmaking does not.  I have a friend, Philip, who owns the biggest bindery in Oregon.  He has a dozen individual machines each with a bigger footprint than my entire workshop, and he must make hundreds of thousands of books a year.  The reason he will never use mouldmade paper is not because he’d refuse.  The reason is that he literally cannot.  These materials are non-machineable – too inconsistent in one way or another, or too fragile.  They might literally damage all that million-dollar machinery.  So, I believe that these are the materials which we should use in hand-bookmaking – because we can use them.

 

Q: You have quite a busy life outside of No Reply Press and are frequently traveling around the world for personal and business endeavors. How do you try to keep a balance between the demands of the press and how does No Reply fit within the context of your whole life? You seem overwhelmingly positive with the challenges you have already faced this year, what do you think is the foundation for that resiliency?

 

No Reply Press Broadsides

My relationship with Valeria sends me to Brussels for a good portion of the year, and I generally prefer to work with writers and artists in person, so I go all over the place for that.  No Reply is an anchor and, quite literally, my home.  About balance, I don’t know.  Everything seems pretty well balanced.  I work with my head, I work with my hands.  I work a lot, but also have drinks a few times a week with my best friend who I’ve known since I was zero.  I genuinely like the people who buy my books (if I didn’t, I probably wouldn’t sell them).  I usually take fourth place at trivia, just a few points away from getting a prize, always the bridesmaid never the bride.  I have some gripes, but they’re ephemeral compared to others’. 


I live across the street from Portland’s biggest outdoor shelter; I pass by neighbors whose everyday dreams are getting clean and a roof over their heads, things which have literally never been in question for me.  I think the world would probably be better if I had a bit less and others had a bit more, so I try not to stand in the way of that happening.  Mostly, I feel good about the work I do.  No Reply pays for all the art supplies at several dozen free after-school programs around town, so even if the books themselves are not that important, the construction paper and glue sticks those kids are using certainly are.  I doubt I will be doing private presswork forever but in the meantime I’m having a ball!

 

Q: If there was one word or phrase that came to people’s minds when they think of No Reply Press what would you hope that it would be?

 

That’s a difficult question to answer.

 

Not “fine”. Many presses are fine – many finer than mine.

 

Maybe the word would be “!”.  Private presswork fills me with a joie de vivre which I hope comes across or, better, is shared with those who collect my books.

 

A Scandal in Bohemia - Presentation Copy Bound by Pracownia Lesna

I mean there’s just so much life in this work.  A tiny example: I was planning out the imposition (the arrangement of pages for printing) for an edition, and grabbed the nearest pad of paper to do the work.  On the cover of the pad was emblazoned: 1997 Interpol Conference – Helsinki.  Huh?  Where did we get this?  I asked Valeria and she has no idea. 


When people have this edition of mine in their hands, they’ll never know that it was planned on magically-appearing stationery from a 1997 Interpol Conference in Helsinki – but I’ll know!  And how interesting is that?


_______________________________________________________________________________


This interview was done in a series of communications back and forth with Griffin. If you want to see more of the wonderful productions that Griffin is working on check out No Reply Press at https://www.noreplypress.com/. For updates on current projects check out their Instagram as well!


Interview by: Zach Harney of the Collectible Book Vault


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34 comentarios


Zach Harney
Zach Harney
6 hours ago

Congrat to our winners of the No Reply Giveaway:


@marie.read.shiny.books and Chinmay Kamat


We really appreciate everyone who participated and your interest in what we do!

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Contestando a

Thank you! 🙏🏽

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I only found No Reply in the last couple of years, but I am so impressed with the books. Enuma Elis is definitely my favorite. I also love that Griffin has done a lovely scifi trilogy.

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Mark
Mark
2 days ago

Interesting and informative interview.

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Another insightful interview as always! And that Scandal in Bohemia is just sheer class!

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Such a fun and informative interview. I have a couple of No Reply Press books that I adore including Enuma Elis. I knew the press quality before the interview but I knew very little about Griffin. I think I will pick up a few more No Reply books simply based on Griffin's personality and outlook. What fun and I had a big smile on my face after reading this. I can't say I've ever year another press owner talk about their own books and say, "Some are quite good.  Some are middling.  A few are terrible." It doesn't get more honest than that. Loved the distinction he made between fine press and private press and I learned some new things…

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