Peter Halmay.
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Cover photo by Robert Benson.

The Printer

“My buddy in San Francisco got his finger smashed in an old printing press. It actually turned the bone to powder. He had no phone in his warehouse to call for help, so he had to drive across the bridge with a rag wrapped around his hand. When he got to the hospital, they had to pull the tendon back down from here” — Tim Butler points to his shoulder — “and reattach it to his finger.”

Butler stands at a cluttered granite work counter in his letterpress print shop, where the newest machine is approaching 60 years old. The oldest press among them, a giant conglomeration of gnashing gears and exposed flywheels and metal rollers, dates back to the late 1800s. It is still in use. “Someone converted it to electric power in the 1950s,” he says.

“These machines are far too dangerous. Every day, I expose myself to serious injury. Even after 30 years of doing this, I have to walk into this building with a healthy dose of fear. The minute you become too complacent, you walk out of here with nine fingers.”

Tim Butler’s newest machine is 60 years old.

Butler is 48. He lives in Allied Gardens, just up the hill from his warehouse storefront in Grantville. He says he’s number seven of eight siblings. He divides his time between his shop, caring for his mother, and touring as bassist with a band named Sha Na Na, a gig that requires him to show up with all of his digits intact.

Modern digital presses look like lunch counters, and they surely don’t shear fingers off. But Butler is hardwired to doing things the old-school way. (“I find more satisfaction in figuring things out than in pushing a button.”) There’s also the allure of this manner of printing, called letterpress, being a dying art. “It’s an appreciation for the craft. And part of it is, if I don’t do this, it’s gonna die.”

It follows that with a warehouse full of such printing antiquity, Butler is also his own repairman. “I have to fix these presses, and I have to maintain them.” Finding parts can be tricky, if not impossible. “They [the press manufacturer] could have the part I need sitting right on their desk, and they still won’t sell it to me. Why? Because these machines are deemed to be old and unsafe.”

The band Slightly Stoopid rents the warehouse space next door; bass and drums reverberate while Butler finishes an order of party invitations to a fashion designer’s opening in New York. “The dude handles the Kanye West label. [He sells] a backpack that costs $5000,” he says. “And [he sells] 200-dollar T-shirts.”

Butler’s operation is a cross between a functioning business and a museum. Is this gear truly daily-user stuff, or is it here because it’s collectible? “I don’t set type every day, but I do still use it. Some of these fonts date back to 1859.” He pulls a large, black wood block with the letter R carved onto it from within a filigreed other-era metal drawer.

“I had a typesetting machine for a while. But it had 8000 moving parts and it weighed two tons. And you actually had to smelt lead, 5000-degree molten lead, just to make letters. With all of the environmental concerns, I said, ‘No more.’”

Vintage type, he says, lends an air of imperfection that designers sometimes find desirable. Artisans have come to Butler’s shop after trying in vain to duplicate the clunky look of an old printing press through photocopying, crumpling, and copying over and over again.

Butler learned printing just out of high school, from pressmen who typeset the pages of the daily newspaper. For emphasis, he drops a metal frame on his work counter. The frame makes a resounding thud. “The front page of the Los Angeles Daily News. December 4, 1941,” he says. It seems inconceivable that a human being could build an entire newspaper in this fashion. “This is why early newspapers were only six or so pages long.”

Tim Butler's vintage presses.

These days, a lot of Butler’s clients are brides. Over time, he’s learned to gauge future marital success by how couples act together during the ordering of wedding invitations. “These things are usually important to the bride, things like color and type and all that. But if the groom is wandering around the shop, grooving on the cool old equipment, and his wife asks for his opinion, and he says, ‘Whatever...’” Butler shakes his head.

He stays as busy as he wants. “There’s only a few more shops that do this kind of printing, maybe three or four.” He says there is no substitute for the look of letterpress printing. “But, yes, you could print on your home computer. You can go to Vista Print and get 500 business cards for free. You could go to Kinko’s. You can fake the embossed look, yes. But it doesn’t look right.”

Butler lays another square of silver Mylar on the back of a party invitation. He trims it with a blade and smooths it by rubbing the card on his T-shirt-covered belly. “It takes a high degree of patience,” he says about letterpress. “Not everybody can do what I do.”

The Street Magician

“The most money I’ve ever made? 72 dollars,” street magician Joseph Bremerthon says. “And, I’ve also come away with zero.”

“Instead of saying ‘break a leg,’ we say ‘fat hats.’ At the end of every performance, you pass the hat. A fat hat means it came back full of money.”

Joseph Bremerthon, a street magician, is 23. He lives in La Mesa with his girlfriend in a house behind a house perched on the lip of a canyon. Feral cats — dozens of them — roam the property. Bremerthon called his place a shack once, and he was more or less right. There is just enough space in the front room for a floor mattress and a dresser, upon which rests a photocopy of Professor Hoffman’s Modern Magic, a book originally published in 1876.

“The most money I’ve ever made? Seventy-two dollars,” he says. “I’ve also come away with zero.” He laughs gently at his lot in life over a plate of bright-orange barbecued chicken wings. We are at a fast-food place on the boulevard. Of the zero-dollar hats, he says, “That happens more often than you think. I don’t know if you know this, but San Diego is the worst place in the entire world to be a street performer.” His voice escalates in volume.

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jnojr May 20, 2013 @ 2:19 p.m.

The "street magician" needs to get a job.

And $10K for a matchmaker?!?!?! I have to wonder exactly what that buys you. All the matches you want until you get married?


PersistentTurtle May 20, 2013 @ 10:30 p.m.

This was a brilliant article! I read today while getting outpatient treatment at Kaiser. I love the small and purposeful businesses. It isn't really about modernization as much as it is good hard work, values, and keeping things authentic. Life cannot be lived on a playstation! Studio Engineer and Fish Monger my favotires!! Cuz, well, I love sustainable music & food. I would LOVE to see a fish market in SD!!! When I was a young adult in Sacramento - my favorite market was the one on Saturdays 6 a.m. - 9 a.m. under the freeway - fish, flowers, and produce - that's it.


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