There are those who bemoan the death of print in this digital age, but it’s alive and well in the life of Tim Fay. For the past 25 years, Fay has been the editor and publisher of the Wapsipinicon Almanac, an annual 160-page compendium of Midwestern-themed essays, stories, reviews, poetry, and artwork he produces in the shop attached to his home. In addition to printing it on a Miller flatbed 2-color cylinder press, folding, stitching, and trimming the paper, and scoring and gluing the covers, Fay is the almanac’s editor and publisher, sells and designs ads, and distributes the volume to bookstores, galleries, and co-ops from the trunk of his car.
“I thought it would be an interesting way to try and make a living,” says Fay. The Wapsipincon Almanac, with its print run of 1600 volumes, accounts for about half his income. The other half comes from small printing jobs — the day I visited he’d just run the 2013 events schedule for the Anamosa Bowhunters on his 1904 platen press. “I haven’t done a brochure in years,” says Fay, who acknowledges that job printing is on the downturn and that digital printing now comprises a significant chunk of the industry. “I do envelopes for dentists and the local quarry,” he says. “I’ve done a few books of poetry.”
The living Fay ekes out of his work is not for everyone. He keeps costs down by living in a building he constructed himself on a farm that’s been in his family since the Civil War. His half print shop/half house includes a woodstove that supplies heat on cold Iowa nights, a tiny kitchen occupying a corner of the living area, and a stairway that dominates the room’s center, leading to sleeping quarters. Printed material is stacked everywhere and between the bookshelves that line the walls hangs the artwork of local artists, friends, and Almanac contributors, including folks Fay approached in 1988, when he decided the time was right for a publication examining the ups and downs of rural and small town life.
“I wasn’t seeing a lot of good journalism, so I went around selling ads and bothering people for essays,” he says. Today about half the almanac’s writers and artists submit their work for consideration to Fay, and the subject matter — often with environmental, historical, and political themes, frequently laced with humor — has expanded beyond Iowa to the Midwest.
Fay’s also expanded his printing skills over the years. His early interest in presses coincided with the beginning of the end of small print shops and meant that much of his printing education was catch-as-catch-can. “Presses were being junked and hauled away at the time,” he says of the 1970s and ‘80s. One of his first real teachers was Brother Mark, a monk at the nearby New Melleray Abbey, whom he met in 1977 and from whom he got his first press. “He was working on a big prayer book and I started going up there a lot,” says Fay. “When he died in 1996 they called me and asked me to ‘get rid of all this.’ Most everyone who is an expert in this stuff — printing an entire magazine as opposed to printing invitations — the people who know this level of the technology are dead.”
Today, Fay’s closest printing contemporary is 40 miles away and so he’s thankful for the rising interest in printing. “In the ‘80s, letterpress was just about dead, except for some very fine, high-end work,” says Fay. “I used to have to seek people out and now there are bookarts programs, and letterpress discussion groups on the Internet.”
While Fay loves printing, extolling the sturdiness of presses and sharing stories of old-time operators, he doesn’t romanticize the work. “There’s a reason letterpress printing is obsolete,” he says. “It’s hard, physical work, time consuming, and you use funky old equipment that takes a lot of maintenance and is not user friendly.”
He admits that he waits a couple of weeks after distributing issues of the Wapsipinicon Almanac to peruse it, and when he does, he sees mistakes. Still, the satisfaction of producing it, of working with talented writers and artists who care about the nuances of Midwestern life as much as he does, keeps him going.
“I like the process, I have the equipment, and it’s paid for and built to last forever,” he says. “There’s a look and feel to letterpress that you just can’t get with digital or offset printing that I like and people comment on. It’s not perfect but you notice a difference. I can’t think of anything I’d be doing that would be better work for me.”