This Old-Fashioned Printing Shop Knows Where It’s @

Wall Street Journal, November 3, 2014
CHICOPEE, Mass.— John Barrett decided to gather a little printing intelligence. “Have you seen any interest in, or need for, hashtags?” he asked a customer he was showing around Letterpress Things, his 6,500-square-foot store in a former paper warehouse in Chicopee, Mass.

Mr. Barrett’s company is proof that in the digital age, there is still some cachet in things done the old-fashioned way. His customers still set type by hand, often using antique type and equipment salvaged from old print shops. But the rising demand for symbols like @ and # in today’s communications has created problems—and some opportunities—for lovers of this centuries-old medium.

Letterpress is the process of printing type and graphics from an inked, raised surface—the method used in ancient Chinese scrolls, Gutenberg’s Bible, and printed matter until it was slowly replaced by photomechanical reproduction over the course of the 20th century. Today’s letterpress printers prefer the era of movable type, in which each letter or character is made individually out of wood or metal.

Mr. Barrett, 73 years old, a former adman for Strathmore Paper, began getting requests from customers who wanted to add the # to their personal stationery, business cards, or invitations. He realized that what had been known as a number sign or pound sign could be repositioned and sold as a hashtag. Capitalizing on the trend, he ordered a variety of sizes to sell at a wayzgoose, or printers fair, in San Jose, Calif.

“Lo and behold, I did sell one bag,” he says. He has since sold eight or 10.

“It used to be, no one ever wanted any of that stuff,” says Edward Rayher, whose type foundry, Swamp Press, in Northfield, Mass., produced the pieces of metal type for Mr. Barrett’s hashtag kits. “The ‘at’ signs came first,” about 10 years ago, he says. “This was the first time that we’ve ever done the hashtags.”

A sophisticated dealer in this expanding marketplace is Patrick Reagh, 66, a veteran printer in Sebastopol, Calif. He began by selling packages of “at” signs under the label P@’s @s, which he sells on eBay. “I’m surprised they’ve actually sold quite well,” he says. Now he, too, has crossed over into hashtags. He says his smartly packaged product, at $42 a box, is “as they say: #great bargain.”

In his recent book “Shady Characters: The Secret Life of Punctuation, Symbols & Other Typographical Marks”, Keith Houston notes that the number sign, or pound sign, is derived from the abbreviation “lb,” in Latin libra pondo. Libra means scales or balance, pondo means to weigh. Sometime in the late 14th century, “lb” acquired a line drawn above the middle of the letters (a typeset example dates to 1698).

Eventually, lb with a line became #. The symbol’s ascension began in 1968 when it was selected for the touch-tone keypad, designed by John E. Karlin, an industrial psychologist at Bell Labs. The symbol would have been familiar to users from typewriter keyboards, and was selected, along with the asterisk (*) or star. Then, in 2007, the pound sign was adopted as a way of grouping messages by Twitter, the online social-networking service.

Bryan Baker, 36, is the printer-in-residence at Signal-Return letterpress studio in Detroit. He uses his @ symbols so often for printed email addresses, they wear out quickly. Printers in the same boat will sometimes replace the @ with a dingbat, a printer’s ornament absent from a standard keyboard but found in abundance in collections of old type. They can get away with it, Mr. Baker explains, because people don’t really see the @ anymore. He has seen stars, bullets, triangles, fleurs-de-lis and even little turkeys used as stand-ins. Another solution is to spell out the word “at.”

In a strange way, the limitations of hand-set type often yield more exciting, innovative designs. “It’s harder to be derivative,” says Mr. Baker, because the first easy solution isn’t always available as it would be on a computer.

“There is something magical, almost mystical, in creating the printed word,” says Mr. Barrett of Letterpress Things, “When a person sees something that has been letterpress printed there’s a dimensionalism there, there’s a depth. You’re not just seeing a flat surface like a page out of a magazine, you are now…looking into a space.”