San Francisco has a rich history as a center of printing and bookbinding that dates back to the Gold Rush.

Today, Arion Press and it’s nonprofit arm, the Grabhorn Institute, carry on the tradition of hot metal typesetting and letterpress printing while also working to preserve and perpetuate the use of the last integrated type foundry, bookbinding, and letterpress printing facility in the United States.

Arion’s origins began in 1919, when brothers Edwin and Robert Grabhorn moved from Indianapolis to San Francisco and established the Grabhorn Press, which became one of the nation’s foremost fine printing establishments. In 1974, Andrew Hoyem, who partnered with Robert Grabhorn, took over the organization, renaming it Arion Press.

Arion was named one of San Francisco’s Legacy Businesses in 2019, which recognizes longstanding, community-serving businesses as valuable cultural assets. “Visiting Arion—and seeing their books made—is to step back in time,” according to a recent article in Hyperallergic.

“We’re the only fully-integrated, hot type foundry printing press and book bindery in the country and one of the very few in the world,” said Rolph Blythe, Director of the Press, Arion Press and Grabhorn Institute. “We’re direct descendants of the Grabhorn legacy, which was one of the country’s most significant family-run printing businesses.”

Arion pairs great artists with great literature to create beautiful letterpress books made by hand for collectors, libraries, special collections departments at universities, and others who are committed to the preservation of the art. The company’s success is based on a subscriber-based business model, which minimizes the uncertainty around how many books to print on each run.

“The design of a book is the pattern of a reality controlled and shaped by the mind of the writer.” ― John Steinbeck, The Log from the Sea of Cortez

“By nature, publishing books means that you’re printing on spec, but that’s not as true for us,” said Blythe. “Each subscriber commits to purchasing everything we produce, so we always know that we have a certain percentage of the run sold to the subscriber base. We typically produce three-to-four books each year. The subscribers really are what has kept us going.”

Arion’s latest publication, The Sea of Cortez, honors the 80th anniversary of John Steinbeck’s landmark 1940 voyage on a marine specimen-collecting boat with his friend, the marine biologist Ed Ricketts.

“We printed the book on imported paper, and then we partnered with a nonprofit that restored the boat on which the authors traveled, enabling us to utilize the reclaimed wood in the design of the book,” said Blythe. “We made labels out of the boat wood for each of the editions, and the deluxe edition’s box incorporates slats of wood salvaged from the hull.”

Due out in 2021 is a collaboration between National Book Award winner and musician Patti Smith and visual artist Christian Marclay, who will illustrate Smith’s memoir, Woolgathering, which The New York Review of Books described as “a delightfully rambling mix of childhood memories and dream sequences.”

 

“The only thing you can count on is change.” ― Patti Smith, Woolgathering

It takes a lot of space to run an integrated type foundry, printing press, book bindery, and nonprofit organization and manufacturing space in San Francisco is scarce, so when it was time for Arion to reconsider its lease, Blythe reached out to SFMade for advice.

“Our business moved several times before we ended up here in the Presidio,” said Blythe. “We need a good amount of space to manufacture the books. We also need space for a gallery and the lectures and talks led by our nonprofit arm, so we called SFMade. They connected us to real estate attorneys and other resources. They’ve been really helpful for us to explore different options for a manufacturer like us.”

Arion Press is an overlooked gem and one of only two manufacturers in the Presidio,” said Janet Lees, SFMade’s Chief Program Officer. “Book lovers and anyone interested in San Francisco’s history of printing and book binding should check out their website, attend one of their events, or take a tour of their extraordinary facility.”

Although live events have been put on hold during the pandemic, Blythe said that Arion has partnered with the San Francisco Center for the Book on virtual programs where they take people through their shop and explain how fine books are made, and he hopes in-person programs will resume soon.