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Paul Moxon, a consultant, designer and printer in Birmingham, Ala., who owns Fameorshame Press, has seen the growth of letterpress printing reflected in the popularity of courses he teaches around the country. Recently, at the San Francisco Center for the Book, both his classes were sold out. Moxon believes designers are attracted to the technique because it allows them to control the entire process and select paper not used in commercial printing jobs--lush sheets with deckle edges and uneven surfaces and such inclusions as bits of leaves or flowers. It's the uniqueness of a letterpress creation that makes people willing to pay a premium. "It is pricey, and that's one of the reasons why printers put the real bite into it, so you know it's letterpress from across the room," says Moxon.
Working in an archaic mode has its competitive advantages. "Because the presses are obsolete, you're not competing with other people who are getting the newest machinery, so actually our capital investment is far less than most offset printers'," says Julie Holcomb, who has run Julie Holcomb Printers in Emeryville, Calif., for 25 years. Ironically, she adds, advances in computer technology have allowed letterpress designers to use photopolymer plates--which contain the image and text to be printed--in place of hand-set type. "I hope the people who are printing now--me included--are helping develop an audience that will be cultivated and maintained so our craft can survive," she says.
Fortunately, those vintage machines are still out there to be tracked down. Klinke estimates that there may be as many as 20,000 left out of several hundred thousand presses that existed in the 1960s. That bodes well for diehards like Webster, who admits he can't walk by a printed piece of paper without touching it. "If I see a flat-printed piece," he says, "I think, 'Boy, that would sure look neat if it were letterpressed.'"