The Design Observer Group


Posted 06.07.11


Matthew Stadler

Publication Studio: What’s It Like?




The shop at 717 SW Ankeny fronts on a quiet alley. It used to be a locksmith’s shop and before that a watchmaker. Storefront windows reach from a low ledge to a ten-foot height, blacked-out the last two-feet for a drop-ceiling. Patricia No clears dirty glasses from the ledge outside. Rain has partly cleaned them. Two cases of paper, delivered that morning, block the front door, a plain 20# bond and a fancy Waussau paper Patricia prefers for novels. She unlocks the door and drags the cases inside.

The storefront is cold and smells of sweat, sour wine, print toner, paper, and garlic. Patricia cooked garlic sausages yesterday for Gretchen Bennett, an artist making a book with Publication Studio (aka PS). Book meetings happen at the big table with lunch and drinks, or just drinks, depending on the hour. Two hotplates, a crock pot, toaster oven, electric fry-pan, and a mini-fridge make an improvised kitchen in the back. Dirty dishes fill the sink.

On any given day the storefront is home to book production, a small bookstore, endless packing and shipping, a staff of four, a half-dozen hangers-on, curious drop-ins, lost tourists, the mailman, and one or another public gathering — a party, a dinner, a reading, a puppet show, a concert, sometimes all of these at once — staging the social life of the books we make. Patricia says the storefront is like a skate shop, only its for books. Indeed, several artists (who we publish), bring their skateboards to practice or show-off new moves on the storefront’s plain concrete floors.

Four clipboards hang beside the Chinese knock-off perfect-binder. The one labeled “Patricia” lists 65 books she must make today. That plus whatever orders came in overnight. The other clipboards are for David Knowles (our book designer; he’s still asleep; David moved here from Berlin this winter and if the economy didn’t suck so bad we could never afford him), Antonia Pinter (ex-intern, just out of art school; we can’t function without her so now we pay her), and Patrick Phillips (intern, God forbid he should ever find a real job).

David’s clipboard lists four books he’s designing — Gretchen Bennet’s book; a new collection of poems by Sam Lohmann; something very complicated with musician Tara Jane O’Neil (maybe a USB drive sticks out the end of the spine?); and the drawing notebooks of Diana Balmori; also, “tear down drop-ceiling.” The books all launch in the next month; the ceiling comes down this weekend. Tall ladders beside the sink wait for David’s arrival.

Patricia punches some buttons on an old Mac, whirring two bulky printers to life (old Kyoceras that cost $250 on eBay), and book pages start ka-chunking out. She flips on the lights and the heater and makes coffee. Once the water-stained ceiling tiles are gone, Elliott Meier, an out-of-work architect who likes Patricia, and Grant McGavin, David’s neighbor, will install floor-to-ceiling bookshelves that Elliott designed from scrap wood Grant found at a mill near Portland. The wood, beautiful old oak, is stacked in back beside the locksmith’s old shelves.

Publication Studio’s “inventory” takes up one shelf. Because we print and bind on-demand, every book we make is shipped or wrapped up and given to its new owner right away. Our “inventory” is only those few dozen books we’ve made and not yet shipped. Sometimes we make several hundred books, either for an event or when a shop or gallery has ordered that many. But our inventory will never expand beyond one or two shelves in the back of the storefront. What PS makes a lot of, what we are growing, is “publics,” not print-runs.

Publication is the creation of a public. A public is strangers who have found common ground. It might be a public square or a community garden or a book — public space is any place where all are welcome and all who arrive have equal claim. For us, that’s the space of literature. We make books as a kind of public space; and we extend that space into a digital commons (all our books can be read free and annotated online); we also host the social life of books. Our storefront is the nexus of all of that — home to the social, digital, and physical business of literature.

Antonia arrives and answers email while Patricia adds the overnight orders to her list of books. She’s got 85 books to make and ship today. Another 35 are needed for a dinner in a few hours, a sit-down launch at one long table that will be jerry-rigged catty-corner in the storefront, but Patricia made those ahead of time and they sit in the back, ready for the author’s artist-friend to come draw unique frontis-pieces in each copy. The launch date is hand-stamped on the spines of all 35, and they will be signed, a unique edition.

Patrick arrives and sets up the ladder in the back. David is delayed by a press-check at Digicraft (color adjustments on a 400-page flipbook called BLUSH), and Patrick starts taking ceiling tiles down for him. Patricia has 10 books printed and has begun scoring file-folder covers, our standard cover stock, and warming up the binder. She pours more glue chicklets into the hot metal pot then trims the 10 stacks of pages on the guillotine trimmer. It’s all dangerous equipment, hot glue and sharp knives, but it’s straight-forward and easy to learn. “Easy to learn, and difficult to perfect,” Patricia says.

For the next seven hours, Patricia will move from printer to trimmer to binder, hand assembling and finishing 85 books. Antonia will talk to four dozen people, strangers who walk into the storefront at one point or another, and sell a dozen books, five to an older man who says our plain file-folder covers, rubber-stamped with author and title, remind him of the French novels he read when he lived overseas. David will arrive with a trunk full of color pages from Digicraft and Patrick will have removed the entire drop-ceiling. An inquiry will have come from an artist in New Zealand who saw one of our books at a gallery and wants us to look at her work. At 4:30 five large packages are carted to the post office, books for New York, Gainesville, Dublin, Los Angeles, and Tokyo, while a dozen smaller packets wait for pick-up in a carton by the frontdoor.

By six that evening, Portland chef, Jeremy Larter, will have finished setting up his prep kitchen in the back, Patricia will be done with her day’s work ,and David will be washing up and putting on his nice shirt, host for tonight’s launch. Antionia and Patrick assemble the parts of the table and run next door to borrow chairs from the Tug Boat tavern. With any luck, Patricia will stay for a drink, maybe even the whole dinner; if she’s not too tired and tomorrow does not look too slammed.