I don’t remember how the Allen Press first became an interest for my collecting pursuits, in the early 1990s. It probably was a result of my education being confined to dealers down the West Coast, especially in California, where Lewis & Dorothy had been at the center of the fine printing clique since the 1950s. I likewise don’t exactly remember why, when I decided to start printing in earnest, it had to be with a handpress, but the Allens’ books certainly must have influenced that prejudice.
In the early aughts, while my collecting muscles were still in regular use, I set my sights on what I considered to be, for me, three foundational contemporary handpress books (i.e. books displaying the excellence that can be achieved only with a handpress, hand inking and dampened paper): Everson’s Psalter, Baskin’s Jewish Artists, and Allen’s Printing with the Handpress. A facsimile of that last book was published shortly after the Allen’s original, but a book about printing on the handpress really needs to be printed on a handpress. I eventually (actually, pretty quickly) got copies of all three, and found myself looking around and wondering, what now?
Press bibliographies are a particular interest to me, especially if they include sample leaves of the books listed. It’s like having a mini-exhibition of the press’s work in your hands. (This is why I still have not acquired a copy of Neil Shaver's Yellow Barn Press bibliography, despite my regard for his work - no sample leaves!!) The model for most press bibliographies has been that of the Ashendene Press (below), although the samples in that book are facsimiles (resettings) of pages, not actual leaves from the original printing. It contains brief comments from Hornby about each title, along with the bibliographic specifics. The Allen’s bibliography received much praise when it was published, enough that the Book Club of California produced a facsimile (which also had sample leaves!) worthy of the original, in execution and materials, just four years later, in a much larger edition (750 copies; see last image below) than was usual for that group.
Binding was the role of Dorothy in the Allen partnership, and she was competent at making flat-spined case bindings. The material or paper used to cover the boards seems to have been the source of greatest interest; the cases are perfectly fine but not quite on par with the printing. Nonetheless, the bindings became part of the Allens’ overall aesthetic, and their books often are immediately identifiable among a row of spines on a shelf. Which makes the matter of my copy of the bibliography, found in sheets, tricky.
The sheets came with 6 original leaves - I think that’s how many each copy contained (more on that in a minute). One of the sheets in my copy was a Picasso lithograph from Goll’s Four Poems of the Occult (1962, shown at top of this page), which is pretty kool. To these I added six more samples, all prospectuses. The technical term for this is “to grainger,” - adding additional (related) content to a book. Originally this generally implied additional copies of prints in the book, e.g. state proofs or colored copies. But it has since been applied more widely, to any additional content that makes a copy unique.
And I’d lined up a binder worthy of the book: Hélène Francoeur, of Quebec. She and I had both attended the first week-long printing course offered at Barbarian Press (1996?), and she did (does) beautiful work. My budget stretched to a full-goat binding, but with minimal tooling & certainly no inlays etc. I came up with the stylized AP to be debossed in the boards. Dealing with all the salted-in samples was a bit of a challenge, especially the folded prospectuses which added that much more bulk to an opening. And I wanted everything sewn in (i.e. tipped to hinges), at the appropriate place, by the book’s listing, not stuffed in a pouch at the back. She got it all done, lots of shims & guards, and a few months later a beautiful, sober, solid volume arrived.
I can’t remember if it was before or after, but I also got a copy of the BCC facsimile edition. It was never a rare book, given its large edition. I probably thought it would be useful to have a reference copy, to save my graingered copy the wear & tear. A few years ago the price on these facsimiles bottomed out and copies seemed to be everywhere; I see several copies listed online today under $100, which makes them a steal: the book is beautifully produced, and an engaging read for anyone interested in printing & fine-press publishing.
Sometime later, and again I don’t remember when or why, I encountered a bound copy of the original edition, and bought it. It must have been priced cheaply, or come from someone who had an outstanding invoice. It is bound in quarter-cloth, with block-stamped cloth over boards. Dorothy liked block-stamped fabrics. It’s quite plain next to the copy bound by Hélène, but it also is more obviously & genuinely an Allen Press book.
(Taking photos for this post, I discovered this funkiness in Dorothy's sewing of the first signature - what's going on here?! It looks like she was using doubled thread - which I've never encountered - and one has broken but the other is still intact. I dunno.)
Over the past few years I’ve been shedding as much stuff as possible, trying to pare down to just what’s regularly useful or necessary, as opposed to nice to have around. I’ve long had a general rule for non-reference books: if they haven’t been taken off the shelf in over a year, then maybe they can move on to a new home. (And if a book isn’t going to a be useful reference in one way or another, it doesn’t even get into the house now.) All of which brought my attention to the three copies of The Allen Press Bibliography taking up shelf space.
Culling the facsimile would be the easiest decision, but with cheap copies abundant, no one needs mine. Which of the two originals to let go? The one to which I added all the extra samples and had bound in full goat would seem the likely candidate to keep, but there’s something about a press book in the publisher’s original binding. I pretty quickly decided that was the copy to keep.
AND ANOTHER THING!
Come back next week, I'll have a cool type thing to share...