Book publisher Larkspur is low-tech and proud

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MONTEREY, Ky. (AP) - Technology has changed almost every facet of the publishing world - from authors growing vast followings on social media to publishers serving up books that exist only on tablets and smartphones.

But in a large studio in rural Monterey, Larkspur Press makes books in a process that hasn’t changed much since Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press. Now celebrating its 40th anniversary, Larkspur has managed just fine so far without the use of a computer - and founder Gray Zeitz has no plans to change that formula.

“I like it because you’re working with your hands and with your mind,” Zeitz said. “And it makes a beautiful, beautiful product.”

Honored in 2012 as the Kentucky Governor’s artist of the year, Zeitz has a long gray beard, a gentle Kentucky accent and an easy chuckle. On a recent morning, he was upstairs at his studio - about 15 minutes’ drive north of Frankfort - binding the latest books off the press.

In a process called casing in, he glued the endpapers of the sewn book into the cover boards, then clamped each book down with a hand-cranked press. Like all the steps in the process of making a Larkspur book, it’s done by hand. That’s what makes a book from Larkspur more like a piece of pottery than your average airport paperback, designed digitally and mass-produced in China.

Zeitz learned the craft while a student at the University of Kentucky. His mentor, Carolyn Hammer of the Margaret I. King Press at the university, gave him a printing press and a drawer of type to get Larkspur started.

At first, Zeitz worked agricultural odd jobs on the farms around Monterey and worked on books in his off hours. After a few years, Larkspur was busy enough that he could work on it full time. Now, the press’s activity is booked about a year in advance, with several projects in the works at any given time.

In 1991, the press moved into the current studio after the first location, in downtown Monterey, flooded twice. The new studio is located on a windy country road, across two narrow bridges over Sawdridge Creek.

A few years ago, a friend built a website for Larkspur so people could find the books online. “People say it’s very nice - and it is nice,” Zeitz said of the site. But if you want to order a book, you still have to go to a bookstore like Carmichael’s in Louisville or Poor Richard’s Books in Frankfort - or call the studio directly - because it doesn’t take online orders.

The books themselves have the feel of a fine piece of craftsmanship, from the nice paper to the detailed, engraved illustrations. Zeitz designs all the books, and most Larkspur books share a spare style. Their understated appearance manages to attract the eye despite - and maybe because of - their lack of flashy design and bright colors.

“His work is very classical, and that’s becoming more and more interesting as letterpress is taking off again and a lot of it is very experimental,” said Gabrielle Fox, a Cincinnati-based designer and bookbinder who is working on a history of Larkspur.

From the beginning, Larkspur has specialized in Kentucky poets, including Wendell Berry, Bobbie Ann Mason, James Baker Hall and Maureen Morehead. Although the press has put out many first books by authors who have gone on to larger audiences, Zeitz doesn’t consider himself a talent scout. “I’ve missed a lot, too,” he demurred.

At the studio, while Zeitz worked on bindings, fellow Larkspur employee Leslie Shane was setting the type for the next book, a collection of poems by Nicholasville, Ky., poet Charlie Hughes. Line by line, Shane selected each letter from a drawer and slid it into place on a plate.

“I like the rhythm of setting type,” said Shane, a former Montessori school teacher who started helping out at Larkspur after taking a bookbinding workshop decades ago. According to Fox, Larkspur is “one of only two or three” presses in the United States that still set type by hand.

Once all the type is set and the paper cut, Zeitz will print the book, one page at a time, on a Chandler and Price press. Zeitz slides a clean sheet of paper into place, while rollers in the press ink up the plate of type. Paper meets inky type for a moment. Then the press opens again, Zeitz removes the page and replaces it with a new one.

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